Once at Mia: A love and death story

Lucretia was lost almost as soon as Rembrandt painted her, in 1666. Her portrait wasn’t in the inventory of works remaining in Rembrandt’s house after his death, and if it went to a buyer it wasn’t noted. By the time that Herschel V. Jones came across the painting, in the mid-1920s, it was in the collection of a New York art dealer.

Jones was a New York farm boy turned newspaper reporter and arrived in Minneapolis already a young publisher. He worked for and then purchased the Minneapolis Journal, a forerunner of the Star Tribune. Jones mostly collected European literature. Though perhaps because of his distinctly American trajectory, or his friendship with Teddy Roosevelt, forged when he covered one of Roosevelt’s presidential campaigns, Jones also collected Americana. He had letters from Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci. And he had thousands of prints, donating many of them to Mia.

Jones had long collected Old Masters prints. It was only at the end of his life that he began collecting Old Masters paintings, including Lucretia, one of Rembrandt’s last great works. He didn’t own her for long—he died just a few years after buying the masterpiece. In 1934, six years after his death, his widow approached Mia with an offer.

Perhaps the painting reminded Lydia Wilcox Jones too much of her husband. Perhaps the subject was too mournful. According to Jones’s great-grandson, though, it was the specter of deciding which of her many children would get the painting that prompted her to approach Mia with an offer. The museum bought it at a discount, with funds from William Hood Dunwoody. And just like that, only 20 years after opening, the museum had a jewel in its collection.

Lucretia, admired here in 1935 by John R. Van Derlip, the museum’s founding president, and Edward C. Gale, a vice president and trustee, began her wanderings anew. She was often loaned out in those early decades to other museums around the country, flaunted as a kind of calling card. As Mia put it when announcing the acquisition in 1935, “The fated figure of Lucretia, emerging luminously from purplish shadows in a robe like molten gold, is one that will not be easily dislodged from the minds of those who have seen it.”