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ARTS

Peabody Essex show leads to ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ discovery of a missing painting

The painting, from Jacob Lawrence's "Struggle: From the History of the American People" series, depicts a 1786 tax revolt in Massachusetts known as Shays' Rebellion.The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS)

One driving ambition curators at the Peabody Essex Museum had as they began assembling “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” was that the landmark traveling exhibition would help uncover a handful of paintings that have fallen from public view in the decades since the original series of 30 works was last exhibited.

Curators realized part of that dream Wednesday, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where the exhibition is currently on view, added Panel 16 to the show after a Manhattan couple stepped forward with the painting they had quietly owned for more than half a century.

“It’s thrilling,” said Elizabeth Hutton Turner, an art history professor at the University of Virginia who co-curated the show at PEM. “It is really such a great occasion. It feels like a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

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Lawrence, an influential Black artist of the 20th century, created the work as part of his epic narrative series, “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” which emphasizes diverse political and cultural interests during key moments from the country’s founding and first decades. The reunited panel shows bedraggled farmers rising up against crisply attired troops during a tax revolt in Massachusetts known as Shays' Rebellion.

The complete series was last exhibited by Lawrence’s dealer in 1958, after which it was sold to a private collector, who in turn broke up the series by selling individual paintings. Among those was Panel 16, which Lawrence titled, “There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. — Washington, 26 December 1786.”

“We really thought about it as a puzzle,” said co-curator Austen Barron Bailly, formerly of PEM but now chief curator at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.. "The dream was that the missing pieces would come together.”

In the case of Panel 16, the painting fell into obscurity in 1960, when the New York couple purchased it at a charity auction, according to the Met. It hung quietly in the couple’s home for the past six decades, until a neighbor saw the show and suspected the couple’s painting by Lawrence might be among the missing works.

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“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 painting’s owners told The New York Times, which first reported the reunion. “I felt I owed it both to the artist and the Met to allow them to show the painting.”

On Wednesday, the painting awaited placement at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.Jeenah Moon/NYT

The woman, whom the paper did not identify, told the Times the couple knew of the possibility earlier this year, but hadn’t contacted PEM because they were traveling.

“It is rare to make a discovery of this significance in modern art,” Max Hollein, director of the Met, said in a statement. “We are also very excited for our colleagues at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM), the organizers of the exhibition that inspired this historic find.”

Brian Kennedy, PEM’s director and CEO, said the absence of Panel 16 “has been felt acutely.”

“It was a mystery that we were all eager to solve,” he said in a statement. “We are thrilled to learn of its discovery — one that came about thanks to close looking and careful observation by a museum visitor.”

Lawrence’s series, painted between 1954 and 1956 during the early years of the civil rights movement, combines historical quotations with bold slanting forms to reimagine critical episodes from the American Revolution and first decades of the republic. The series highlights contributions of traditionally overlooked groups such as Native Americans, Black people, and women, providing a more complicated account of the nation’s founding.

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“This is a culminating moment in his narrative invention,” Turner said. “He uses this device to tackle and re-read American history.”

Prior to Panel 16′s discovery, five of the series’ original 30 panels had been engulfed by the art market’s vicissitudes. Panel 16 was one of two works in the series with no known photographic record: They were known only by their titles, which were listed in a brochure from the series’ inaugural exhibition in 1956.

The New York leg of the exhibition is on view through Nov. 1. From there the show — including the newly added panel — will travel to Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and finally The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

“Jacob Lawrence’s narrative was separated against his intent,” Bailly said. “We want people to know the narrative is incomplete until we find these pieces.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.