One of the 20th century’s abiding art-historical mysteries has been the location of seven paintings in a renowned series of 30 by the painter Jacob Lawrence. After an ill-advised collector purchased the set and sold the works off individually, scholars have been hunting to unite the missing pieces.
Now, they have found two of the seven in the space of six months—and both were less than a mile away from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where part of the series was recently on view.
The first one turned up last fall after a museum visitor noticed a striking resemblance between the series and a work on her neighbors’ wall. The neighbors promptly made the trip across Central Park and reunited the work with the full series, “Struggle: From the History of the American People” (1954–56).
Now, incredibly, a lost canvas has been discovered. In a tale stranger than fiction, a Ukrainian nurse heard the news of the first Lawrence find last October and took a closer look at a painting in her apartment—just blocks away from the site of the first discovery, the New York Times reports.
The woman’s mother-in-law had given her the painting, which was signed with the artist’s name and had a newspaper clipping about him taped to the back. Her son quickly did some research and found that the Met’s website showed a vague, dark image of the very painting before them, which turned out to be Immigrants admitted from all countries: 1820 to 1840—115,773, panel 28 from the series.
“It didn’t look like anything special, honestly,” the owner told the Times. “The colors were pretty. It was a little bit worn. I passed by it on my way to the kitchen a thousand times a day. I didn’t know I had a masterpiece.”
She contacted the Met, and even followed up over the course of three days when she didn’t get a response. Finally, she headed across the park and, as she told the Times, “I grabbed a young kid at the information desk in the lobby and said, ‘Listen, nobody calls me back. I have this painting. Who do I need to talk to?’” That very night, the co-curators of the Met’s show and a paintings conservator were standing in her apartment.
The painting, having undergone some conservation work, will now join the last two stops of the Jacob Lawrence show, at the Seattle Art Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, which organized the exhibition.
Lawrence’s dealer, Charles Alan, doggedly tried to get American museums interested in the “Struggle” series, but ultimately sold it to William Meyers, a New York collector.
How is it that the two paintings turned up so close to each other? Randall Griffey, who co-organized the Met’s presentation of the show, speculates that the picture may have been offered at the same neighborhood Christmas auction where the owners of the other rediscovered canvas bought theirs in 1960, for just $100.
The owners of both paintings have requested anonymity.
Another long-lost “Struggle” painting, panel 19, turned up at auction during planning for the current Lawrence show. Art collector Harvey Ross, who owns half the series, spent $413,000 to buy at New York’s Swann Auction Galleries in 2018.
Panels 14, 20, and 29 are still AWOL. Do you, dear reader, perhaps reading this while in lockdown on the Upper West Side, have a painting on your wall that you’re taking a second (or a third) look at? Well, the curators at the Peabody Essex would like to hear from you. Just write to [email protected]
If you’ve actually got one of the lost paintings, they might even reply to your first message.