All her life, Judith Rothschild was a journeyman artist. She studied art and worked steadily from the time she graduated from Wellesley College in 1943, exhibiting mainly in small, respectable galleries and always trying new ways to paint. But she never achieved much fame or following, and when she died in 1993 she was largely unknown to the public and to many in the art world.
Now she has landed her first-ever retrospective; 31 works fill three galleries in the 20th-century wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the opening reception on May 18, at least half a dozen prominent museum directors turned up. And to draw attention to the show, the Met sprang for splashy ads in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Observer and other publications in greater numbers than it usually does for a show of this size.
But Judith Rothschild has not suddenly taken the art world by storm. Many curators, artists and other experts suspect that that was never the museum's point.
Rather, they contend, over the museum's denials, that the Met had ulterior motives in scheduling the show, that it is less interested in her art than in the works by 20th-century masters that she left behind.
When Ms. Rothschild died, she put her own artworks into the Judith Rothschild Foundation, along with a passel of paintings that she inherited from her parents. Among them were 3 works by Picasso, 10 by Mondrian, 5 by Matisse, 9 by Gris, 4 by Leger and 2 by Brancusi, all of which the foundation is eventually expected to sell or give away. To no one's surprise, museums are vying for them.
Using the standard gesture of an institution hoping for a gift, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art have already exhibited the Rothschild Family Collection of European paintings. The National Gallery later received a Picabia painting, a partial gift from Ms. Rothschild's sister.
Is the Met, which was not offered that show and did not ask for it, simply trying a twist on an old tactic?
"I was a little surprised that the Met was doing a Rothschild retrospective," said Marla Prather, curator of 20th-century art at the National Gallery.
"But everyone is hoping that something from the Rothschild collection will come their way. Rather than be one of the museums displaying the collection, the Met is doing a monographic show" of Ms. Rothschild's work, she added.
Others were more direct, though they declined to speak for attribution for fear of alienating the Met. One painter, who insisted on anonymity, said there is no explanation for the show except that the museum is hoping to receive the Rothschild collection.
And Chuck Close, the portraitist, said, "The exhibition is a surprise to everyone I know, and people are free to figure out why it's there." (Not long ago Mr. Close derailed an exhibition of his work at the Met because it was not slated for the museum's most prestigious galleries. Instead, he had a retrospective this year at the Museum of Modern Art.)
Harold Holzer, the Met's spokesman, denied any suggestion that the museum had an eye on the foundation's blue-chip holdings when it planned the Rothschild retrospective.
"The Met's exhibition schedule is independent of its acquisition aspirations," he said.
William S. Lieberman, the Met's 20th-century-art curator and the organizer of the Rothschild exhibition, also rejected the speculation about his rationale for the show, calling it "unguided itchiness," among other things less suitable for print.
Nor is there a connection in the eyes of Harvey S. Shipley Miller, who as sole trustee of the Rothschild Foundation has complete discretion to sell or donate its paintings.
"The European painting collection has nothing to do with this show," he said.
But there is no denying that these are very competitive times for museums. Major works of art cost $10 million and more, and the supply of museum-quality works that remains in private hands, potentially available for acquisition, is shrinking.
Museum directors and curators spend an increasing amount of time on what they euphemistically call "patron development," what in reality is a fierce contest to woo donations from the rich or their estates.
Auction houses and art dealers are stepping up their courting of collectors, too. In February, for example, Christie's copied the standard museum modus operandi when it exhibited and published a fancy $45 catalogue of the Herbig collection of contemporary art without a promise from the owner that it could sell the artworks. The strategy worked, and when Christie's put the collection on the block in June it fetched $11.3 million.
At the same time, many museums are expanding, creating even more demand for great works of art.
"Museums need collectors more than ever now because of the impossibility of buying really good things," said George Abrams, a Boston lawyer, collector of Old Master drawings and trustee of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "There's no way a museum can spend $10 million to $15 million on a painting, and that's what it takes to buy a Matisse, say."
