Once at Mia: Manet, Mr. Dayton, and the inside story of a beloved painting

Édouard Manet’s Le Fumeur (The Smoker) was unveiled at Mia in 1968 by Anthony Clark, then director of the museum. A solitary person with a pipe was sort of a 19th-century meme, and  Manet made various drawings and etchings of his subject, a  comfortably bewhiskered man believed to be his neighbor, that have circulated widely—they’re in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and Mia itself. There are even some presently for sale. The image Clark unveiled is the original oil painting—big, bold, and bewitching.

Bruce Dayton was drawn to it and couldn’t let go. He was traveling in Europe when he encountered the painting and wrote Clark from the Dolder Grand Hotel in Zurich, a castle-like landmark that, according to the stationery on which Dayton related his obsession, offered golf, tennis, a skating rink, and curling. “Dear Tony…,” he wrote, “I asked about a Manet.”

The painting had gotten around, to America and back to Europe. Painted in 1866, it was first exhibited in 1867 in Paris and then again at the Manet Memorial Exhibition in 1884. By the early 20th century it was owned by Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, aka Gertrude Vanderbilt, founder of the Whitney Museum of American Art. It was shown at the New York World’s Fair in 1940.

By the time Dayton saw it, the painting was under the auspices of the renowned Galerie Beyeler in Basel, Switzerland. Dayton had inquired about any Manets the gallery might have and was referred to this one, on loan to the Kunstmuseum Basel. It was not priced cheaply. “However, it is a great Manet,” Dayton explained to Clark, showing the keen eye he had developed since becoming a board member of Mia as a 20-something in the 1940s. “It is beautifully painted, though quite dark except for a Delft blue handkerchief in his hand. The head is magnificent and has very much the feel of a Rembrandt.”

“It would stand out in our galleries,” he noted. “I don’t see how we can hope to do better on a Manet.”

Dayton, who died late last year, often used the royal “we” when referring to Mia. In his mind, and in fact, they were inseparable. The museum “has 90 percent of what I’ve ever owned,” he once told the New York Times. The other 10 percent might have included a piece he referred to in a postcard that also introduced his obsession with The Smoker: “I haven’t found much art except for the Manet,” he wrote Clark during the same European trip. “I’m also going way out of my class and buying a small Roman torso. Don’t laugh until you see it.” Records suggest the museum never acquired it.

Mia did acquire The Smoker, of course. Clark telegrammed Dayton soon after receiving his letter: “DEEPLY BELIEVE SMOKER PERFECT PICTURE FOR US.”