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The way things work: “Portrait une famille”


This afternoon, someone asked a question they may very well have regretted. It generated a fifteen-minute conversation which, in turn, seems to have required this blog entry, another in the series, “The way things work”. The question concerned this painting, “Portrait une famille” by Gabriel Spat [1890–1967], acquired at auction long before I knew who the artist had been.

Actually, it was the combination of painting and frame that caught my attention: the family portrait oozed with charm, but the frame was clearly of a different period and not part of the original pairing. The painting has a late-impressionist style about it, while the frame is of the Aesthetic Movement, a style that flourished in this country during the 1870s. It seemed very likely that these were united at a much later date than the painting itself. But who was Gabriel Spat? It seemed worthwhile to write a few words about the facts, the fiction, and the stuff between them regarding “Portraite une famille” or “A Family Portrait”.

Spat, the artist, and his dates were readily available on-line. He seems to have been active in both Paris and New York City, with additional gallery representation in Florida. It was curious, however, that French sources claimed he had been born in the U.S., while galleries in the United States stated flatly that he had been born in France. Those of you who know me will understand that sort of ambivalence doesn’t sit well; that it might just as well have been a gauntlet hurled in my direction, demanding resolution. I simply cannot abide the lazy scholarship of some gallery curators.

What is often true of architectural history is doubly true in the history of art: once something has been set in print, it takes on a life of its own, regardless of truthiness. Somewhere in my initial on-line survey there must be a smoking gun: the first attestation of Spat’s birth that was picked up and repeated again and again. Someone’s initial indecision has been batted back and forth like a shuttle cock in a badminton match. I spend a good deal of time in genealogical websites, however, where such issues can often be resolved with thirty minutes’ effort, which proved true for Mr Spat.

Gabriel Spat is, in fact, a made-up name, an invented persona. He was born, not in the U.S., not in France, but in Chișinău, the capitol of Moldova, a former Soviet republic which is now one of the most impoverished parts of the former Soviet Union. His birth name was Solomon (more likely Schlomo) Patlagen, middle child in a prosperous Jewish family. His father owned a cement factory at the turn of the 20th century. Nearly half of Chișinău’s population were Jewish at the time of the Russian pogrom of 1903, when the senior Patlagen was blinded by the mobs. Two of his sons, Nahum and Shlomo, had been art students at the city’s art academy and managed to escape the country for further study in the west; one source says Switzerland, others Paris.

Both became part of the expatriate art community in Paris, among better known figures like Marc Chagall. I suspect that the two Patlagen boys needed to distinguish themselves from one another, so Nahum became Naum, while Shlomo went through a more drastic transformation: he took the “S” from his given name and the first three letters of the surname (pat) and became Spat; where “Gabriel” came from is anybody’s guess. So Gabriel Spat was born.

It’s doubtful that he had actual studio space at La Ruche, a cluster of artists’ studios in Montmartre, but is known to have hung out there, collecting scraps of canvas from other artists, ostensibly the reason for his miniature works from the 1920s. I don’t know the date of his first one-person show but he was certainly a figure in the Paris art scene, an especially popular figure among the city’s early film makers: a collection of his sketches of actors and directors was published in a very limited edition and he designed the cast bronze relief sculpture for the grave of a prominent director. [I have somehow acquired a copy of each of these.]

Spat was living in Paris at the time of the Nazi occupation and recorded the German presence in sketches published in newspapers elsewhere, an early first-hand record of the city’s darkest days. He managed, with his older brother, to move south into unoccupied parts of France, near Antibes, and from there managed to leave Europe for Casablanca and then for New York City. Spat’s arrival card records the date of arrival, but also petitions the courts for a legal name change—typed on the back of his arrival record. After the war, Spat travelled often between Paris and New York and exhibited in both cities, as well as other American galleries. One of his Florida exhibit catalogues lists prominent people who had bought his works, including the Duchess of Windsor (the former Wallis Warfield Simpson) and Mrs Robert F. Kennedy. Clearly, he had a following, if not an accurate biography. Do you suppose he encouraged the ambivalent treatment of his past?

Most of the above information is true—other than some of my own speculation. What follows, however, is the story of “Portrait une famille” as it came to become part of the Agincourt story.

Look for Part Two tomorrow. Right now it’s time for bed.

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