The Kessler Family on Horseback 1932
La Famille Kessler à cheval
Oil on canvas 2195 x 2673 (86 7/16 x 105 ¼)
Bequeathed by Mrs A.F. Kessler 1983 and accessioned 1988
Inscribed ‘Raoul Dufy 1932’ bottom left
Raoul Dufy, Arts Council tour, Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh (not shown), Tate Gallery, London, January-February 1954 (90, as ‘Family Portrait’), National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, February 1954 (not shown)
Bernard Dorival, ‘Raoul Dufy et le portrait’, La Revue des arts, Paris, no.3, 1955
pp.175-80, reproduced p.176, as ‘Portrait de Jean-Baptiste-Auguste Kessler et de sa famille, à cheval’
Maurice Laffaille, Raoul Dufy: Catalogue raisonné de l’oeuvre peint, III, Geneva 1976, no.1388, p.380 reproduced
Bryan Robertson, ‘An Introduction to Dufy’, in Raoul Dufy 1877-1953, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1983, p.54
Ronald Alley, The Kessler Bequest, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, pp.20-23, reproduced p.22
Tate Gallery Acquisitions 1982-4, London 1986, pp.155-6
The Kessler Collection, exhibition catalogue, Leicestershire Museum and Art Gallery 1986, p.1
Dora Perez-Tibi, Dufy, Paris 1989, trans. Shaun Whiteside, London 1989, p.164
Tate Gallery Report 1988-90, London 1990, reproduced p.45 (colour)
Technique and condition:
The commercially prepared canvas was primed with white lead and attached to a stretcher. The image, which covers all the stretched canvas face, consists of many layers of predominantly opaque artists’ oil colours. The forms underwent continual revision as the painting proceeded. Although the colours are opaque and the consistency of the paint, lean, earlier forms belonging to the initial stages of the painting are clearly visible, both as pentimenti and in the conformation of the surface which shows areas of shallow impasto. The intervals between the painting of the different layers were sufficient to allow the paint to be touch-dry when reworked. The main colour areas were laid in with a flat brush, leaving vigorous brush-marking but only infrequent low impastoes. Occasionally, colours were intermixed on the canvas. The paint used for the line drawing was fluid and thinly applied in a calligraphic style.
The painting was in good condition on acquisition although the brittle paint films had begun to crack in some areas. The unvarnished surface was covered with a layer of dirt and there was some white efflorescence in the bottom third of the painting. The surface was cleaned and the efflorescence treated. The painting retains the simple moulded wooden frame chosen by the artist.
This large equestrian family portrait represents Mr and Mrs Kessler and, ranged around them in a loose semi-circle, their five daughters. On the very small pony on the extreme left of the painting is Augusta, with Frances behind her and Cornelia near to Mr. Kessler. Susan is nearest to Mrs Kessler, while Anne is shown at the extreme right of the painting. The family group is set against a verdant, idyllicised, backdrop of trees, shrubs and a grassy area, filled with flowers; an area of yellow at the extreme right of the canvas may suggest a cornfield. The painting is striking its juxtaposition of areas of strong reds and blues. Most of the horses, for example, are painted a reddish colour, with bright blue modelling; the horse on the extreme left, by contrast is painted mainly in blue. In addition, areas of bright red in the upper branches of the central tree stand out strongly against the blue of the sky. A pale patch between Mr and Mrs Kessler helps focus attention on the centre of the composition.
Jean Baptiste August Kessler (1889-1972), whose family company, Royal Dutch Petroleum, became part of the Shell Group, had married the Dutch-born Anne Françoise Stoop (1889-1983), also of an oil family, in 1911. They travelled widely before settling in London in 1919. There Mrs Kessler was in contact with her uncle, the important collector C. Frank Stoop, who advised on several of her purchases of contemporary art. His bequest in 1933 of seventeen works by late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century masters to the Tate Gallery formed the basis of the gallery’s modern foreign collection. Mrs Kessler formed an important collection of her own and, following her uncles example, bequeathed it in part to the Tate.
In 1930 Mr Kessler had the idea of commissioning an equestrian portrait of his family commemorating their interest in riding and hunting. In his obituary of Mrs Kessler, Sir Peter Norton-Griffiths noted that she had had a passion for fox-hunting, and had ridden, along with several of her family, with the Cottesmore hunt until the age of seventy-five. ‘Small of stature, she always rode side-saddle and was a splendid-looking figure in the field. When she would no longer hunt she followed the hunt keenly from a motorcar.’
