Renoir at Rough Point: Knitting Together the Threads of a Hidden Treasure

Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919), Jeune fille blonde cousant, 1875, Newport Restoration Foundation, Rough Point Collection, 1999.496.

A small painting in a gilded frame hangs above the mantle in Doris Duke’s bedroom at Rough Point. Amidst the splash of yellow walls, bold purple fabrics, and glinting mother of pearl furniture, the painting is unassuming by comparison. This is why visitors are often surprised to discover that it is one of the more precious works of art in the house—a charming scene of a young girl focused on her needlework, painted and signed by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the famous French Impressionist.

Until recently, very little was known about this wonderful, but mysterious, painting in Rough Point’s collection. As this summer’s Laird Graduate Intern in Museum Studies, I’ve had the opportunity to dive deeply into research on both the house and its collection, and I found myself especially captivated by this little painting.

A pair of paintings

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Woman Crocheting, c.1875, The Clark Art Institute, 1955.603.

One of the most exciting discoveries in my research revealed that our painting is most likely a preparatory study for another Renoir owned by The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The resemblance between the two paintings is readily apparent. The compositions are nearly identical, with the model—who is now known to be Nini Lopez, one of Renoir’s favorite Montmartre girls—calmly engaged in needlework as her blouse falls gently off one shoulder. Our painting has a loosely worked quality, capturing the artist’s inspiration in the moment.

The period of the 1870s was a transformative time in Renoir’s life and work. Living in poverty and rejected by many critics, Renoir struggled to gain a professional foothold. Even among the other Impressionists, Renoir’s pure colors and broken brushstrokes were not always understood—in fact, Manet once said to Monet that Renoir would never amount to anything.[1] But soon after our painting was completed in 1875, things started to pick up for Renoir. With portrait commissions from wealthier patrons, such as the Charpentier family in 1878, Renoir could now afford to marry and buy a house.[2] His style was also maturing. Renoir’s fascination with girls engaged in needlework continued throughout his career, perhaps stemming from his insistence that his style of painting was tricotage, or knitting the colors together on the surface.[3]

A “poetic symbol” in times of war

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Self-portrait, c.1875, The Clark Art Institute, 1955.584.

In 1919, the painting was part of a significant collection of nineteenth-century art put up for auction by the estate of its previous owner, Nicolas-Auguste Hazard. Alongside our Renoir were works by other titans of nineteenth-century painting, including Cezanne, Delacroix, Courbet, Gauguin, and Manet—perhaps finally proving just how wrong Manet had been about Renoir’s potential. In a twist of fate, Renoir died on December 3, 1919—the final day of the auction.

By 1941, the painting had passed through several hands and was now part of the war effort. France had fallen to Hitler and organizations formed across the United States to send aid to Europe. One such organization, the Free French Relief Committee, held a Renoir exhibition to raise money for General de Gaulle’s nascent French Resistance.[4] They chose Renoir because 1941 was the 100th anniversary of his birth, and because they believed his art to be revolutionary, “a poetic symbol” of the France that the men and women of the Resistance were fighting for.[5] Our painting appeared in the exhibition alongside eighty-eight other works by the artist. The exhibition closed on December 6, 1941. The very next day, December 7, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor finally forced American involvement in World War II, which eventually led to the liberation of France and the end of the war.

Home at last

Like Renoir, Doris Duke had a zest for life. She acquired the painting in 1957 and later installed it as the only painting in her bedroom, where its bright, vivacious colors perfectly complemented the eclectic, bold design of the room. Today, Jeune fille blonde cousant remains a cherished object in the Rough Point Collection, delighting visitors with its soft, dream-like quality—the hallmarks of Renoir’s style which make it such a pleasure to behold.

Photograph of Doris Duke’s bedroom, Rough Point, Newport Restoration Foundation

By Ashley E. Williams

Ashley E. Williams is the Newport Restoration Foundation’s Laird Graduate Intern in Museum Studies for summer 2017. During her summer at Rough Point, Ashley dove deeply into curatorial research and provided support for programming and events. In addition to creating fuller object files for several of our most prominent paintings, her larger research project explored the architectural and public history of Rough Point from 1887 to 1924. This fall, Ashley goes on to her final year at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, where she is earning her Master’s degree in the History of Art and Architecture.


[1] R.H. Wilenski, Modern French Painters (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1940), 61.

[2] Ibid., 62.

[3] Renoir: Centennial Loan Exhibition 1841-1941, For the Benefit of the Free French Relief Committee, (New York: Duveen Galleries, 1941), 18.

[4] Coincidentally, the committee included Grace Graham Wilson Vanderbilt, a relative of Frederick W. Vanderbilt who built Rough Point (1887-1891), the painting’s final home.

[5] Renoir: Centennial Loan Exhibition 1841-1941, 11.

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Welcome back, Mr. Duke!

