A painting by Dutch artist Ary Scheffer was presented to the Emirate of Abu Dhabi on Thursday on behalf of the British government.
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, which Scheffer (1795-1858) painted in 1856, was presented to Dr Hamed Bin Mohamed Khalifa Al Suwaidi, Chairman of Abu Dhabi Arts Society, as a token of goodwill.
The ceremony at the British embassy was attended by Patrick Moody, British Ambassador to the UAE, and Alan Lubin, President Emeritus of leading UK financial technology company Five Islands Capital. The Lubin family owns the painting, which is now on permanent loan to the emirate.
"We are truly honoured and humbled to receive such a significant gift from the Lubin family on behalf of the United Kingdom," said Dr Al Suwaidi. "I believe literary and cultural partnerships are crucial to building bridges of understanding between peoples from around the world.
“This exceptional piece by a master artist of his era serves as a testament to the friendship between our countries and furthers our understanding of European historical subjects and beliefs.”
Before the painting was unveiled, Mr Moody explained that the gift was “absolutely inspired” by the Year of Tolerance. “It symbolises both our rich history of cultural exchange and the bright future of UK companies engaging with the UAE on financial technology,” he said.
Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy was kept in private collections for many years during the 19th century but resurfaced in 1911 and sold for 100 guineas – a fortune at the time – at Christie's in London. It then disappeared again until the Lubin family purchased it in 1978.
The figure of Mary Magdalene in Scheffer's painting is thought to be based on Adelaide Ristori, a famous Italian tragedienne, who performed all over the world, triggering riots whenever she refused to appear on stage.
“We want people to see [this painting],” said Mr Lubin. “It’s a great pleasure to hand it over to you and we hope you’ll enjoy it.”
Scheffer, who was born in Dordrecht, Holland, before moving with his mother to Paris as a young boy, painted more than 500 portraits in his career, including Charles Dickens and Franz Liszt. His works are displayed in the Louvre in Paris, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and London’s National Portrait Gallery.
Speaking to The National after the handing-over ceremony, Dr Al Suwaidi said it was "an honour to receive it" and expressed his desire to see the painting exhibited at Manarat Al Saadiyat until the Sheikh Zayed Museum opens.
“We should give the public the opportunity to see it,” said Dr Al Suwaidi. “There is an interest from the UK and from families, who will appreciate it.”
He added that it was “quite touching” to have seen the the painting for the first time the night before the ceremony. “The carpenter was there and he opened the crate and the feeling was perfect when he took the painting out.”