Drew Alum Describes How She Discovered a Lost Rodin

By: Willy Nichter, Staff Writer

On Wednesday, January 24, Drew graduate Mallory Mortillaro shared with an audience of students and community members the history behind her most notable achievement: the discovery of a lost sculpture hidden away in Madison Borough Hall, home of the Madison City Council.

Mortillaro, currently a sixth-grade language teacher at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School, as well as Curator of Collections for the Hartley Dodge Memorial, received her undergraduate degree at Drew, and then proceeded to fast track her Master’s through Drew’s Caspersen School of Graduate Studies. She was then hired by the Hartley Dodge Foundation to catalogue the historical photos and artwork located inside Madison Borough Hall, and it was there that she discovered the sculpture.

The piece of artwork was created by Auguste Rodin, a French sculptor who is said to be the father of modern sculpting techniques. Known for his realistic approach to sculpting and his defiance of classical traditions, some of his most famous works include The Thinker, The Kiss and The Gates of Hell.

The sculpture in question, which has been given the title Napoleon enveloppé dans ses réves, or “Napoleon Wrapped in his Dreams,” has a truly fascinating history. Mortillaro went into in great detail during her presentation, beginning with the person responsible for constructing the Madison Borough Hall; Geraldine Rockefeller.

“Geraldine built this beautiful building and she actually gifted it to the town,” Mortillaro said, discussing how the building was created as a memorial for her son, who tragically died in an automobile accident while traveling abroad.

Mortillaro went on to say, “She also decorated this building with some pieces of art, and she had an incredible art collection of her own,” stating how Rockefeller would occasionally stop by randomly and add a new piece of art, with the result being that the histories of said pieces were lost to time.

Jumping forward several years, Mortillaro described her own involvement, beginning with her initially signing on for a one-year internship to catalog the hall’s various old photographs and artworks. She was given free rein to handle the art, which was believed by the Hartley Dodge Foundation at the time to be nothing of value.

“I started just kind of looking around at the pieces,” she said, a process which led to her discovering Rodin’s signature on the back of a bust in the council chamber. At the end of her internship, she brought this up to the Foundation, and was then hired indefinitely to continue researching it.

Mortillaro spent months researching Rodin and the statue, as well as constantly calling up museums to see if they would send someone to authenticate the sculpture. After a long and fruitless struggle, she was eventually pointed in the direction of Jérôme Le Blay, a Rodin expert living in Paris. She reached out to him with photos of the bust, and within six hours he was telling her that the sculpture was indeed a Rodin.

“He walked up our stairs and looked in the corner and he said ‘Well, my friend, so this is where you’ve been hiding,’” said Mortillaro of Le Blay’s first visit to the hall to examine the bust. She then went on to discuss the history of the bust itself, how Rodin was commissioned in 1908 by one of the first and most prominent Rodin collectors in the United States, Thomas Fortune Ryan.

The piece was completed and sent to Ryan in 1910, and in 1915 it was loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it remained until 1929. The piece was then reclaimed and, with Ryan having passed away the previous year, auctioned off along with the rest of his collection. The piece was purchased by an associate of Geraldine Rockefeller’s, one who occasionally went to auctions in her place, and was then delivered to Rockefeller herself, who kept it until she decided to place it in Madison Borough Hall.

“The real story here is Mallory,” said Nicholas W. Platt, head of the Hartley Dodge Foundation, as he went on to discuss how the Foundation let her undertake the project believing that it would go nowhere and be a good learning experience for her, only to be shocked when it produced legitimate results.

“She is very smart and very dedicated, and I knew that she would be successful in whatever she did,” said Professor Keane, Chair of the Art History Department and Mortillaro’s former advisor. “I’m very proud of her.”

The sculpture is currently on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it shall remain for the time being.

 

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