At most museums, donations now make up well over half of acquisitions, and at the Met the figure is over 90 percent, Mr. Holzer said.
Mr. Lieberman was quoted in an article about his department as saying, "I don't collect paintings, I collect collectors," a statement he denies. But he says that Alfred Barr, the founding director of the Museum of Modern Art, his former employer, called him "the curator of the collectors."
The Rothschild Family Collection was amassed by Herbert Rothschild, a furniture manufacturer and dealer, not part of the Rothschild banking family, and his wife, Nanette, with the guidance of their daughter Judith. When they died in the 1970's, they split their estate among their three children in a way that left most of the art to Judith.
Some critics say the collection is uneven, and no one would rank it with the best collections that the Met has captured over the years, like those of the Havemeyer family, Robert Lehman, Walter Annenberg or, most recently, Jacques and Natasha Gelman. All were chockablock with classic works by master artists.
But the Rothschild Family Collection does have enough gems to whet museums' appetites. Among the museum directors, besides Philippe de Montebello of the Met, looking at the art, sipping Champagne, nibbling smoked salmon and generally currying favor with Mr. Miller on May 18 were Earl A. Powell 3d of the National Gallery of Art, Glenn D. Lowry of the Museum of Modern Art, Anne d'Harnoncourt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, David A. Ross of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and J. Carter Brown, director emeritus of the National Gallery.
If it is the strategic move that some people say it is, the Rothschild exhibit may be unique; no expert called on could think of an exact parallel.
But female artists married to male artists of greater stature have certainly endured something similar. Some galleries, for example, exhibited the paintings of Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock's widow, partly in hopes of getting their hands on something by him.
"There's no question that when it came to galleries, there was a quid pro quo going on, and my guess is that it happened at museums, too," said Andrea Gabor, the author of "Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great 20th-Century Women" (Viking/Penguin, 1995), which includes a section on Krasner.
Mr. Holzer said there was no quid pro quo with the Rothschild Foundation. The Met paid for the exhibition, the reception and the advertising from its own budget, he said, but declined to say how much it all cost.
Ms. Rothschild started with pure abstractions, went through a phase of landscape and figurative work, moved into brightly colored abstract landscapes and finally settled on bold abstract relief paintings.
But as Grace Glueck, a critic for The New York Times, wrote in her review of the show, she "never really found herself as a painter." No other publication has reviewed the exhibition, which was subtitled "An Artist's Search," Mr. Holzer said.
Eyebrows were raised about her show because it is at the Met, which has often been criticized for ignoring the work of so many well-known contemporary artists. For artists of this century, having a solo show there puts Rothschild in the company of Willem de Kooning, Georgia O'Keeffe, Rene Magritte, Lucian Freud and David Hockney, plus a few lesser lights like Sidney Nolan, an Australian artist who died in 1992.
"Hers is a career worth looking at," Ms. Prather of the National Gallery said, "but one could argue if she deserves a show at the Met. She is not Matisse, she is not Mondrian, but in the 90's she hit her stride in those relief paintings."
As curators and museum directors well know, wooing does work, when it is well done. Earlier this year the Rothschild Foundation gave the National Gallery and the Philadelphia Museum their choice of paintings by Rothschild.
And both museums admit they also hunger for something from the Rothschild Family Collection.
"We hope for a gift, absolutely," said Ann Temkin, the curator of 20th-century art at the Philadelphia Museum.
Ms. Prather said, "With our Rothschild show, we can say that there was not a one-to-one guarantee, but we did hope to gain something from the collection. But we had no qualms about showing that first-rate collection."
The Philadelphia Museum is still empty-handed, but after the show the National Gallery did receive its Picabia.
As for the Met, last year the Rothschild Foundation donated two Judith Rothschild paintings, "Grey Tangent" from 1947 and "Death of Patroklos" from 1987, and last winter the foundation contributed money to help sponsor an exhibition of the painter Richard Pousette-Dart.
So far, however, the museum has nothing from the Rothschild Family Collection. And the Judith Rothschild show remains on view until Sept. 6.