Mapping Provenance: Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert"

Oil painting of St. Francis in tan robes on a hillside with green rocks, hands open as he looks in awe toward the sky at top left
Giovanni Bellini (Italian, ca. 1424 or 1435–1516), St. Francis in the Desert, ca. 1475–80. Oil on panel, 49 1/16 x 55 7/8 in. (124.6 x 142 cm). The Frick Collection, New York

St. Francis in the Desert Travel Itinerary

Origin: Unknown (possibly an island in the Venetian lagoon)
Destination: Frick Madison, with stops at three Venetian palaces, Milan, Paris, London, two English country homes, London (again), and 1 East 70th Street
Duration: ca. 1475–80 to the present
Distance: at least 4,275 miles

Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert is one of the Frick’s most beloved works of art, but there was a time when it could not find a buyer. In February 1851, the English dealer William Buchanan offered the panel to the National Gallery in London. The museum declined to buy it. In July of that year, the panel was put up for auction at Christie’s. Again, no one bought it.

Such are the vicissitudes of the art market. Bellini’s panel has been valued or bought in at least five currencies, acquired for as little as £735 and as much as $170,000, and owned by at least twenty-one individuals and firms (and probably many more). Its worth—as determined by the market—has fluctuated wildly over the course of its five-hundred-year history. Provenance research enables us to chart the panel’s circuitous route from fifteenth-century Venice to a room of its own on the third floor of Frick Madison.

Mapping the Journey

Explore the interactive map below and read on to untangle the sequence of bequests and acquisitions by which Bellini’s painting ended up in the Frick’s collection. This map is derived from an essay on the panel’s provenance by Anne-Marie Eze with Raymond Carlson in In a New Light: Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (2015).

Use the icon in the upper-left corner to access all the individual stops in the journey or open the full-screen map.

  1. Palazzo Contarini, Venice (1525)
    The original patron of Bellini’s painting is unknown. The most compelling theory is that the aristocrat Zuan Michiel commissioned the panel for the church of San Francesco del Deserto, on a remote island in the Venetian lagoon. Nearly fifty years after its creation, the connoisseur Marcantonio Michiel observes Bellini’s “panel of St. Francis in the desert” in the Palazzo Contarini, which belongs to Taddeo Contarini, the scion of a patrician family. Michiel’s description is the genesis of the panel’s present title. About thirty years later, in 1556, the panel is recorded in an inventory of the possessions of Taddeo’s son, Dario Contarini.
  2. Palazzo Giustinian, Venice (1589)
    On August 20, 1589, Taddeo Contarini’s great-granddaughter, Elisabetta, marries Giulio Giustinian, who belongs to another prominent Venetian family. In his 1660 poem La Carta del Navegar Pitoresco, Marco Boschini notes in reference to Bellini’s panel the presence of “Christ appearing to [Francis] from Heaven / In the shape of a fiery seraph.” As there is no fiery seraph in the picture today, Boschini’s poem suggests that the panel was truncated at some point before arriving at the Frick. (A recent technical examination confirms that the panel was cut down.) The panel remains with the Giustinian family for over a century.
  3. Palazzo Cornaro, Venice (1719)
    On September 13, 1719, the dowager Alba di Antonio Giustinian marries Nicolò di Francesco Cornaro, Procurator of St. Mark and the occupant of a lavish palace on the Grand Canal. In a 1753 inventory, Bellini’s panel is valued at 2,200 lire. It remains in place until at least 1795–96, when the antiquarian Luigi Lanzi publishes a history of Italian paintings that mentions the panel.
  4. Milan (1812)
    On September 7, 1812, the Milan-based dealer Carlo Massinelli sells the Bellini along with eight other Italian paintings to the Parisian collector Joseph Desforges. The price given on the bill of sale reflects a moment of transition following the abolition of the French monarchy: 530 louis d’or (the currency of the Ancien Régime) or 4,871 francs and 43 cents (the currency of the new French republic). How the panel came into Massinelli’s possession is unknown.
  5. Paris (1812–49)
    The panel is brought to Paris by Joseph Desforges and later passes to his son, Charles.
  6. London (1850)
    On March 21, 1850, the English dealer William Buchanan pays £800 for the Bellini panel. The dimensions listed on an 1850 receipt from the art handler Monsieur Chenue are roughly equivalent to its current dimensions. The panel was thus cut down to its current size by this date at the latest. In 1851, Buchanan offers the panel to the National Gallery, which declines to purchase it. (The museum has recently concluded a three-year moratorium on acquisitions and is reluctant to purchase new works.) In the summer of that year, Buchanan consigns the Bellini to Christie’s, but it does not find a buyer.
  7. Egham, Surrey (1852)
    In 1852, Captain Joseph Dingwall, the partial owner of a wine and spirits business, buys Bellini’s painting at another Christie’s sale for the meager sum of £735. In 1857, Dingwall lends the panel to Art Treasures of the United Kingdom, an exhibition in Manchester.
  8. Sunninghill, Berkshire (after 1865)
    Captain Dingwall sells his stake in his business and moves to Turkey. Thomas Holloway, a pharmaceuticals magnate and noted philanthropist, purchases his country home and its contents—including the Bellini. The panel passes in succession to two of Holloway’s sisters-in-law, Miss Mary Ann Driver and then Lady Martin-Holloway, who resides at Whitmore Lodge, in Sunninghill.
  9. Burlington House, London (1912)
    Following Lady Martin-Holloway’s death, St. Francis is exhibited in 1912 at Burlington House, in London. In contrast to the chilly reception that the panel received in 1851, when Buchanan could not find a buyer, tastemakers gush about the Bellini. Writing in the Pall Mall Gazette, Sir Sidney Colvin, the first director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, declares it “a thing unique in art.” In the ensuing years, the panel changes hands many times, with three firms—Colnaghi, Knoedler, and Thomas Agnew & Sons—seeking to capitalize on the nascent demand for Bellini. It is briefly owned by the debt-ridden financier Arthur Morton Grenfell, who buys it for £45,000 (but promptly sells it again at a loss). In 1914, it is again offered to the National Gallery—and they decline to purchase it for a second time.
  10. 1 East 70th Street, New York City (1915)
    On May 10, 1915, Henry Clay Frick purchases Bellini’s panel for $170,000 through Knoedler, one of his main dealers. He installs it in the Living Hall of his mansion in between two paintings by Titian, Bellini’s pupil.
  11. Frick Madison (2021)
    St. Francis in the Desert moves to Frick Madison, the museum’s temporary home five blocks away from the Frick mansion, where it is installed in a chapel-like space illuminated by one of Marcel Breuer’s distinctive trapezoidal windows.
Gray gallery displaying a single painting of a saint in ecstasy in a room with bench and a trapezoidal window
Installation view of Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert (ca. 1475–80), in its chapel-like space at Frick Madison

Photos by Joseph Coscia Jr.; map icons by Luciano Johnson, The Frick Collection

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