When a nurse who lived on the Upper West Side was searching an app for neighborhood bulletins last fall, she learned of the recent discovery of a Jacob Lawrence painting in an apartment a few blocks away. It turned out to be one of five panels long missing from the artist’s seminal 30 panel series, “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” which is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just across from Central Park could be seen.
The name Jacob Lawrence rang.
She went over to take a closer look at a small figurative painting on her wall in the dining room that had hung for two decades and whose signature was barely legible. It was a present from her mother-in-law, who had a New York Times profile of Lawrence taped on her back in 1996. The nurse, who had only peeked back while dusting, learned from the app that Lawrence was a leading modernist painter of the 20th century – and one of the few black artists of his day to gain widespread recognition in the art world.
Could lightning strike twice in just two weeks? The woman told the story to her 20-year-old son, who was studying arts in college and quickly Googled the Met’s exhibit. He found a cloudy black and white photo of her painting that was used as a placeholder for panel 28. It was entitled “Immigrants from all countries: 1820 to 1840 – 115.773” and the label on the wall read: “Place unknown. ”
“To be honest, it didn’t look like anything special,” said the owner, who is in her late 40s and came to New York from the Ukraine when she was 18. “The colors were pretty. It was a little worn out. I passed it a thousand times a day on the way to the kitchen, ”she said in a telephone interview.
“I didn’t know I had a masterpiece,” she added.
After connecting the dots, she called the Met, but her messages did not return. On the third day, her son suggested that they just ride over on his motorcycle. His mother recalled, “I grabbed a little kid at the information desk in the lobby and said, ‘Listen, nobody’s calling me back. I have this painting. Who do I need to speak to? “Eventually she met an administrator from the modern and contemporary art department downstairs and asked the owner to email her photos of the work – which she had done on site – from her phone.
That evening, Randall Griffey and Sylvia Yount, the co-curators of the Met’s Lawrence Show, and Isabelle Duvernois, the Met painting’s curator, made their second trip to an Upper West Side apartment in two weeks, around the Verifying the authenticity of a Lawrence painting that had not been seen publicly since 1960.
The nurse, who has agreed to loan her painting for the last two stops of the traveling exhibition, has been anonymized because she said she was concerned for the safety of her family, who lived with a now valuable work of art. The panel will debut on March 5 at the Seattle Art Museum in Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle and will run through May 23.
Prior to the discovery of Panel 16, first reported October 21 by the New York Times, the Met team only knew the title and subject of the work – Shays’ Rebellion – but had no picture to authenticate it. Griffey recalled the unveiling of the first panel as “a great ray of hope” for him professionally and for the pandemic-weary city. “It turned out that it was the feel-good story of the season that needed feel-good stories,” he said.
By panel 28, they had a poor quality photo of the work that had been exhibited in the gallery of Lawrence’s dealer Charles Alan in the late 1950s.
The painting in bright red, gold and brown on hardboard shows two women wrapped in scarves and flanking a man in a wide-brimmed hat. Their heads are bowed and their oversized hands are folded towards the center of the picture. The panel, evoking travelers from the old world, was inspired by immigration statistics in Richard B. Morris’ 1953 “Encyclopedia of American History,” part of Lawrence’s extensive research into the fundamental contributions of immigrants, blacks, and Native Americans to the building of the Nation. (It specifically refers in the title to the number of immigrants who came to the United States in the early years of the 19th century.)
The “Struggle” series, which he carried out from 1954 to 1956, stylistically interweaves cubist forms in excited compositions. It was a break with earlier works like “The Migration Series” (1940-41), which were painted with simpler blocks of color.
While panel 16, which is dominated by a palette of brilliant blue tones and is in pristine condition, was able to take part in the traveling exhibition for the last few days at the Met, panel 28 had suffered some chipping and color loss and had to be preserved in order to stabilize it . Griffey passed the baton on to his colleagues at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass, where the show was made.
“We believe Lawrence unknowingly used some bad tubes of paint because of certain colors, including red and brown, that appear to be poorly glued in the works produced in 1956,” said Lydia Gordon, co-curator of the exhibition at Peabody Essex. said. The museum partnered with the Seattle Art Museum and the Phillips Collection in Washington, the final stop on the exhibit, to fund the treatment of Panel 28 at ArtCare Conservation in New York.
When the new painting was unframed in the conservation laboratory, an alternative title “The Emigrants – 1821-1830 (106.308)” was visible in Lawrence’s handwriting on the back. “He wrote the word ’emigrants’ with an ‘e’ which we all thought was very interesting because it adds that idea of persistence to their arrival,” said Gordon.
The owner’s son was the first to point out that the description of Panel 28 had to be revised by the curators in the wall text: what had looked like a prayer book in the grainy photo in the hands of the male figure was actually a flower pot with a red rose , the official flower of the United States. A nursing baby in the arms of a woman in the painting was completely obscured in the black and white reproduction.
“We can see so much more of that tender hope and optimism now – this symbolism of the fragile life that is growing in the new place for these emigrated people,” added Gordon.
“Struggle” was the only one of Lawrence’s 10 series that was not preserved intact. Public institutions were not receptive to his expansive and racially integrated narrative of American history in the 1950s. “We know from the archives that his dealer Charles Alan wrote all these letters to big institutions and nobody wanted to touch them,” said Gordon.
After Alan exhibited the series twice in his gallery, he sold Struggle to William Meyers, a New York collector who quickly distributed the panels. Griffey, the curator of Met, speculated that Meyer’s panel may have been bidding for the local Christmas art auction, which the Upper West Side couple (who also asked for anonymity) bought it for about $ 100 in 1960.
The owner of Panel 28 does not know how her mother-in-law, who immigrated from Poland, who raised her family on the Upper West Side and amassed a varied selection of inexpensive works of art, acquired the painting. “I have a feeling my mother-in-law didn’t pay much more than $ 100,” she said. “Is there any way they could have been bought at the same auction? I think there is a very good chance. “
When Lawrence’s catalog raisonné was published in 2000, the whereabouts of seven of the 30 panels in the “Struggle” series were unknown. The collector Harvey Ross, who began to buy the paintings privately in 1996, was thrilled when his wife discovered Panel 3 entitled “Rally Mohawks!”. – in a Christie’s auction in 2008.
“I was shocked because nothing had happened in decades,” said Ross, who bought the panel for $ 206,500, the lower end of the estimate of $ 200,000 to $ 300,000. Ten years later, it grabbed Panel 19 on the Swann Auction Galleries titled “Tension on the High Seas,” which was shipped from a Florida property for $ 413,000 – more than four times its high Estimate. (The 2018 auction high for a work by Lawrence is just over $ 6.1 million for a major 1947 painting, “The Businessmen.”)
Ross has given the exhibition its 15 Struggle panels and intends to work with academics to develop a curriculum based on the series.
The nurse who owns Panel 28 said she would consider selling it. (The couple who own Panel 16 are not currently interested in a sale, according to Gordon, the curator of Peabody Essex.)
Panel 14, panel 20 and panel 29 remain at large. The Peabody Essex has set up the email address “email@example.com” to facilitate the exchange of information. Gordon puts her hopes in the vast community of Lawrence’s former students and supporting 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 her!” she said firmly.
West Coast residents, check your walls on your way to the kitchen.