Here's the story behind La Circassienne au Bain, an early 19th-century oil painting by French Salon master Merry-Joseph Blondel, which sank on the Titanic's fatal voyage in 1912.
Over 100 years since the sinking, the story of the Titanic continues to captivate the masses with its ambitious beginnings and tragic demise. When the ocean liner departed for its maiden voyage in 1912, it was the largest ship to ever take to the seas. Of the 1,300 passengers, about 319 passengers boarded in first class, a rolodex of European aristocracy and American millionaires, and with them came a host of treasures, from artwork to motorcars. But the most expensive carry-on item was brought abroad by the 29-year-old Swedish scion of a wood pulp fortune, Mauritz Håkan Björnström-Steffansson: the oil masterpiece La Circassienne au Bain by the French Neoclassical master Merry-Joseph Blondel.
The artist Merry-Joseph Blondel was born in Paris in 1871 and showed considerable talent in drawing from a young age. At the age of 22, his submission to the Salon at the Louvre, an oil painting titled Aeneas rescuing his father from Troy, won him the prestigious Prix de Rome, an award to study at the Villa Medici in Rome.
He studied in Rome for three years and upon his return to Paris, he submitted La Circassienne au Bain to the Salon in 1814, an oil painting depicting a nude Circassian woman as she steps into an elegant antiquarian bath, surrounded by dense foliage and fountains. Although critical reception was mixed at the time, audiences generally warmed to the work. In fact, a printed reproduction of the painting appeared in the French publication Almanach des Dames in 1823.
In Paris, Blondel received many commissions, including decorating Versailles, the Louvre, and Fontainebleau. His work adhered to the French Neoclassical style with elegant court portraits and grand historical and mythological scenes that paid attention to detail, lush colour, dynamic movement and idealised human anatomy. He had befriended Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres at the Villa Medici and in 1824, both of them were awarded the Légion d'Honneur by King Charles X. That year, he began teaching at the École de Beaux-Arts, a position he held for almost thirty years until his death in 1853.
The provenance of La Circassienne au Bain is unknown, but a century later it was in the hands of Björnström-Steffansson, who brought it with him on his journey to the US, where the 29-year-old was to continue his chemical engineering degree in Washington, DC on a Swedish government scholarship.
On the Titanic, Björnström-Steffansson befriended Hugh Woolner and the two were in the first class smoking lounge when the ship hit the fated iceberg. The two assisted others into lifeboats and just as the ship was about to completely submerge, they jumped into one of the last lifeboats, Lifeboat D, before they were rescued by RMS Carpathia, which continued to the journey to New York.
Survivors heaped claims upon the White Star Line for loss of life and possessions. Björnström-Steffansson filed for $100,000 (over US$2.5 million today or $1.94 mil) for the lost painting, the single largest claim in the $6 million worth of claims (about $150 million today or £117 mil). However, White Star Line settled for just $664,000 (about US$17 million today or £13.2) so it is unlikely Björnström-Steffansson received the full amount.
Interest in the work has endured for the past century because of its loss in the world's most famous voyage and its high value. In 2013, a British artist using the pseudonym John Parker undertook extensive research to reproduce a copy of the work. The faithful reproduction was auctioned in 2016 by Plymouth Auction Rooms in England for about £2,700.
Although the Blondel work was considered the most valuable masterpiece aboard, other noteworthy works perished in the disaster, including a signed portrait of Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi and a bejewelled edition of the Rubaiyat, a Persian book of poetry dating to the 11th century.