Art historians are a step closer to completing one of the enduring puzzles of 20th-century painting, after a panel from Jacob Lawrence’s great narrative series, Struggle: From the History of the American People, was identified in a Manhattan flat.
The 30 panels from the series were sold off individually, against Lawrence’s wishes, in the late 1950s and early ’60s, with the whereabouts of five of the paintings subsequently lost.
Remarkably, the discovery in Manhattan was the second in as many weeks. Last October, a visitor to ‘Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – an exhibition that reunited part of the series – realised that panel 16 was hanging on the wall of his neighbours, who had bought it at a charity auction some 60 years previously.
In the days after this discovery was announced, the owner of the second painting (panel 28) – a Ukrainian nurse – realised that the picture her mother-in-law had given her two decades ago must be another missing piece of the puzzle. ‘I didn’t know I had a masterpiece,’ she told the New York Times. Specialists from the Met have now authenticated and conserved the work, which will join the exhibition – initiated by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem – on the final two legs of its tour, at Seattle Art Museum and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C..
Previously known only through black-and-white reproduction, Panel 28 is titled Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820 to 1840 – 115,773. Lydia Gordon, associate curator at PEM and the coordinating curator of the exhibition, explains that the discovery has transformed our understanding of the painting. ‘What had looked like a prayer book in the hands of the male figure in the grainy photograph was actually a flowerpot with a red rose, the official flower of the United States. And the nursing mother and baby had been entirely obscured! Now, we can understand this painting as an image of tender optimism through the symbolism of fragile life growing in a new place for these people that have emigrated.’
For more information on Lawrence’s Struggle, read Emily Raboteau’s review of the exhibition here.