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A painting by the American modernist painter Jacob Lawrence that was thought to be lost for six decades has now been found — with the help of a museum visitor. The work is one of five panels missing from the artist’s 30-panel Struggle: From the History of the American People (1954–56), on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
A recent visitor to the Met’s current exhibition of the artist knew of an artwork by Lawrence in a neighbor’s collection that he suspected might belong to the Struggle series, and he encouraged the owners to contact the museum.
Indeed, a couple had acquired the painting in 1960 from a charity art auction to benefit a music school, and it had been hanging in their Upper West Side apartment ever since. But to curators and scholars of the artist, the painting had all but vanished. For the Met’s presentation of the show, organizers had even added an empty frame as a placeholder on the wall where the 16th panel would have hung.
The owners, who have asked the Met not to publicize their identities, were reportedly unaware that the work was considered missing until recently. They read about curators’ efforts to locate their painting, as well as four others in the series whose whereabouts remain unknown, when the traveling exhibition first opened at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts earlier this year.
“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 work’s owners told the New York Times. “I felt I owed it both to the artist and the Met to allow them to show the painting.”
The panels were dispersed after a collector who bought the series from Lawrence’s dealer re-sold the panels as individual works in the 1960s. But Randall Griffey and Sylvia Yount, curators in the Met’s department of Modern and Contemporary Art and the American Wing respectively, held on to the hope that they might reappear.
“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,” said Griffey and Yount in a statement.
Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle reunites the multi-paneled work, which represents episodes in US history from 1775 through 1817, for the first time in more than half a century.
The recovered painting depicts Shays’s Rebellion of 1786–87, a clash between soldiers and farmers in Massachusetts in the wake of the Revolutionary War. Its title, “There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786” (1956), cites a letter written by George Washington to Secretary of War Henry Knox in which the general warns of mounting social and political upheaval.
Lawrence began his Struggle series in 1954, at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement in the US. That year, the Supreme Court ruled to desegregate public schools in the landmark decision Brown v. Board of Education. The quote by Washington chosen by the artist for the 16th panel “described the potentially revolutionary implications of a federal ruling against racial segregation in America’s public schools,” said Kerri Greenidge, a professor in the Department of Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora at Tufts University.
“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,” said Met curators Griffey and Yount.
The work will be on view at the Met starting tomorrow, where it will hang along with the rest of the panels for the remaining two weeks of the show’s NYC run. It will travel on loan to venues in Birmingham, Seattle, and Washington, DC, through next fall.