In 2016, contract workers found a box in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania’s dental school with a dirty canvas inside.
They brought the box to the office of Liz Ketterlinus, a vice dean at the dental school, per WHYY’s Peter Crimmins. Did she want it, they asked, or could it be tossed? She called in Lynn Marsden-Atlass, curator of the university’s art collection.
“The varnish on the painting had turned a dark brown,” Marsden-Atlass recalls to Penn Today’s Louisa Shepard. “I couldn’t decipher what the subject was, but I saw three letters, G-C-O and maybe a bit of the U.”
After many rounds of conservation and study, Marsden-Atlass confirmed she had stumbled upon the discovery of her career: The Source of the Lison, a lost painting by French Realist Gustave Courbet dating to around 1864.
“It’s a first in my professional life, to have found a painting and brought it to light,” she adds. “I’m thrilled to have discovered this wonderful asset of the university. It’s our first Courbet.”
Marsden-Atlass tells Hyperallergic’s Elaine Velie that the discovery is one of three confirmed Courbet paintings of a waterfall that flows into the Lison River, a subject the artist returned to throughout his career.
A new exhibition centered around the painting, titled “At the Source: A Courbet Landscape Rediscovered,” is now on view at the university’s Arthur Ross Gallery. The show opened last month, coinciding with the gallery’s 40th anniversary.
Born in 1819, Courbet lived and painted in Paris during the mid-19th century. He was a controversial artist, known for calling himself the “proudest and most arrogant man in France.” A leader of the Realist movement, he pushed back against the conventions of Romanticism, preferring to paint everyday scenes—including landscapes like The Source of the Lison.
How did the painting make its way to the university basement? It was owned by dentist and diplomat Thomas W. Evans, who grew up in Philadelphia in the mid-1800s, though experts don’t know how he acquired it. He moved to Paris and served as the dentist to Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, among others.
Penn Today reports that the only record of the painting is an entry in an inventory of Evans’ Paris residence, Bella Rosa, upon his death in 1897.
When Evans returned to the United States, he donated much of his extensive collection to help establish the Thomas W. Evans Museum and Institute Society, run by the University of Pennsylvania’s dental school. It operated until 1967, when the dental school shuttered the museum to open a new dental clinic. Most of the works were sold in 1983, with the proceeds going to the dental school’s endowment.
In trying to trace the painting’s origins, university staff combed over the records of the former museum.
“The photos we have, we’ve scoured them for even the smallest sort of picture that might look like the Courbet,” art historian André Dombrowski tells Penn Today. “We have not found anything.”
Though the painting’s origin story remains uncertain, Marsden-Atlass and other experts have worked for several years to confirm its authenticity before opening the exhibition, she tells Penn Today. As part of that process, the Institut Gustave Courbet in Ornans, France, examined it in April 2022.
On May 17, 2022, Marsden-Atlass received an email from the institute: “It’s a Courbet, congratulations!”
“At the Source: A Courbet Landscape Rediscovered” will be on view at the Arthur Ross Gallery in Philadelphia through May 28, 2023.