As It Happens

Metropolitan Museum visitor finds a missing Jacob Lawrence painting

A visitor to the Metropolitan Museum's Jacob Lawrence exhibit on this Struggle series depicting early American history saw the paintings lined up with spaces for the missing pieces and realized she knew where to find one of them.

The Black American artist painted 30 panels for his series on nation-building and democracy

The Metropolitan Museum of Art currently has an exhibition featuring the works of Jacob Lawrence, a modernist painter. Recently a visitor to the museum realized that one of the works missing from the exhibition was hanging in a neighbour's house. (Andrew Kelly/REUTERS)

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As a curator of American fine art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, Sylvia Yount always found pieces via appraisals and auctions — which is why she was surprised to hear that a long-lost painting by Black American modernist Jacob Lawrence was hanging in someone's living room.

"It was an incredibly joyful moment," she told As It Happens host Carol Off. "And the fact that it was discovered by one of our visitors, no less, not by a curator."

Yount and her colleagues have been featuring Lawrence's work from his Struggle series in an ongoing exhibit. A visitor to the exhibit saw Lawrence's paintings lined up in a row, with spaces in between for the pieces that were missing, and wondered whether one of the missing paintings was at her neighbour's house.  

After leaving the exhibit, Yount says the visitor went back to her friend's apartment in the Upper West Side, where one of the five missing panels had been hanging since 1960. 

"She's a longtime friend of the owner of the piece and she had seen this painting hanging in their apartment since the 1960s," said Yount. "She connected it to the Struggle series, knowing that it was by Jacob Lawrence, knowing that there were missing panels."

According to the New York Times, the couple had suspected that their piece was part of Lawrence's Struggle series earlier in the year but didn't contact the Met until their friend encouraged them to do so.

When they did get in touch, it was through another friend who had a connection to a curator at the msuem. 

This Jacob Lawrence painting was recently discovered after a New York woman attended an exhibit of Lawrence's work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and realized that one of his missing panels was likely hanging in her neighbour's apartment. (The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS). Photo by Anna-Marie Kellen)

Next, Yount and her co-curator Randall Griffey sent their conservator to inspect the painting in the apartment to see if was in fact one of the missing pieces.

"We immediately realized we just had to do all we could to bring this back for the last two weeks of the exhibition," she said.

"It's a really striking panel," said Yount. "It actually depicts a little known historical episode to some ... Shay's Rebellion … marking a moment in around 1786 when Massachusetts farmers had fought in the Revolutionary War and they were being taxed to death."

She said the painting contains five figures of American soldiers who were having a confrontation with five farmers, including a woman in the scene. 

"It's actually a depiction of a militia, one could argue, and of a notion of an early civil strife. We've won the war, succeeded … against Britain, and here we are," she said.

The series of paintings that make up Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle were originally created between 1954 and 1956. The 30 panels capture events in U.S. history dating back to European colonization up until the First World War.

Lawrence described the series as "the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy."

His work has been celebrated for showcasing Black people, Indigenous people and women in American history. 

[Lawrence] spent his life working in Harlem. It just all seemed to be part of that incredible kismet, you know. It was predetermined in some sense.- Sylvia Yount

The last time that the Struggle series was exhibited in New York was in 1959. A private collector, William Meyers, bought all 30 panels from Lawrence with the understanding that the artist wanted the pieces kept together, but that condition was not put into writing. After a year of owning the series, Meyers began to sell the panels.

A few years ago, the original curators of the exhibition celebrating Lawrence's Struggle series started trying to find the missing panels. Yount remembers their initial research and a plea for help in an American arts magazine.

"One of the panels did turn up at an auction," she said. "It was acquired by a collector who owns 14 of the other panels. So we have his 15 in the show, as well as a number of [panels] that are in private and public collections."

But five out of the original 30 panels were still missing. Now that's down to four.

The owners, an elderly couple, told the New York Times that they had purchased the painting at a friend's Christmas charity art auction for a music school. They knew Jacob Lawrence to be a leading twentieth-century artist, but they didn't know their painting was part of a series that he wanted to keep together.

"She's a lifelong New Yorker," Yount said of one of the owners.

"She grew up taking her kids to the Met to do art classes. She has many artists in the family. When she did finally connect with us, she emphasized that she was really doing this for her relationship with the Met, for the city and actually for the artist, most importantly, for Jacob Lawrence, who always intended for these works to be seen together."

The significance of this moment was not lost on Yount, who thinks that the panel's return to the Struggle series while on exhibition in New York City, further solidifies Lawrence's story as one of the great Black American artists.

"Jacob Lawrence came of age in Harlem. He spent his life working in Harlem. It just all seemed to be part of that incredible kismet, you know. It was predetermined in some sense," she said.

Written by Mehek Mazhar. Interview produced by Kate Swoger.


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