The first major painting that Emily Hall Tremaine bought was The Black Rose by Georges Braque. It opened to Emily the possibility of making art more available to the public, in essence, sharing it. She came to believe that art should not be limited to the walls of a gallery, museum, or a collector’s home. “I had owned it only a very short time when I received requests to loan it to one or two museums, and several friends who heard I had acquired the work telephoned me and asked to see it,” Emily told an interviewer. “To me there was never any joy in anything I could not share; and with this awakening—that the world was asking that it be shared—I think I became a collector.”
An “aha” moment occurred when Emily saw The Black Rose reproduced as a poster. She had flown to Paris in 1952 to visit a still life exhibition at the Orangerie for which she had lent the painting. Emily knew that Braque himself had chosen The Black Rose as his single representation in the exhibition, considering it to be a triumph of one of his most creative years. However, she did not know it was going to be the focus of the exhibition’s advertising. Driving from the airport into Paris on a dreary early spring day, she suddenly became aware that on lamppost after lamppost hung magnificent posters of The Black Rose. “No stage mother has been more excited seeing her child’s name in lights than I was on that otherwise bleak morning in Paris,” she recalled.
In actuality, the poster showed two paintings: At the top was Zurbarán’s Still Life with Lemons, Oranges, and a Rose, painted in 1633, the only still life the great Spanish painter ever signed and dated. At the bottom was The Black Rose painted almost three hundred years later in 1927. It was a felicitous pairing: the first realistic, the second gently cubist. Both slightly mysterious, the paintings shared the same somber color palette except for the yellow lemons that glowed like little suns. One main difference was the color of the roses, Zurbarán’s white, and Braque’s, of course, black, which transformed the standard idea of beauty. Even from a distance and to an untrained eye, the poster displayed on the streets of Paris made a statement about change and continuity in art, extending the reach of the exhibition beyond the walls of the Orangerie. As Braque wrote, “Reality only reveals itself when it is illuminated by a ray of poetry.”
At the time Emily purchased The Black Rose, she was married to Baron Maximilian von Romberg. He was handsome; she was beautiful. In the 1930s, they were the “it” couple, leading the extravagant lifestyle of the very rich in Montecito, California, which meant for Max fast cars, fast polo ponies, and fast airplanes. Fortunately for Emily, there were also more serious friends and relatives, including Chick Austin, director of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, who encouraged her interest in art. “After a while, I decided I was really going to be brave and buy a picture which I loved and could not get out of my thought,” she recalled. She chose The Black Rose. Shorty after she purchased it, Max was killed in a plane crash. From then on, Emily steered her life toward art collecting.
Braque is most often associated with Picasso with whom he developed Cubism. In the catalog Painting Toward Architecture, written for the first exhibition of the Tremaine Collection (then the Miller Company Collection) that toured the United States from 1947-50, Henry-Russell Hitchcock wrote: “With Braque cubism has not been a formula to be repeated but a road to be explored—now opening out when one aspect, such as color or pigment texture, is enriched; now narrowed down as organization of line and shape are refined, even perfected as in The Black Rose.”
The term still life does not instantly spring to mind when thinking of the Tremaine collection, but perhaps it should. Braque wrote of still life, “The aim is not to reconstitute an anecdotal fact, but to constitute a pictorial fact. To work from nature is to improvise. The senses deform, the mind forms.” The Tremaines acquired Still Life with Pears (1913) by Juan Gris in 1947. With its black pears in a cubist bowl, it was an excellent foil to The Black Rose. They acquired Still Life (1925) by Le Corbusier, 7-Up with Cake (1961) by Claes Oldenburg, and Ale Cans (1964) by Jasper Johns, among many others. Braque had considered still life paintings to be “tactile,” exploring a touchable space that differed from visual space. In a way, The Black Rose was roaming far and wide through that space even when it was hanging on the wall—a quality that Emily valued highly.