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1. John Da Costa (England, 1867-1931), Portrait of James Buchanan Duke, ca. 1922-24, Newport Restoration Foundation, Rough Point Collection, 2006.582.

We are celebrating a family reunion of sorts at Rough Point this season. For the seventeen years that the mansion has been open as a museum, full-length portraits of Nanaline Duke and Doris Duke have hung at the top of the grand staircase leading to our second floor galleries and Doris Duke’s bedroom. Nowhere in the house could you see James Buchanan Duke, who bought the estate in 1922 from Princess Anastasia of Greece and Denmark (the former Mrs. William B. Leeds). Doris Duke might have displayed photographs of her father during her lifetime, but after her death in 1993, all personal documents and photographs were removed by her estate in preparation for the transfer of the mansion and its art and antique furnishings, in accordance with her will, to the Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF).

There were painted portraits of James B. Duke elsewhere – at Duke University, the Duke Endowment, and the National Portrait Gallery, but not on view at Rough Point. That is, until now. A fourth painted portrait, by British artist John Da Costa (1867-1931), was given to NRF by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation in 2004 (fig. 1), but darkened varnish and a sagging canvas support had made this portrait unexhibitable when it first came to us, and its original carved and gilded frame had suffered considerable damage over the years. In short, Mr. Duke needed some work, and with the focus of this year’s exhibition, Nature Tamed, on the landscape and gardens at Rough Point throughout its whole long history and under all owners (from Frederick Vanderbilt to NRF), the time seemed right to get Mr. Duke out of storage and onto a visible wall at Rough Point.

A little nip and tuck in the Berkshires

In late February, we sent the portrait and frame to the Williamstown Art Conservation Center (WACC), which shares facilities with the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. At WACC, director Thomas Branchick cleaned the painting, stabilized its canvas support, addressed all other areas of damage, and gave the portrait a new layer of varnish to protect the painted surface. To restore the frame, furniture and frame conservator Hugh Glover replicated several missing pieces of ornate scrollwork and then painted the new surfaces to match the aged appearance of what remained of the original carved and gilded molding.

Unpacking Mr Duke April 4 2017

2. Curatorial and conservation teams unpacking the restored portrait of James B. Duke on April 4, 2017.

Mr. Duke returned from the Berkshires on April 4 (fig. 2), and you can now see him on the second floor landing in close proximity to the portraits of wife Nanaline (fig. 3), painted by Sir James Jebusa Shannon (1862-1923) around the time of her marriage to Mr. Duke in 1907, and daughter Doris at age ten or eleven (fig. 4), painted, like the portrait of her father, by the Englishman John Da Costa.

1999.652 Portrait of Nanaline Duke

3. Sir James Jebusa Shannon, R.A. (United States and England, 1862-1923), Portrait of Nanaline Duke, ca. 1907, Newport Restoration Foundation, Rough Point Collection, 1999.652.

076 1999.653 Portrait of Miss Duke

4. John Da Costa (England, 1867-1931), Portrait of Doris Duke, 1923, Newport Restoration Foundation, Rough Point Collection, 1999.653.













The lasting legacy of Washington Duke, and we’re not just talking about money . . .

NPG Da Costa Oil Sketch JBD

5. John Da Costa (England, 1867-1931), Portrait of James Buchanan Duke, ca. 1922, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of T. Bragg McLeod, NPG.82.149.

In preparing to bring the family back together, we became aware of one of the other portraits of Mr. Duke by John Da Costa – a 1922 oil sketch (fig. 5), now in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., which appears to be a study from life for the Rough Point portrait. Between the 1922 and 1924 portraits, however, Da Costa changed the setting from an impressionistic exterior with blue sky to a non-descript, dark interior. Why the change? We suspect James B. Duke’s father, although dead for 19 years at that point, might still have had something to do with it.

Our portrait is a near identical twin to the portrait of James B. Duke that now hangs in the Gothic Reading Room of the Duke University Libraries (fig. 6).  Adjacent to this “twin” is a posthumous portrait of Washington Duke (1820-1905) in the same dimensions and with a similarly dark interior background and red, upholstered chair (fig. 7). Both of the Duke University portraits date to 1924, as does the Rough Point portrait, and all were likely commissioned to commemorate the $40 million donation made by James B. Duke to the Duke Endowment that same year. The Duke Endowment supported several North Carolina colleges, including Trinity College in Durham, which would later be renamed Duke University in honor of Washington Duke’s legacy of giving to the college.

Mr Duke in Reading Room at Duke

6. John Da Costa (England, 1867-1931), Portrait of James Buchanan Duke, 1924, Duke University Libraries

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7. John Da Costa (England, 1867-1931), Portrait of Washington Duke, 1924, Duke University Libraries


Edmonds Washington Duke with frame

8. Abraham Edmonds (United States, 1850-1910), Portrait of Washington Duke, 1904, Newport Restoration Foundation, Rough Point Collection, 2006.585.

