Note: Authored by David Menconi, this piece has been produced in partnership with Raleigh Arts. Menconi's next book, "Oh, Didn't They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music," was published in the fall of 2023 by University of North Carolina Press. His podcast, Carolina Calling, explores the history of the Tar Heel State through music.

Next time you visit the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, you’ll want to make sure to catch its newest must-see attraction. Five European paintings from the 19th and 20th centuries, the result of a donation that has been billed as “transformational,” entered the museum's permanent collection late last year. Of special note, it’s a haul that includes the museum’s first-ever painting by Pablo Picasso, one of the past century’s most important icons of modern art.

“We previously had a few Picassos on paper and ceramics,” says Jared Ledesma, the museum’s curator of 20th century and contemporary art. “But this is our first Picasso painting. It’s instrumental and huge for the collection, definitely helps us tell the story of modern art. Picasso is a name more familiar to general audiences, and he was the inventor of one of the first movements of modern art. Having this helps round off our telling of 20th century modernism.”

Seen in the header image of this article, this is actually the second time the Picasso painting, "Femme assise, fond rouge et jaune" (“Seated Woman, Red and Yellow Background”), has been on display at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. It was on loan for a year as part of the opening festivities for the museum’s West Building in 2010 (home to the museum's permanent collection, the West Building has been awarded many accolades sine opening more than a decade ago, including a nod as "one of the world's top 125 buildings" from Architectural Record magazine). 

North Carolina Museum of Art

The Rodin Garden outside of the West Building at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Photo by Ted Richardson.

From 1952, “Seated Woman” dates from around two decades before the Spanish painter’s death at age 91. It’s a portrait of Françoise Gilot, Picasso’s muse and mother of two of his children from a relationship that lasted for more than a decade. A native of France, Gilot was a painter herself and an accomplished artist in her own right.

“We are interested in telling her story as well,” says Ledesma. “So we hope to focus on her and her work down the line.”

[Upcoming event: The North Carolina Museum of Art will host one of its most anticipated events of the year, Art in Bloom, March 13-17. Tickets go on sale to the general public on Feb. 8.]

The Picasso painting is on display in a West Building gallery alongside the other four new acquisitions that came in as part of the same donation.

Those include Maurice de Vlaminck’s 1905 work “Le Pont de Poissy” (“The Bridge at Poissy”) and Kees van Dongen’s circa-1904-1905 portrait “Femme nue allongée” (“Reclining Nude),” both examples of the French expressionistic style fauvism; British/French impressionist Alfred Sisley’s 1888 landscape “Le pont de Moret à matin d’avril” (“The Bridge at Moret on an April Morning”); and German expressionist Emile Nolde’s 1916 seascape “Fischkutter (Rotter Himmel)” (“Fishing Boat (Red Sky)”).


These five paintings give a big boost to the amount of European modernism within the museum's galleries. They’re scheduled to remain on view together in the West Building through the end of 2024 before curators move them into different areas of the museum. The fact that they’ll remain on display rather than in storage had a lot to do with why they wound up in Raleigh.

The paintings were a posthumous donation by art-collector couple Julian and Josie Robertson, who split their time between homes in New York and New Zealand. Julian was a native of the North Carolina town of Salisbury as well as a graduate of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. So it’s not surprising that the Robertson's will specified major donations to art museums in North Carolina as well as Auckland, New Zealand.

“Julian really had a connection to North Carolina as the place he was from,” says Linda Dougherty, chief curator of the North Carolina Museum of Art. “Even though he hadn’t lived here in years, he still felt strong ties and wanted to give these five important paintings to the museum. The donation was very significant for him as well as for us. Had he given them to The Met or MOMA, they probably would have gone into storage. But donors know it will be on view here.”


The North Carolina Museum of Art is located at 2110 Blue Ridge Rd. in Raleigh, N.C. (approximately a 10-minute drive from the heart of downtown Raleigh). The galleries are open, with free admission, Wed.-Sun., 10am-5pm. Special events and exhibits occasionally require ticket purchases. 


Artwork seen in the header image: Pablo Picasso, Seated Woman, Red and Yellow Background (Femme assise, fond rouge et jaune), 1952, Enamel on composition board, 49 1/4 x 31 7/8 in., North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of Julian and Josie Robertson

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