According to family members it was Mrs Kessler who selected Dufy for this commission. In this matter, as in other small points of detail, it seems that Bernard Dorival was wrong to attribute the choice of artist to Mr Kessler. Dorival wrote that, unable to find someone in Britain whom he deemed capable of meeting his requirements, Mr Kessler turned for advice to one of his French friends, Marcel Kapférer. He recommended Dufy, who had executed numerous paintings of horses in paddocks and at races, and from whom he was to buy in February 1931 The Harvest, a work which Mrs Kessler later acquired and bequeathed to Tate (T03564). Although the commission may have come formally from Mr Kessler, it was his wife all family members agree, who, guided by Kapférer, selected Dufy. Unfortunately, there are no surviving family papers relating to the commission or photographs of Dufy with the Kesslers. In conversation with the compiler, Dora Perez-Tibi, the author of a monograph on the artist, confirmed that Dufy himself left no papers relating to this commission. It remains unknown whether the Kesslers stipulated a particular size for the painting or whether the format was chosen by Dufy. In conversation, Mrs Augusta McRoberts (née Kessler) said that The Kessler Family on Horseback used to hang on a landing wall between two staircases in the family home, and may have been intended from the start to fill this particular space.
At the time of the execution of this portrait, the Kessler family lived at Oakham, in what was then the county of Rutland. However, they rented a holiday home, Congham House, near Sandringham in Norfolk during the summer of 1931 and Dufy, who spoke quite good English, stayed with them there in order to make the necessary preparatory studies. He made individual studies of the faces of the family and of each of the horses, as well as of the landscape. He also made watercolours in which he worked on the grouping of the figures. Perez-Tibi writes: ‘These numerous studies, together with his hand-written notes which take into account the minutest details and show the care he took over the composition and arrangement of the colours, represent the preliminary stage of his work.’ The horses shown in the painting were the family’s own, brought from Oakham, and the clothes were those usually worn by the family when riding. In the final work Mr Kessler is shown wearing a blue riding hat and purple-coloured jacket, while Mrs Kessler had a green riding habit. The children wear blue hats, white shirts, pink-brown ties and pale brown jodhpurs.
Although Alley followed Dorival in stating that Dufy stayed in Norfolk for only three weeks, in a letter to the author Mrs Haywood wrote: ‘Dufy was at Congham for 6 or 7 weeks in 1931. He posed us all separately on our horses and made separate sketches of us, heads and down to the hands.’ This would indicate that the family never formally posed in the grouping shown in the final work. Mrs Haywood continues: ‘Dufy showed dozens of sketches to Mrs Kessler, mostly watercolours and some pencil or ink sketches. She chose a number, perhaps 12-15, all approximately 25” x 19” [‘+ bought them’ added in another hand]. Mrs Kessler distributed them between her 5 daughters and 1 son. All these are in private collections.’
Mrs Kessler bequeathed two unsigned gouache studies to Tate. Landscape Study for ‘The Kessler Family on Horseback’ (Tate T03567) is a rapidly executed study of trees, a red three-branched tree on the left being perhaps the source for the similar tree in the centre of the finished painting. The Kessler Family on Horseback (Tate T03566) shows the figures arranged as in the final portrait but with Mr Kessler rather more isolated in the centre of the composition. In 1955 Mrs Kessler allowed Dorival to reproduce three additional works from her collection. Portrait of Frances Kessler, a watercolour shows the outline form of a girl on horseback. Portrait of Cornelia, Anne and Frances Kessler, also described as a watercolour, shows the three girls grouped together and is a study of their faces. Study of the Heads of Jean-Baptiste Kessler and of his Family represents the heads of the seven members of the family arranged in a circle around Mr Kessler, in the order they occupy in the final portrait. Perez-Tibi reproduced two sketches: a pen-and-ink study of Mr Kessler’s head (private collection), and a sketch of the riders and their horses which has hand-written notes about the colours to be used in the final work and which is stamped ‘ATELIER RAOUL DUFY’. Two further sketches, both signed by the artist, are known; they have been dated to 1932, although 1931 seems more likely. Cavaliers sous bois, a gouache measuring 490 x 600mm, shows a very loose treatment of the group portrait. Les Duex Enfants Kessler (Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris), a watercolour measuring 500 x 650mm, depicts two unidentified children facing left, in a position that does not correspond to the final painting.
Dufy had long painted scenes featuring horses and riders. Among the earliest was Les Courses, 1913, sometimes known as Paddock (Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris), though he was to paint the races at Deauville and Chantilly on many occasions through his life, particularly in the mid to late 1920s. On his visits to England in 1930, 1931 and 1932 he executed paintings of the races at Goodwood, Ascot and Epsom. He had also painted innumerable portraits, although on being offered the Kessler commission he had never been asked to paint portraits of people previously unknown to him, let alone of a group of no less than seven individuals. Perez-Tibi noted that the commission was arranged through the London dealers Alex. Reid & Lefevre, the English associates of the artist’s dealer Etienne-Jean Bignou.
