In late September, Harrisburg-based Cordier Auctions & Appraisals held an online art auction featuring 280 paintings and sculptures.
Up for bid was the collection of the late Raymonde “Ré” Désabres Plaut, a French artist who lived in Harrisburg before passing away in 2020. It was an impressive grouping of her work, as well as pieces she owned by other artists.
Scrolling through the online page, I was overwhelmed by the amount of artwork. It was so much that Melanie Hartman, Cordier’s director of catalog and specialty auctions, thought it might dilute the market and depress the prices.
But within the four-hour auction, all but 12 of the 280 pieces had sold, raising $16,000. The highest bid was $750. Hartman was surprised, in a good way.
Keeping with Ré’s will, the money was split between the Art Association of Harrisburg and the Humane Society of Harrisburg Area—two organizations that she was passionate about.
“She would’ve been shocked to see how much it raised,” Ré’s granddaughter Dazzia Szczepaniak said. “She would’ve been proud.”
After talking to Ré’s friends and family, I saw clearly why the auction was so successful—Ré was a force. She was known for her in-home art gallery, her glamorous parties, her creativity, love and eccentricity.
She was electric, and her spark wouldn’t dim in Harrisburg with her passing.
I wish I had met Ré before she passed, had the chance to stroll through her gallery and hear some of the many stories she had to tell—like how, as a teenager, she was a member of the French Resistance and worked to identify and stop Nazi troops. Instead, I gathered stories from those who knew her. Like Ré and her paintings, they were quite the collection.
Kathy Dunbar met Ré around 30 years ago at the former Dōshi art gallery in Harrisburg, and the pair immediately connected.
Ré was a French immigrant, and Dunbar was from London. And while Dunbar isn’t an artist like Ré, she is an art lover, so the two began frequently attending art shows together. Dunbar would even help Ré with her exhibitions. They had a lot in common.
“We gravitated towards each other,” Dunbar said. “We were cohorts of sorts.”
Ré and her husband Martin Plaut would share meals with Dunbar and her husband Glen weekly. They’d travel to nearby cities like Philadelphia and New York together. Dunbar even spent time with Ré’s family members. Ré had two sons from a previous marriage—Richard and Robin. Ricky suffers from schizophrenia, but he and Dunbar “jelled,” she said. Over time, Ré and Dunbar became family.
Ré was known for the parties that she and Martin threw. She loved to dance and loved a good martini—or two. Ré and Dunbar “partied hearty,” she said.
“She was funny, opinionated and tiny but strong,” Dunbar said. “She was absolute dynamite.”
Her artwork reflected her personality, said Carrie Wissler-Thomas, executive director of the Art Association of Harrisburg.
“Her work is lyrical and expressionistic,” Wissler-Thomas said. “It’s romantic and has a dreamlike quality.”
Many of Ré’s paintings depict the human figure. She took classes at the Art Association and painted from live models. Her beloved pet dog would also model for her from time to time. She painted portraits, landscapes and crafted pieces of pottery. Conveniently, she had a potter’s wheel and kiln in her basement.
Ré and Martin regularly entered exhibits at the Art Association. Well into her 80s, Ré figured out how to digitally enter her work on online platforms, Wissler-Thomas said.
Ré even opened her own gallery on the second floor of her home on N. 2nd Street in Harrisburg. She called it “The Four Winds Gallery” and filled it with her and Martin’s work, along with others, including that of Harrisburg transplant Charles “Li” Hidley, one of her favorite artists. She participated in the Art Association’s Gallery Walk for years.
According to Szczepaniak, her granddaughter, there wasn’t an empty space on any of her walls. She would be in awe when she and her brother visited as children. Ré would teach them how to make pottery, take them to see indie films at Midtown Cinema and introduce them to her artist friends.
“It felt special to come to Harrisburg and know that she was so well thought of in her community,” Szczepaniak said. “Her artistry gave me an appreciation for art.”
Ré was stridently independent, but she also was deeply in love with her husband Martin, a former Navy captain and doctor. Like her, he was an artist and had his own galleries over the years.
Ré and Martin lived in separate houses in Harrisburg, which may or may not have been the secret to their long-lasting marriage. But according to Dunbar, they were together all of the time.
As the couple got older, however, their health declined.
The days of Dunbar cheerily drinking martinis with Ré were traded in for making sure Ré took the correct pills and that Martin was safe. It was painful and sad for Dunbar to watch.
Over time, Ré developed dementia, and then Martin passed away.
“I protected her like I would my own children,” Dunbar said. “We weren’t actually family, but we might as well have been.”
Ré eventually moved into an assisted living community before passing in 2020.
“I miss her,” Dunbar said. “They were such an integral part of our lives. How do you replace that?”
Before Ré died, she celebrated her 95th and final birthday. She always did love her parties and, at this one, she was glowing as family and friends surrounded her.
“She was the matriarch,” Szczepaniak said. “She held our family together. That might be my responsibility now.”
When her grandmother died, Szczepaniak worked to clean out her house. She gave family members a chance to choose pieces of Ré’s art to keep for themselves, although many of them already had artwork that she’d gifted them over the years.
Szczepaniak sees that as part of the legacy that Ré leaves behind.
“We all held anything that she gave us as really precious,” she said.
She also noted the personal impact she left.
“She was always sort of a rebel,” Szczepaniak said. “She was a very inspiring female presence, not just for me and my daughter, but her whole community.”
But the greatest way that Ré’s memory lives on is through those who hold her collection of stories.
Near the end of Ré’s life, Szczepaniak spent a lot of time in Harrisburg. She often stayed with Dunbar and became close with her grandmother’s friends. She talked to them about Ré.
“I got close to her Harrisburg community,” she said. “As far as I’m concerned, those connections are helping her to live on in my life. I’m still learning things about her.”
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