Lightning Strikes Twice: Another Lost Jacob Lawrence Surfaces

When a nurse living on the Upper West Side checked an app for Neighborhood Newsletters last fall, she learned of the recent discovery of a Jacob Lawrence painting in an apartment a few blocks away. It had turned out to be one of the five long-missing panels in the artist’s groundbreaking 30-panel series “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” which was on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just across the street. of Central Park.

Jacob Lawrence’s name rang a bell.

She walked over to take a closer look at a small figurative painting on the wall of her dining room, where it had hung for two decades, her signature barely legible. It was a gift from her mother-in-law, who had taped a 1996 New York Times profile of Lawrence on the back. The nurse, who had only glanced in the back while dusting off, learned from the app that Lawrence was one of the 20th century’s foremost Modernist painters – and one of the few artists. blacks of his time to be widely recognized in the art world.

Could lightning strike twice in just two weeks? Wife told the story to his 20-year-old son, who had studied art in college and quickly Googled the Met’s exhibit. He found a cloudy black and white photograph of their painting even used as a placeholder for Panel 28. It was titled “Admitted Immigrants from All Countries: 1820 to 1840 – 115,773″, and the wall label read: ” location unknown. “

“It didn’t sound like anything special, honestly,” said the owner, who is in her 40s and arrived in New York City from Ukraine at 18. “The colors were pretty. It was a bit worn. I passed her on my way to the kitchen a thousand times a day,” she said in a phone interview.

“I didn’t know I had a masterpiece,” she added.

After connecting the dots, she called the Met, but her messages were not returned. On the third day, his son suggested that they just head for his motorbike. Her mother remembers: “I grabbed a young child at the information desk in the lobby and said, ‘Look, no one is calling me back. I have this painting. Who do I talk to? Eventually, an administrator from the modern and contemporary art department met them downstairs and asked the owner to email her photos of the work – which she did on the spot, from her phone. .

That evening, Randall Griffey and Sylvia Yount, co-curators of the Lawrence Met show, and Isabelle Duvernois, Met restorer, made their second trip to an Upper West Side apartment in the space of two. weeks to verify authenticity. from a painting by Lawrence that had not been seen publicly since 1960.

The nurse, who agreed to loan her painting for the last two stops of the traveling exhibition, was granted anonymity because she expressed concern for the safety of her family living with a work of art now precious. The panel will begin on March 5 at the Seattle Art Museum in “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” and will remain on view until May 23.

Prior to the discovery of Panel 16, first reported by The New York Times on October 21, the Met team only knew the title and subject of the work – Shays’ Rebellion – but had no images for it. help him authenticate it. Griffey recalled the revelation of the first panel as “a great bright spot” for himself professionally and for the city weary of the pandemic. “It turned out to be the story of the season that was feeling good and needed wellness stories,” he said.

Along with Panel 28, they had a poor quality photograph of the work, which had been on display in the late 1950s at Lawrence’s dealer Charles Alan’s gallery.

The painting, in bright red, gold, and brown tempera on hardboard, shows two women draped in shawls flanking a man in a wide-brimmed hat with his head bowed and oversized hands clasped toward the center of the image. The panel, referring to old world travelers, was inspired by immigration statistics in Richard B. Morris’ Encyclopedia of American History in 1953, part of Lawrence’s exhaustive research on the fundamental contributions of immigrants, Blacks and Native Americans in nation building. (It refers specifically in the title to the number of immigrants who arrived in the United States during the early years of the 19th century.)

The “Struggle” series he performed from 1954 to 1956 stylistically interweaves cubist forms in choppy compositions. It was a break from earlier works like “The Migration Series” (1940-41), painted with simpler blocks of color.

While panel 16, dominated by a brilliant blue palette and in pristine condition, could immediately join the traveling exhibit for its final days at the Met, panel 28 had suffered chipping and lost paint and needed conservation to stabilize it. Griffey passed the baton on to his colleagues at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where the show was born.

“We believe Lawrence unknowingly used bad tubes of paint because there are certain colors, including red and brown, where the quality of the adhesive appears to be faulty in works produced in 1956,” Lydia Gordon, co-ordinating curator of the exhibition at Peabody Essex, mentioned. The museum worked with the Seattle Art Museum and the Phillips Collection in Washington, the last stop for the exhibit, to pay for panel 28 processing at ArtCare Conservation in New York City.

When the new painting was not framed in the conservation lab, an alternate title, “The Emigrants – 1821-1830 (106,308)” became visible in Lawrence’s handwriting on the back. “He wrote the word ’emigrants’ with an ‘e’, ​​which we all thought was really interesting because it adds that idea of ​​permanence when they arrive,” Gordon said.

The owner’s son was the first to point out that the curators’ description of panel 28 in the wall text needed to be revised: what had looked like a prayer book in the hands of the male figure in the grainy photograph was in makes a flowerpot with a red rose, the official flower of the United States. A breastfed baby in the arms of a woman in the painting had been fully masked in the black and white reproduction.

“We are now able to see so much more of this tender hope and optimism – this symbolism of the fragile life growing in the new place for those people who have emigrated,” Gordon added.

“Struggle” was the only one of Lawrence’s 10 series not to be preserved intact. Public institutions were not receptive to his expansive and racially integrated account of 1950s American history. “We know from the records that his dealer Charles Alan wrote all of these letters to major institutions and that no one wanted to. touch it, ”Gordon said.

After exhibiting the series twice in his gallery, Alan sold “Struggle” to William Meyers, a New York collector who quickly dispersed the panels. Griffey, the Met curator, speculated that Meyers may have offered Panel 16 at the local Christmas art auction where the Upper West Side couple (who also requested anonymity) had bought it in 1960 for about $ 100.

The owner of Panel 28 is not sure how his mother-in-law, who immigrated from Poland, raised her family on the Upper West Side and amassed an eclectic range of inexpensive artwork, acquired the painting. “I have a feeling my mother-in-law didn’t pay much more than $ 100,” she says. “Is there a possibility that they were bought at the same auction?” I think there is a very good chance.

When Lawrence’s catalog raisonné was published in 2000, the location of seven of the 30 panels in the “Struggle” series was unknown. Collector Harvey Ross, who in 1996 began acquiring the paintings still in private hands, was elated when his wife spotted sign 3 – titled “Rally Mohawks!” – in a Christie’s 2008 auction.

“I was shocked because nothing had happened in decades,” said Ross, who bought the panel for $ 206,500, the low estimate of $ 200,000 to $ 300,000. Ten years later, at Swann Auction Galleries, he snatched up panel 19, titled “Tension on the High Seas,” consigned by an estate in Florida, for $ 413,000 – paying more than four times its high estimate. (The high auction for a work by Lawrence is just over $ 6.1 million, in 2018, for a major 1947 painting, “The Businessmen.”)

Ross has loaned his 15 “Wrestling” panels to the exhibit and intends to work with academics to develop an educational program based on the series.

The nurse owner of Panel 28 said she would consider selling it. (The couple who own Panel 16 are not interested in selling at this time, according to Gordon, the curator of Peabody Essex.)

Panel 14, panel 20 and panel 29 are still free. The Peabody Essex has implemented the email missingpanels@pem.org to facilitate information sharing. Gordon places his hopes in the huge community of former Lawrence students and united gallery owners and curators in Seattle, where the painter lived for the last three decades of his life after leaving New York.

“Oh, we’ll totally find them!” she said firmly.

West Coast residents, check your walls on your way to the kitchen.

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