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Long-Lost Jacob Lawrence Painting Spent 60 Years Hanging in NYC Apartment

A museum visitor realized she’d seen the missing work—part of the artist’s “Struggle” series—in her neighbor’s living room

Jacob Lawrence, There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786, Panel 16, 1956, from Struggle: From the History of the American People, 1954–56 (Private Collection © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)
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In late August, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened a new show centered on Jacob Lawrence’s Struggle: From the History of the American People series, a sprawling, 30-panel epic that tells the story of watershed moments in the nation’s formation with an emphasis on the contributions of women and people of color. The traveling exhibition marked the majority of the works’ first reunion in more than 60 years, but the whereabouts of five panels remained unknown—until now.

Earlier this month, a visitor to the Manhattan museum realized that the African American artist’s distinct Modernist style looked incredibly familiar. She thought she knew where one of the five missing panels might be: namely, hanging in her neighbors’ living room. Returning home to her Upper West Side apartment, the museumgoer encouraged the couple to contact the Met, per a statement.

As Hilarie M. Sheets reports for the New York Times, the elderly husband and wife acquired the painting for a modest sum at a 1960 Christmas charity art auction benefitting a music school. They first became aware that their Lawrence panel could be a part of a larger series after reading coverage of the exhibition, which debuted in January at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, before embarking on a national tour.

Randall Griffey, co-curator of the Met’s iteration of the show, tells the Times that the museum’s proximity to the owners’ residence—it’s located “just across the park” from them, he says—pushed them to reach out to curators.

Thousands of American citizens have been torn from their country and from everything dear to them: they have been dragged on board ships of war of a foreign nation. —Madison, 1 June 1812,​ Panel 19 from "Struggle: From the History of the American People​," 1954-56, by Jacob Lawrence. (Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Stephen Petegorsky)

“Last week a friend of mine went to the show and said, ‘There’s a blank spot on the wall and I believe that’s where your painting belongs,’” one of the owners, both of whom asked to remain anonymous, tells the Times. “I felt I owed it both to the artist and the Met to allow them to show the painting.”

The work in question depicts Shays’ Rebellion, a six-month armed uprising led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays in protest of Massachusetts’ heavy taxation of farmers. Titled There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786, the panel is number 16 in the Struggle series. It was one of two of the missing paintings known only by their titles; the remaining three are recorded in photographs, notes Nancy Kenney for the Art Newspaper.

“It was our fervent hope that the missing panels would somehow surface during the run of ‘American Struggle’ in New York, the city where Lawrence spent most of his life and where the series was last seen publicly," Griffey and co-curator Sylvia Yount say in the statement. “Lawrence’s dynamic treatment of the 1786–87 Shays' Rebellion reinforces the overall theme of the series—that democratic change is possible only through the actions of engaged citizens, an argument as timely today as it was when the artist produced his radical paintings in the mid-1950s.”

Initially, Griffey tells the Art Newspaper, he was dubious about the resurfaced panel’s authenticity. But as soon as he saw images of the painting, he began to think that it could be real.

The work was signed and dated 1956—the year Lawrence finished the series—and as Griffey notes, “the treatment of blood in the panel was very consistent with that in the others.” After sending a conservator to assess the painting and its condition, curators green-lit the panel for inclusion in the exhibition.

We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country! ​—​petition of many slaves, 1773. Panel 5 from "Struggle: From the History of the American People," 1954-56, by Jacob Lawrence. (Collection of Harvey and Harvey-Ann Ross. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Bob Packert / PEM )

According to the Smithsonian American Art Museum, scholars consider Lawrence “the most widely acclaimed African American artist of [the 20th] century.” His work brought him national recognition by the time he was 30, and he remains one of the few black artists included in standard surveys of American art.

Lawrence’s most famous works include his Migration series and his paintings of everyday life in Harlem. The artist often painted extended narrative series, the longest of which spanned upward of 60 panels, and paired earth tones with bright colors in a dynamic Cubist style.

Struggle, meanwhile, is a retrospective on American history that highlights the roles of the underseen alongside those of the Founding Fathers. The product of more than five years of exhaustive research, the series features “history paintings like you have never seen before, … filled with tension, often violent, multilayered and complicated,” observed Peabody Essex curator Lydia Gordon in a January blog post.

One panel, titled We have no property! We have no wives! No children! We have no city! No country! -Petition of many slaves, depicts chained African Americans engaged in armed battle against their enslavers. Others show the unnamed laborers who toiled to build the Erie Canal—a structure critical to America’s economic development—and tell the story of Margaret Cochran Corbin, a woman who followed her husband into the Revolutionary War and took over firing his cannon after he was killed.

Speaking with Smithsonian magazine’s Amy Crawford earlier this year, Gordon noted that Lawrence’s Struggle series failed to generate enthusiasm among art collectors. Its 30 panels were later resold “piecemeal,” per the Times.

“I think the general public didn’t know what to do with it,” Gordon said. “He’d gone beyond the boundary of how he was defined and understood, as a black artist depicting black history.”

About Tara Wu
Tara Wu

Tara Wu is an editorial intern with Smithsonian magazine. She is a senior at Northwestern University, where she will major in journalism and environmental science.

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