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Jayne Kirkman Wrightsman and The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Updated: Nov 23, 2021

As The Metropolitan Museum Of Art celebrates its 151st birthday, I wanted to take the opportunity to look back on the life of one of its greatest patrons and benefactors, Jayne Kirkman Wrightsman, 1919-2019.

Jayne Wrightsman played a key role in reviving the field of French decorative arts in America. Alongside her husband, Charles Bierer Wrightsman, 1895-1986, Jayne built an extraordinary collection of art and furniture and donated extensively to The Met, thus establishing The Wrightsman Galleries for French Decorative Arts. Charles and Jayne married in 1944 and almost immediately Jayne began to immerse herself in the study of 18th century French art, through reading, listening, looking and travelling. When the couple moved into their first martial home, a fascination with the decorative arts was sparked inside Jayne.
Mr and Mrs Wrightsman together in Palm Beach, circa 1947. Photo by Bert Morgan.
Jayne was also intrigued by art from other parts of Europe, especially from the period between 1300-1900, and she was particularly interested in the Italian Renaissance. Most of all though, she focused her time and energy on French decorative art. Over the course of many decades, Charles and Jayne collected in earnest and they amassed a treasure trove of the finest pieces of French furniture, Old Master paintings and porcelain.

They accumulated splendours such as Louis XV’s red lacquer desk, Houdon’s bust of Diderot, Madame Du Barry’s rock crystal toilet bottles and Johannes Vermeer’s Portrait of a Young Woman. They came into possession of further masterworks by Eugene Delacroix, Claude Monet, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and El Greco. Works on paper, rare books, sculptures, and decorative objects were added to their burgeoning personal collection.

During the 1950’s the couple purchased an opulent apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue. In 1956 Charles was appointed as a Trustee at The Met, and their apartment served as both their philanthropic hub, and a personal museum to showcase masterpieces to various socialites, politicians, aristocrats and museum curators.
Jayne Wrightsman in her apartment at 820 Fifth Avenue. Photo from Tatler by Cecil Beaton for Vogue, 1960.
Charles and Jayne also owned homes in London and Palm Beach. These were similarly adorned with valuables and finished by renowned interior designers Stephane Boudin and Henri Samuel. The couple became close friends with John and Jacqueline Kennedy. As First Lady, Jacqueline required the assistance of Jayne to restore and decorate The White House.
Jayne Wrightsman and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at the Biltmore Hotel, Palm Beach, March 1961. Photo by Bert Morgan.

Jayne’s personal style and taste was hugely celebrated and as a result she began to mentor other ambitious society mavens, such as Susan Gutfruend and Mercedes Bass. Even today Jayne continues to inspire, with the likes of Sabine Getty and Lauren Santo Domingo citing her influence.

In the following years, Charles and Jayne continued their efforts in collecting and donating to The Met. They garnered works by Nicholas Poussin, Rembrandt, Jacques Louis David, Georges de La Tour, Peter Paul Reubens, Canaletto and Anthony Van Dyck. Charles served on the Board of Trustees until 1975 and in that same year Jayne herself was elected, after serving on the Museum’s 100th Anniversary Committee.
Mr and Mrs Wrightsman at their 820 Fifth Avenue apartment beneath Christ Healing The Blind by El Greco. Photo from Vogue by Cecil Beaton, 1966.
In 1986, Charles passed away at the age of 90. Jayne survived her husband by 33 years, passing away herself at the age of 99 in 2019. The coming week will mark the second anniversary of her death. As her final gift to The Met, Jayne bequeathed 375 artworks and 80 million dollars for future acquisitions. Jayne Wrightsman will rightly be regarded -in the words of Bonnie Brennan, Christie’s Deputy Chairman- as “one of the most important figures in the modern history of collecting”.
Jayne Wrightsman photographed in front of George de La Tour‘s The Penitent Magdalen. Photo by Cecil Beaton from Vogue, 1963.
She is, and also always will be, a role model to me. As someone who adores and appreciates the arts, Charles and Jayne Wrightsman’s contributions to The Metropolitan Museum of Art are unparalleled - they are a gift to the world. Through their unimaginable generosity, devotion and adoration, they enriched, educated and elevated our lives. Together they helped transform The Met into the veritable utopia that it is today.
Mr and Mrs Wrightsman photographed in Palm Beach by Bert Morgan, 1960.

- Ahmer x
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