A decades-long Jacob Lawrence mystery solved by local Met visitor

A decades-long Jacob Lawrence mystery solved by local Met visitor

New visitors to “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will be able to see a previously missing artwork by the painter, all thanks to a patron who recognized the lost panel.

The Met announced the discovery Wednesday after a visitor realized that one of the five missing panels in Lawrence’s “Struggle” series may be hanging on her neighbors’ wall. Purchased at a Christmas charity art auction in 1960, the piece was reunited with the rest in the exhibition after the visitor prompted the couple, who are not art collectors and wish to remain anonymous, to contact the museum.

Entrance of "Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Maureen Coyle.
Entrance of “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo: Maureen Coyle.

“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. “I felt I owed it both to the artist and the Met to allow them to show the painting.”

The work, which depicts Shays’ Rebellion as panel 16 in the series, has not been seen publically since the purchase and has been thought to be missing for decades.

“It is rare to make a discovery of this significance in modern art, and it is thrilling that a local visitor is responsible,” Max Hollein, director of the Met, said in a statement.

The exhibition will be on view through Nov. 1, after which it will travel to Birmingham, Seattle and Washington, D.C., as part of a tour organized by the Peabody Essex Museum.

Installation view of "Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle." Pictured: “ … is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775,” Panel 1 (1955) from “Struggle: From the History of the American People” (1954–56), by Jacob Lawrence. Photo: Maureen Coyle.
Installation view of “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle.” Pictured: “ … is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? —Patrick Henry, 1775,” Panel 1 (1955) from “Struggle: From the History of the American People” (1954–56), by Jacob Lawrence. Photo: Maureen Coyle.

The piece’s full title is “There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786,” and the work shows a western Massachusetts uprising of farmers, led by Revolutionary War veteran Daniel Shays.

“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,” Randall Griffey and Sylvia Yount, who co-organized the Met’s iteration of the traveling exhibition, said in a joint statement.

Lawrence’s “Struggle” series, which comprises 30 works, was last exhibited as a group in New York at Alan Gallery in 1958. With this latest discovery, four panels still remain missing.

“Since reuniting the ‘Struggle’ series, the absence of panel 16 has been felt acutely,” Brian Kennedy, director of the Peabody Essex Museum, said in the announcement. “Represented in our galleries as an empty frame, it was a mystery that we were all eager to solve. We are thrilled to learn of its discovery — one that came about thanks to close looking and careful observation by a museum visitor.”

Top Image: Jacob Lawrence, "There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786," (1956), Panel 16 from the series "Struggle: From the History of the American People" (1954–56). Private Collection. © The Jacob and Gwendolyn Knight Lawrence Foundation, Seattle/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Anna-Marie Kellen.