The case of the missing masterpiece
Detective work and perseverance by Nina Athanassoglou-Kallmyer, professor of art history, have brought about the discovery of an important American painting that had vanished from public and private view in the 1860s.
The painting is a copy of Theodore Géricault’s 1819 masterpiece, Raft of the Medusa, by American artist George Cooke, done in Paris sometime between 1826 and 1830.
American painters went to Europe to study and copy the old masters’ works in Rome and Paris in the 18th and 19th centuries. These copies served a double purpose, Kallmyer says: They honed the skills and understanding of the artists themselves while copying famous paintings, and the copies introduced Americans to great works of art that would otherwise have been unavailable to them.
“The copies of famous works by well-known artists were important tools in bringing art to America and were intrinsic works of art in themselves,” Kallmyer says. “Cooke’s copy is of high artistic quality, a masterpiece in its own right and in every respect worthy of Géricault’s original.”
What made Cooke’s copy of the Raft of the Medusa unique was that he chose not an old master’s painting but a contemporary, hotly controversial, politicized painting as his subject. The Medusa, a French royal flagship, was shipwrecked off the coast of Africa because of the incompetence of its captain, who received the appointment because he was a favorite of King Louis XVIII. Survivors spent two weeks on a makeshift raft, without food or drink, suffering from the heat during the day and cold at night, and resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Their numbers dwindled from 150 to 14.
The wreck of the Medusa became the center of controversy in France between the royalists and antiroyalists, Kallmyer says. Géricault’s huge, highly dramatic painting of the survivors on the raft hailing the British vessel Argosy, which rescued them, became a kind of lightning rod of opposing political forces.
“The painting is horrific in its details of human suffering, with packed naked bodies, some dead, in a desperate human pyramid signaling for salvation,” Kallmyer says. “Because of its realism and its implied criticism of the government, the painting was denounced by almost everyone when it was shown in the Paris Salon of 1819, although it is acknowledged as a masterpiece and hung in the Louvre.”
Americans were aware of the shipwreck and the controversy caused by Géricault’s painting, and when Cooke brought his copy of the painting home in 1830, it took on a life of its own, Kallmyer says. It attracted crowds of viewers and received a much better reception than in France. Much was written about it, including reviews praising the painting, poems, plays, light and sound shows and even a children’s book.
Eventually, the painting ended up as the property of Uriah Phillips Levy, a former American admiral turned prosperous New York real estate magnate, who bequeathed it to the New York Historical Society in 1862. It then vanished from public and private view. At some time in the past, the painting was mistakenly attributed to early American artist Gilbert Stuart and consequently was not cataloged correctly.
Almost 150 years later, enter Kallmyer, who was carrying out research on the original Raft of the Medusa and the copy by Cooke. Her research indicated that Cooke’s copy was held by the New York Historical Society, but because of the early error, the society’s cataloging system recorded no works by the artist. Curator Marybeth De Filippis, however, decided to try one last time to comb the historical society archives by description rather than by artist. She discovered the painting depicting the Medusa raft and contacted Kallmyer.
When Kallmyer went to New York to see the painting, she says she knew her quest was successful and that this was the copy by Cooke she had sought for so long.
“The painting was not in good condition and needed restoration work. It occurred to me that since this was such an important painting, it might provide a worthwhile project for UD’s Department of Art Conservation,” Kallmyer says. She talked to the staff of the historical society and then contacted Joyce Hill Stoner, professor of art conservation and director of UD’s Preservation Studies doctoral program.
Stoner, Kallmyer and art conservation graduate students Lauren Cox, Amber Kerr-Allison and Kristin de Ghetaldi traveled to New York to examine Cooke’s painting. Stoner decided that it could be restored and that it was a worthwhile project for the art conservation department. The painting now has been moved to Winterthur Museum and Country Estate, where UD faculty and graduate students are working to restore it to its former glory.
“The importance of this painting in transcontinental artistic exchanges between Europe and America is enormous,” Kallmyer says. “Thanks to multidisciplinary collaboration at the University of Delaware and the New York Historical Society, a valuable painting is being researched historically and reclaimed.”