Having made studies of the family, Dufy returned to Paris and worked on the first version of the portrait in the autumn of 1931. Known as Esquisse pour ‘Les Cavaliers sous-bois (La famille Kessler à cheval), it is more than two metres wide. In this first version the family is arranged very much as in the final work but in less of a clearly discernible circle. The, marginally smaller, canvas is filled by the family and their horses, while the background is an undifferentiated mass of foliage. The composition is more relaxed, the forms are less finished and appear to overlap one another, while the faces are represented quite minimally.
This canvas was brought over to England rolled up and was shown to Mrs Kessler. Whether Dufy considered it quite finished a this stage is unclear. In 1955 Dorival seemed unaware of the reason why Dufy went on to make a second version, writing: ‘Did the work not fully satisfy him? Or, and this is a more likely hypothesis (for how could Dufy have been unhappy with a picture of this quality?), did the restrictions in place at that time on the importation of works of art to Great Britain not allow him to bring in a painting made in Paris? Anyhow, the painter decided to make a second and to do so in London itself.’ However, Bryan Robertson, who was a friend of Mrs Kessler and had discussed the painting with her, wrote that the first version ‘was too wild, in its day, even for Mrs Kessler, who doted on her dear friend Dufy but also thought the group required a little more space around it and in front of it, and a shade more detail in the faces’. Perez-Tibi notes: ‘By its very theme, this equestrian portrait of rich bourgeois in the park on their estate joins a tradition of English painting. But Dufy’s imagination led him to paint a work that broke with that tradition in both its conception and its treatment.’ Mrs Haywood has commented that Mrs Kessler ‘did not like the shape, and it did not show enough of the countryside’, and continued: ‘Dufy said he would destroy the first version. This was not done.’ Dufy retained the work during his lifetime but it was presented by his widow, unsigned and undated, to the Musée national d’art moderne in 1953.
Dufy began the second version in his studio in Paris but finished it while staying at the Savoy Hotel in London. It is not known why the work was brought over to England unfinished; Mrs McRoberts has confirmed that the family did not sit again for the artist. A photograph of Dufy at work on the second version, seemingly nearly complete, is reproduced in the 1983 Hayward Gallery catalogue. The final work has a stronger sense of underlying composition and combines the figures and horses with a convincing landscape setting. The decorative repetition of calligraphic marks representing foliage and flowers in The Kessler Family on Horseback was a device much used by Dufy from the 1920s. Robertson wrote of the artist’s ‘tersely eloquent calligraphy’, adding that ‘Dufy was enthralled all his life by Persian art ... which he spoke about often to his English patron, Mrs Anne Kessler’. Of the final portrait, Perez-Tibi writes: ‘the Kesslers were pleased with the second version, and before being returned to them it was praised by painters and critics at its vernissage. Dufy’s standing consequently rose in England, and was further enhanced by exhibitions mounted in Paris from studies carried out in England [of] racing and regatta scenes’. No further details about any such first showing or vernissage of the painting have been found.
In 1952 the Kesslers left their large family home and moved to a smaller property. The family portrait was then lent to Mrs Norah Tollenaar, a cousin of Mr Kessler, who lived in Kensington, London. In 1954 the work was exhibited in the Arts Council retrospective in London and listed in the catalogue as being in the collection of Mrs J.N. Tollenaar. In 1958 Mrs Kessler made two deeds of gift. In one, she willed that fourteen works should pass to the Tate Gallery on her death. She died in 1983 and, in accordance with her wishes, her bequest was marked by an exhibition. In the second deed of gift of 1958, she had specified that The Kessler Family on Horseback was to remain with Mrs Tollenaar for her lifetime, passing to the Tate Gallery only on the latter's death. Mrs Tollenaar died in August 1988.
 Reproduced in Alley 1984, p.19 in colour.
 Conversation with the author, 23 August 1995.
 Conversation with the author, 14 December 1995.
 Perez-Tibi 1989, nos.213, 215.
 Reproduced in Fanny Guillon-Laffaille, Raoul Dufy: Catalogue raisonné des aquarelles, gouaches et pastels, Paris 1981, nos.877-8.
 Perez-Tibi 1989, p.164.
 Bryan Robertson, ‘An Introduction to Dufy’, in Raoul Dufy 1877-1953, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1983, p.54.
 Perez-Tibi 1989, p.164.
 Letter, 10 July 1995.
 Raoul Dufy 1877-1953, exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London 1983, p.8.
 Robertson 1983, p.18.
 Perez-Tibi 1989, p.164.