Ackland Returns Art to Rightful Heirs

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Two people talk about a painting to an audience

On Tuesday, January 16, the Ackland Art Museum held a ceremony to return the painting The Studio of Thomas Couture to the heirs of Jewish lawyer and art collector Armand Isaac Dorville (1875-1941). Purchased by the Museum in 1972, during an era in which provenance research was not yet considered essential, the painting had been in the Ackland’s collection for 52 years. But when the Ackland was approached by a French lawyer on behalf of Dorville’s heirs in May 2022, it became clear that the painting had been sold under duress during World War II.

The Painting

The painting depicts the private studio of nineteenth-century French artist Thomas Couture (1815-1879) and was likely created by one of his students sometime in 1854 or 1855. A popular teacher, Couture had many pupils over a thirteen-year period, including Edouard Manet, who remained under Couture’s tutelage for six years. The painting records a session in which students paint a standing male nude model, shown with his arms crossed and looking to the side. They are surrounded by examples of Couture’s paintings.

A painting of a group of men painting from life in an artist's studio

The canvas in the left background is a large preparatory oil sketch for a fresco cycle completed by the artist for the Church of SaintEustache in Paris in 1851 (see a photograph of one section of the  finished mural, Stella Maris, in the image carousel below). A version of Couture’s Timon of Athens, destroyed in the artist’s studio in 1851, is located in the center (see a related drawing of the painting in the Ackland’s collection in the image carousel below). The painting resting against it is his Supper at the Maison d’Or or Each Party has its Ending depicting the Italian Commedia dell’arte figure Pierrot sitting on a table; this painting is also in the carousel below. The overall composition of The Studio of Thomas Couture is spatially complex and juxtaposes figures that are both imagined and “real,” for example, the nude man that appears next to the painted nude woman.

During its time in the Ackland’s collection, the painting had been included in six exhibitions from 1973 to 2008 and had been published on numerous occasions for its art historical significance as a record of Couture’s studio and the many artists who studied there. Today, Manet scholars, in particular, continue to explore the contents of the studio to identify the figures in this work.

Dorville’s Collection and its Sale

The Studio of Thomas Couture was one of 450 objects, including works by French artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Eugène Delacroix, Edouard Manet, and others, that once belonged to Armand Isaac Dorville. After the occupation of Paris by the Wehrmacht, the armed forces of the Nazi party, Dorville fled to the south of France where he lived in his chateau in Cubjac, Périgord (Dordogne) until his death on July 28, 1941. Dorville, who was childless, appointed his three siblings and four nieces as his heirs. Under the collaborationist Vichy regime in France, the Dorville estate was administered by the Commissariat-General for Jewish Affairs, a special administration that introduced anti-Jewish legislation. In 1942, Dorville’s art collection was auctioned in Nice at the M. Terris auction house. The Ackland’s painting was among the items sold, listed as number 251 in the 1942 auction catalogue. It was purchased there by French collaborationist art dealer Roger Louis Adolphe Dequoy (1893-1953). Unfortunately, from 1942 until 1972, when it was purchased by the Ackland, no further ownership history is known. Thanks to the work of art historian Éléonore Delabre, who has been searching for the Dorville collection on behalf of his heirs, we now have a fuller picture of the painting’s provenance and its history.

A black-and-white photograph of a painting of an artist's studio filled with men painting a nude male model
Image from the auction catalog that provided partial proof that the Ackland’s painting was the one the Dorville heirs were seeking.


For the Ackland, restitution of this painting was not a difficult decision. Because Dorville’s heirs were under duress due to the persecution measures of antisemitic laws, they could not protest the auction, nor could they benefit from its proceeds. The remainder of Dorville’s Paris property was seized by the Nazis in 1943 and a number of Dorville’s heirs, including his sister and her two daughters and two granddaughters, were murdered in Auschwitz in 1944.

Though the Museum is sad to see the painting leave the collection, the Ackland recognizes the historical injustice suffered by the Dorville family and its heirs by the crimes committed during the Nazi era, and through the restitution of this work, we express our continued commitment to rectifying such injustices of the past.

During the restitution event, the Ackland welcomed both Raphaël Falk (Dorville’s great nephew) and Éléonore Delabre to accept the painting’s return. It was an emotional and uplifting event for everyone involved. In his remarks, Falk expressed his gratitude to the Ackland, the first U.S. museum to restitute a work from the Dorville collection. He said, “By restoring this work, you are not only paying tribute to Armand Isaac Dorville, but also contributing to the preservation of truth and human dignity. You are giving a voice to those who have been silenced, and helping to shed light on the dark pages of our collective history.” As custodians of cultural heritage for UNC-Chapel Hill and the broader state of North Carolina, we are gratified by the outcome of this significant historical event.


Media Coverage

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Image credits

Featured image (top): Dana Cowen, Sheldon Peck Curator for European and American Art before 1950 (right), interprets The Studio of Thomas Couture for guests at the restitution ceremony for the painting, while Ackland Local Advisory Board member Alain Creissen (left) interprets her comments in French.

Image carousel — photograph: Couture, Thomas, 1815-1879. Stella Maris. 1851-56. JSTOR, Accessed 2 Feb. 2024. 

Image carousel — drawing: Thomas Couture, French, 1815-1879, Timon of Athens, c. 1857-1867, black and white chalk on blue paper (now faded), 12 15/16 x 16 5/8 in. (32.8 x 42.3 cm), Ackland Fund, 65.21.1. 

Image carousel — painting: Thomas Couture, Supper at the Maison d’Or also known as Each Party has its Ending, 1855, oil on canvas, 180.0 x 228.0 cm, Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Presented by Mr. and Mrs. Jonathan Rogers, VAG 31.101, Photo © NGC 

Photograph in auction catalog: Tableaux Modernes, Tableaux Anciens des XVII et XVIII Siècles, Vues de Paris du XVII au XIX Siècle inclus Importantes Circes Originales de P. J. Mène, Bronzes et Terres Cuites de Carpeaux, Rodin, Cabinet D’un Amateur Parisien. 1942.