“Lost” Church painting is found
Cleaning of the 19th-century work revealed the clue that cracked the case
By Martha Lufkin. Conservation, Issue 214, June 2010
Published online: 25 May 2010
boston. It was the kind of phone call that curators get weekly—but that often bear no fruit. In 2007, a resident of Beacon Hill telephoned David Dearinger, curator of paintings and sculpture at the Boston Athenaeum, to say that he owned a painting that had been in his family for years, and according to family legend it was “a Church”—meaning, Dearinger supposed, a work by the 19th-century American landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church. “I was understandably sceptical,” Dearinger told The Art Newspaper, “but since the caller was in the neighbourhood, I told him I would at least visit and take a look.”
Surface dirt obscured much of the scene, which shows thunder clouds at sunset and a steamboat. But while it was difficult to pick out all the details, Dearinger was “immediately struck” by the luminous, intense red clouds that shone through the centre of the painting. Although it did not have a signature, “it was just the sort of colour that Church was so good at capturing”, said Dearinger.
He asked to see the reverse of the painting and noticed an old calling card stapled to the back of the stretcher. The owner lent the work for study and cleaning to the Athenaeum, and Dearinger sent it to the Boston fine art restorer Oliver Brothers. The cleaning removed discolouration from prior inpainting [the process of applying new paint to areas that suffered paint loss] and old darkened varnish, which revealed that originally the ship was “in a different location altogether”, said restorer Greg Bishop.
The cleaning also revealed the back of the calling card—and its handwritten notation, “Evening on the Sea/F. E. Church.”
Meanwhile, Dearinger had been researching Church’s seascapes, and found that a painting, Evening on the Sea (1877), had been exhibited at the Century Association in New York in March 1878, and at the National Academy of Design the following month. At the time, the work’s current whereabouts were unknown. But contemporary reviews of the seascape “gave enough of a description” to support a match with the Boston painting, Dearinger said.
Clinching the match is a 1890s photograph of the artist’s studio, which “clearly shows” the newly found Boston painting sitting on an easel. “There’s just no question that it is the missing painting,” said Dearinger.
Sadly, 19th-century critics disliked the work, a mix of dark boiling clouds and dirty smoke from the steamship, which is actually a refitted sailboat. “It was a time when sailboats were disappearing and steam was taking over.” Not long after, Church’s career effectively ended.
The painting is on long-term loan to the Athenaeum, where it is now exhibited for the first time in over 130 years.
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