The Boston Raphael

A Mysterious Painting, an Embattled Museum in an Era of Change, and a Daughter’s Search for the Truth.

Boston  Raphael
Portrait of a Young Girl, Uffizi Gallery, Florence (storage).

In 1969 the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA)—led by its charismatic director Perry T. Rathbone—acquired a previously unknown oil-on-panel portrait attributed to Raphael, the Italian Old Master best-known for his masterpiece The School of Athens. The acquisition of the aforementioned Portrait of a Young Girl was initially considered a coup for the museum, but things went sideways for Rathbone and his colleagues after an Italian art sleuth challenged the museum’s right to ownership. Complicating matters further, experts began to question whether Portrait of a Young Girl was in fact a Raphael, developments that precipitated an international crisis and led to Rathbone’s resignation.

In “The Boston Raphael: A Mysterious Painting, an Embattled Museum in an Era of Change, and a Daughter’s Search for the Truth” (David R. Godine), Belinda Rathbone revisits the affair in a quest to ascertain exactly what happened. As Perry’s daughter, Belinda has a unique perspective, and—as a critically-acclaimed biographer and historian—the capacity to do the research necessary to uncover important details. In the following Failure Interview, Belinda discusses the book and the results of her investigation, which revealed that the outcome could have been different—and considerably more favorable for the MFA—had the museum’s Board of Trustees chosen a different path.

What motivated you to write “The Boston Raphael”?
A lot of people say, “Why on earth would you want to write a book about your father’s greatest failure in his otherwise highly successful career?” But I wasn’t happy with the way it went down in history. The story of the Boston Raphael overshadowed his success and it was also misunderstood; it was understood in a very vague way by the general public and even by close friends. I felt it was important to know what went on—for myself and for the world. So I went into deep investigation, looking for every side of the story. It was against the wishes of some close friends and family, I can tell you. But I knew it was an important story and one that shouldn’t be left in the category of rumor.

Your father transformed the Museum of Fine Arts during the course of his directorship. What were some of his most significant accomplishments?
One of his great talents was for making the museum a really attractive and exciting place because of the way the works of art were displayed. He had a great eye and staged terrific exhibitions. He also had a passion for collecting and managed to collect some absolutely spectacular things. His acquisitions were certainly a signature achievement and there were many successes, as you can see in the book from the color plates, which show some of his greatest hits. Beyond that he was also a great populist. He was very aware of his public and appealed to [people from] every walk of life. He was very energetic and ambitious.

What motivated your father to acquire a painting like Portrait of a Young Girl?
This was inspired by the upcoming centennial of the museum in 1970. A few years earlier the museum began to prepare for the great celebrations and it was their intention to bring worldwide attention to the museum and its collections. What he considered the jewel in the crown, shall we say, would be to acquire a great Old Master painting—something rare and completely unknown and something that would forever adorn the collection in a significant way. The museum had no work by Raphael, so when he learned of this picture—which was with an obscure dealer in Genoa, Italy—he was extremely tempted and excited about it. To be able to buy it [for $600,000] was more than he could believe, really. He felt extremely lucky, but in the end it was bad luck.

What set off the controversy?
By the time this picture was unveiled at the museum in December 1969 there were signs that an Italian art sleuth, Rodolfo Siviero, was on the trail. He started making noises in Italy and pretty soon Boston was hearing about his doubts about the legitimacy of the export of the painting. He was questioning the legality of its movements, if it indeed came from Italy. On top of that there were doubts about the attribution to Raphael.

My father took all this in stride. He anticipated a certain amount of doubt. This always happens with Old Master paintings that seemingly come out of nowhere. And there’s a little bit of professional jealousy involved as well. So he brushed it off, at first, and also brushed off the allegations of smuggling, because he believed—and quite rightly—that he had operated within the gray areas of the law in removing this picture from Italy. There were lots of gray areas, and everyone took advantage of them. He was pretty sure that he was on solid ground. He also had the opinion about the authenticity of the picture from John Shearman of London, one of the world’s experts on Raphael. He felt pretty confident about that too. My father tended to be a confident person rather than an overly cautious person. An overly cautious person doesn’t make a very exciting museum director.

