The UK artist Tacita Dean is related to Esther and Alfred Sutro, who acquired Vincent van Gogh’s Interior of a Restaurant in 1896.
A Royal Academician and Turner Prize nominee, Dean regards Van Gogh as “a very emotionally expressive painter and a great colourist”.
The vibrant Interior of a restaurant bought by the Sutro Couple when they lived in Paris. They acquired it from the avant-garde dealer Ambroise Vollard, paying 300 francs (£12).
Esther Isaacs was an artist and was studying in Paris. In 1894 she married Alfred Sutro, then a young playwright, and they remained in the French capital for some years.
The Sutros bought Van Gogh’s Interior of a Restaurant, painted in Paris in 1887, on the advice of Edouard Vuillard, an artist friend. Vuillard painted domestic interior scenes, which may explain why the Van Gogh had caught his eye.
The page depicts the chairs and tables in a cafe, which are strong, curious, and surprisingly appealing.
Interior of a Restaurant depicts a working-class establishment, with long rows of tables. Although there are numerous customers at the back, attended by three waitresses, the foreground tables have not yet filled up. All that is there is a series of bottles and carafes, along with a single place setting.
The painting probably depicts the restaurant owned by the chef Etienne-Lucien Martin, whose establishment Van Gogh patronised in Avenue de Clichy, at the bottom of Montmartre. Martin may well be the man seated in the middle of the scene, with a large white napkin. Van Gogh once held a small “exhibition” there and it could be his paintings which appear in the background of Interior of a Restaurant.
Interior of a Restaurant was, by this time, hanging in the comfortable home of the Sutros in London’s Chester Terrace, facing Regent’s Park.
The Sutros kept Interior of a Restaurant until Esther’s death in 1934. She died without making a will and her sister Florence Van Gruisen sold the painting, since the estate needed to be divided among siblings. Dean believes that it went for £2,500. The picture was bought by Murray Danforth who was from Providence, Rhode Island.
Interior of a Restaurant was eventually sold in 1996 at Sotheby’s, where it fetched $10.3m, a very large sum at the time. It was bought by the London dealer Simon Dickinson, and Dean thinks that it then went to a Dallas buyer. Her inquiries have led her to believe that it is with a very secretive collector. Dean would love to be able to set eyes on the painting, which has not been publicly exhibited since 1990.
Probably inspired by Alfred’s early acquisition, his elder brother Leopold Sutro, a wealthy trader known as the Rubber King, also bought a Van Gogh, many decades later. In 1928 he acquired Square Saint-Pierre Paris (1887), which was sold just after his death in 1943. This painting is now at Yale University Art Gallery.