For more than 45 years The Sleep of Arthur in Avalon has been a key piece in the extensive collection of European artworks in the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico, a lovely white modernist art museum in the south of the island. The painting by Edward Burne Jones depicts the death of King Arthur, whose head is resting in the lap of Morgan le Fay. The painting was purchased from Christies’ auction house in 1963 by Puerto Rican businessman, philanthropist and politician, Don Luis Ferré.
When Don Luis Ferré purchased the Burne-Jones artwork, its popularity was at its nadir. Pre-Raphaelite art was completely out of fashion in the 1950s and 60s, but this didn’t bother Ferré, who believed that beauty was the “essence of life” and part of the key to addressing the grinding poverty and inequality in Puerto Rico. Towards that end, he began collecting art for in 1956, with the help of Julius S. Held, an art history professor at Columbia University, specializing in the works of Rubens.
Held wrote Ferre the following regarding the importance of choosing quality works for the museum: “After all, what you are building up is not meant to appeal only to the taste of 1959, or not even of 1969. A museum is built for the centuries, and as long as we do not let down our standards of quality, we will come out all right, because tastes and fashions change.”
Ferre took Held's advice, and the long term value of his collection of artworks is now internationally recognized.
Unfortunately, Ferré's hopes for the economy of Ponce were not realized to the same extent. Ponce is a poor colonial city that has not been helped by industrialization. Even the pharmaceutical companies that formed the nucleus of the town’s industrial hopes have decided to move on to places where they can purchase labour for even less.
Nevertheless, people continue to visit Ponce’s Museo de Arte. And while Pre-Raphaelite art was decidedly unfashionable in the 1960s, it is enjoying a tremendous burst in popularity today that has helped boost the museums international reputation. As a result, museums from all over the world have clamored to borrow some of the famous works collected by Ferré’s museum.
The museum also houses the Frederick Leighton painting "Flaming June" (pictured right), which is also on loan to the Tate Gallery at present.
The Museo de Arte is also loaning a number of its paintings to the Phoenix Art Gallery, whose exhibition "Passport to Europe" is built on works from the Museo de Arte's collection.
sources: Museo de Arte de Ponce (link to English version of their website) and Celia Quartermain's article in New Statesman.
Special thanks to James at Tippyleaf Tea for bringing this story to my attention.