How was the controversy resolved?
Well that is really what my book is about. Clearly it was a crisis, and not a crisis that any single person was going to resolve or avert. My father had a great team in his curatorial staff. They were extremely devoted. It was a very good relationship, all the way down to the lowest levels of the staff.

He was also very popular with his Board of Trustees. A museum director is in a kind of sandwich between his staff who work under him, and the trustees who are over him. Even though they are not paid and not involved with the day-to-day operations of the museum, they are essentially the boss of the boss. That’s where things got tricky. It became a matter for the trustees to deal with. And my father had a serious adversary in the Chairman of the Board, George Seybolt, who was a gruff business type who very aggressively moved in and tried to institute major changes. He was shaking things up quite a bit and really wanted to take control away from my father. They didn’t see eye to eye and I think—and many people think—he was quite anxious to see my father go. So he turned the Raphael incident into a cut-and-dried reason to ask for my father’s resignation.

In another scenario the trustees might have rallied around my father’s cause and persuaded the authorities that this was an innocent mistake; that once the picture was out of Italian hands it was also out of Italian law—and that the questions about its attribution to Raphael made it kind of a moot point anyway. They could have been repaid the money they spent and averted the crisis.

What’s interesting is this question of failure. My father’s failure was one of a lapse of judgment. Every museum director makes a mistake or two, this just happened to be a very treacherous one. But the failure of the trustees is what I hope is clear to the reader. They could have protected my father but they chose not to. And the years that followed my father’s resignation were extremely difficult. Some people would say that the museum has never been as strong as it was then.

Where is the painting now?
It’s in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. And it’s a tragedy because it would be enjoyed on the wall here in Boston, if only we had it. We would learn something from this little portrait, even if it isn’t a Raphael.  And scholars also tend to change their minds about things as new scholars emerge and have different points of view. So the other side of this, which is sad, is that no one has been able to look at this picture for more than thirty years. I did [by special arrangement during a trip to Italy]. But unfortunately I’m not an expert on Italian Renaissance painting, so I have no opinion about whether it’s a Raphael. But others would.

What was your gut reaction when you saw the Portrait of a Young Girl again?
My gut reaction was: Gosh, it’s such a small, innocent little picture. To look at this young girl and to think of the havoc she caused is just an amazing, weird story. She is completely innocent of the whole thing and has become a kind of mysterious icon of cultural repatriation, which is a big topic today. Most stories about repatriation of cultural artifacts revolve around antiquities, because they involve illegal excavations and things that damage the potential for research and understanding of a work of art. Whereas this picture is just a picture that a dealer had; it had never been stolen. So it’s a real anomaly in terms of works of art returning to their source country.

Did the controversy result in changes in terms of the way works of arts are exported and imported?
I think it did. I don’t know if anyone has traced it directly, but it was certainly a very notable event and everybody in the art world knew about it and had an opinion and responded in some way. It also happened at a time that UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization] first started trying to hammer out a unilateral agreement between nations about the export of works of art. It was becoming clear that there were too many gray areas, and it was making people on one side or the other unhappy. Since then, things have become clearer about what is okay and what isn’t.

Did writing the book allow you to answer the questions you were hoping to answer at the outset?
Very much so. I knew there was a slant to the story—a sort of subplot—that Seybolt was intent on taking over the museum and seeing my father go. I had no reason not to believe that, but I needed to explore that personally and verify it and understand it better. I definitely satisfied that and it was absolutely accurate. This is from gathering many opinions on him and from reading Seybolt’s own words, as he left a very extensive interview at the Archives of American Art, as did my father. But it was a revelation to understand how his mind was working. And to understand that there were other trustees who were beginning to wonder if my father’s leadership was becoming a little dated.

But there are parts of the story that I don’t think I will ever really know. They are not in the record and will never be found.