[From the Community Collection, a public trust in Agincourt, Iowa]
SPAT, Gabriel [1890-1967]
“Portrait une famille”
oil on canvas / 12 inches by 9 inches
This family portrait is only loosely connected with Agincourt. Its subjects—Peter and Clara Sobieski and two of their three children—were expatriates, part of Poland’s “Great Migration” which brought many Poles to western Europe, especially France. Settled in the Alsace-Lorraine for at least two generations, the Sobieskis were vintners of modest means. Shown here seated in the open air among their vines, Peter (Piotr) is seated with Clothilde on his lap, Irena stands supported by his knee, while Clara stands behind his left shoulder. Their son Adam is absent, perhaps no longer living at home. Little Clothilde grew to womanhood and married Kurt Bernhard, but died in 1943 during the German occupation of Paris. Bernhard and his infant son managed an escape to London and then to New York where he met and married Mary Grace Tabor. Of his first wife’s family, he was able to bring little more than this painting and many memories.
Painted in a loose late Impressionist style, it is a work by Gabriel Spat, a shadowy artist with scant biographical information—one of those cases where a sketchy biography replicates itself in gallery catalogues and on-line websites, with seemingly little interest in correcting past errors. Sources suggest he was born in both America and France, though genealogical records hint at Russian origins and a birth name Salomon Patlajan. Whatever his beginnings, Spat spent most of this productive years as an artist in France. As an art student in the 1920s, he learned to paint on small scraps of canvas begged from other artists; later, during the German occupation that caused Clothilde Sobieska’s death, he fled to southern France and ultimately returned to New York, where he died in 1967. Despite the small size of this intimate family portrait, the stature of Spat as a late impressionist warrants further investigation of his life.
Framing is usually intended to reinforce a work of art; to complement rather than supplement; certainly not to compete. This case is a rare exception. The frame may be as many as fifty years older than the art it features, in a style called “The Aesthetic Movement”, influenced by both the Arts & Crafts and the phenomenon called Japonisme. Though of wildly different dates, art and frame work well together. The inner liner was added so that the art could fit the frame without gaps.
“Clothilde” is a girls name meaning “famous in battle”.
As an aside, there is a remarkable parallel in a 1907 painting by Austrian Richard Gerstl [1883-1908], a work with its own sad story.“The Schönberg Family” was painted by Gerstl, often called the Van Gogh of Vienna, the year before his death at age twenty-five. His affair with Mathilde, Mrs Schönberg, had been discovered and caused him to take his own life. Here, the artist’s style has even more abandon than Spat’s portrait of the Sobieskis. It’s doubtful that the younger artist would have known Gerstl.