As a model for the posthumous portrait of Washington Duke, Da Costa used a 1904 portrait by Abraham Edmonds (Fig. 8; also now in the Rough Point collection), in which the senior Duke is similarly posed in a dark interior. For visual consistency, it seems that Da Costa simply adapted the Edmonds composition and setting for his portraits of both father and son destined for Duke University, and by extension to the version of the James B. Duke portrait intended for the family. Thus, we have Washington Duke and Abraham Edmonds, both long gone in 1924, to thank for the somber, dark interior.



Not all frames are created equal

There were other benefits to bringing James B. Duke back into the public view. When conservators had a close look at the back of Mr. Duke’s frame they found a stamped maker’s mark: “M. Grieve Co., Hand Carved, New York & London” (fig. 9). Maurice Grieve (fig. 10) relocated his family’s two-century old wood carving business from Belgium to New York in 1906 and closed the shop upon retirement in 1955. His carved and gilded frames represented the pinnacle of the craft and were highly sought after by dealers, collectors, and institutions in the first half of the twentieth century. Most famously, Grieve made the frame for Gainsborough’s Blue Boy after its controversial sale to the American industrialist Henry Huntington in 1921.

Grieve stamp

9. The M. Grieve Co. stamp on the frame of the portrait of James B. Duke at Rough Point.

Maurice Grieve Photo

10. Maurice Grieve photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son. (


Only a few years after making the Blue Boy frame, Grieve was commissioned to carve the frame for John Da Costa’s portrait of James B. Duke, now reunited with the other two family portraits at Rough Point (fig. 11). What young Doris Duke thought of all of this is still a mystery. From the expression captured by John Da Costa (see fig. 4), one might guess there were places she would rather have been than in the artist’s studio.


11. Nanaline, Doris, and James B. Duke together again at Rough Point.


By Margot Nishimura, Deputy Director for Collections, Programming, and Public Engagement

Posted in Artist Spotlight, Beyond the tour, Curator Insight, Exhibitions, Rough Point | Leave a comment


img_7037As museum professionals, one of our favorite parts of the job is hearing back from satisfied visitors. One of the really fun ways we get to do that at Rough Point is through #CamelGrams on Instagram.

Doris Duke was well-known for her two pet camels, Baby and Princess, who spent their summers on the lawn at Rough Point and surprised many a visitor to the cliff walk. In honor of those live camels, we now have several topiary camels on the property.

If you enjoyed your visit to our museum, take a second and pose for a photo with these camels! If you post that photo to Instagram with the hashtag #CamelGram, we will see it and know you enjoyed your visit. Feel free to leave visitor feedback in your post as well, or leave us a review on Trip Advisor.img_7041

Thank you for your visit and keep those adorable camel photos coming!

~ The staff at Rough Point


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A Fresh Take on Old Buildings

Like any good history organization, NRF spends as much time looking ahead as it does looking to the past, and each summer we welcome budding material culturists, public historians, and architecture nerds to Newport to help keep us (and our collections and programs) fresh. NRF’s longstanding Emily A. Laird graduate internship program is a cornerstone of operations and something we look forward to year after year. For ten weeks every summer, interns become full members of the museum team based at Rough Point, lending their perspective on everything from exhibition themes to important ice cream decisions, and we couldn’t do what we do without them.

Mical Tawney, our 2016 Laird Intern, spent the summer working to bring new life and updated scholarship to our vast 18th- and 19th-century architectural collection. Since the majority of these properties are part of our tenant-steward program and unavailable for touring, our website is the best way for visitors to explore and learn about Newport’s early architecture. Mical carefully reviewed the listings for NRF’s seventy-nine historic houses and refreshed each description to reflect the best research available.

Over the next year, we’ll be integrating Mical’s contributions into the Historic Houses page on the website, so keep your eye out for new photos, updated entries, and more interactive features. To learn about the Sisson Collins House – where Mical’s grandparents once lived many years ago – check out the first revised house history here.

Mical is already on her way back to the University of Virginia, where she’ll complete her MA in Architectural History next spring, and we owe her big thank-you for her terrific ideas, sunny disposition, and, most importantly, for keeping NRF thinking about what comes next!

InteIMG_0866rn Fast Facts

Hometown | Charlottesville, VA

College | Dickinson College, BAs in History and Italian

Graduate work | University of Virginia, focus on 18th and 19th century architectural history; certificate in Historic Preservation

Favorite ice cream flavor | Pistachio



Posted in Rough Point

Explore a hidden Newport, at the bend in Bellevue Avenue

landscape_tours_Blog_June_2016_web1Wouldn’t sweeping views of the ocean and secret gardens be the perfect way to rediscover your “City by the Sea?”

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Posted in Events, NRF Gardens, Rough Point | Leave a comment