Long-lost Jacob Lawrence painting discovered by New York museum goer

Assumed missing for 60 years, an important painting by African American artist,  Jacob Lawrence, (1917-2000) has been unexpectedly discovered in a private collection in New York. It has now been reunited with the rest of the series at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the public can view the panel for the first time since 1960.  

The compelling revelation was made last week by a recent visitor of the Met’s popular exhibition ‘Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle’, after learning about the lost painting during her trip. She suddenly suspected that her neighbour had unwittingly hung the painting in her Upper West Side apartment.  

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’”, explained the elderly owner, who wishes to remain anonymous. “The painting has been hanging in my living room for 60 years untouched”.  

In 1960 she bought the painting for a comparatively small sum at a Christmas charity art auction to raise funds for a music school. Although the owner had studied art appreciation in the South Bronx, she never normally collected art and was unaware of the search for the piece by the prominent Black artist. “I felt I owed it both to the artist and the Met to allow them to show the painting“, she added.  

As one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Lawrence’s modernist portrayals of African American experiences remain relevant and popular amongst collectors today. The painting could now “be a candidate for selling in the seven figures”, according to Eric Widing, Deputy Chairman at Christie’s New York. 

The newly discovered painting is no. 16 in Lawrence’s series ‘Struggle: From the History of the American People’. Of the ten series produced by Lawrence, ‘Struggle’ is the only incomplete set with four paintings still missing. Lawrence painted the panels in tempera between 1954 and 1956 at the time of the American civil rights movement to portray a diverse view of democratic history, foregrounding the often-neglected experiences of women and African Americans. 

Titled ‘There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786’, the panel depicts an armed uprising of farmers in Massachusetts confronting soldiers during the Revolutionary War. ‘Shays’ Rebellion‘ saw protests against high state taxes and land foreclosures, which became a catalyst for the writing of the US Constitution.  

Met curator, Randall Griffey, was initially dubious about the discovery until he was emailed some photos. “You’re meant to be critical and doubtful about it, but as soon as I saw images of the painting, I thought, ‘This can really be right.’” Soon after, modern paintings conservator Isabelle Duvernois gave her official appraisal of the painting. 

Director of the Met, Max Hollein, marvelled at the fortuitous find in a statement that noted “it is rare to make a discovery of this significance in modern art, and it is thrilling that a local visitor is responsible”. 

Lawrence’s panel is on display with the original series for the remaining two weeks of the exhibition until 1 November 2020.  

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