The Cars That Got Away

As NCMA Cinema revs up for the Car Crazy series, I’m already anticipating the many audience comments about films that should have been included. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a long list of suggestions, nor have I ever watched so many films in preparation. Here are some ideas for curating your own series at home, if you just can’t get enough.

First to go were films we’ve already shown at the NCMA: Detour, Thunder Road, The Italian Job (the old one), Breathless, Back to the Future, It Happened One Night, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Talladega Nights. I didn’t want the series to be entirely about death by automobile, either, so that eliminated another raft of titles. Stunt driving often defines the action movie: the Bournes, Fast and Furious, The Italian Job (the new one) Ronin. Exciting chases, but too monotonous to show week after week.

NCMA Cinema is a 35 mm house, showing archival prints on film. I could not get a print of A Man and a Woman, a cool French new wavy romance/race film directed by Claude Lelouch (with that song you can’t stop singing) or Gun Crazy, which has a thrilling bank robbery shot from inside the getaway car. It’s currently touring with the UCLA Festival of Preservation, so we may screen it another time.

Many of the racing movies have the exact same plot—Le Mans, Grand Prix, Days of Thunder—with only the cars and leading men changed; we’re showing The Crowd Roars with James Cagney. Grand Prix was my favorite of the also-rans, but it is a Cinerama movie (super wide screen), three hours long, with an overture, intermission, and exit music. We could never do it justice.

James Bond films are famous for their motor cars, but the Carolina Theatre just finished a superb Bond retrospective, so it seemed superfluous. May I recommend the fascinating overview of Bond cars on the Top Gear50 Years of Bond Cars” special?

Of the ’70s existential “the journey is more important than the destination” films, we’ll be showing Two-Lane Blacktop. Other prime candidates include Vanishing Point (1971), The Driver (1978) with Ryan O’Neal (a clear inspiration for the Ryan Gosling Drive), and The Mechanic (1972) with Charles Bronson, which has a chase along Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

I watched the original The Fast and the Furious from 1954, which has Dorothy Malone street-racing a Jaguar, and the original Gone in 60 Seconds from 1975.  I watched Thelma and Louise, but it felt a little dated (discuss) and The Love Bug (1968), which has a groovy 1960s San Francisco vibe, but it’s a kids movie, even though Herbie drives Bullitt’s mean streets.

I even watched Bikini Beach, because it contained custom cars by the designer of the Porsche in which James Dean died. Bikini Beach is fascinating, because it is filled with disdain for British Invasion music, which would soon put Frankie Avalon out of business. Yet he plays his own rival, the Potato Bug, a Beatles-esque singer in a double role, and he’s much funnier than when he’s playing himself.

If you wonder which cars you are seeing in any film, try the Internet Movie Car Data Base, where even the background vehicles are identified.

Fasten your seat belts—we’re in for quite a season. See you at the movies!

Laura Boyes is film curator at the NCMA. The Car Crazy film series is presented in conjunction with the exhibition Porsche by Design: Seducing Speed.


Medusa Mystery

Looking closely at Eugene Berman’s paintings is like playing a memory game, as one critic noted in 1947. Born in Russia, Berman sought to create poetic art, filled with forms from the past. Before emigrating to the U.S. on the eve of the Second World War, he traveled extensively in Europe, sketching Italianate architecture and objects in museum collections. Berman filtered the sketches through his memory, creating loose associations between forms. The result comes across as a postapocalyptic dreamscape, but one that seems familiar. Haven’t I seen that woman somewhere before? Or those ruins?

Take, for example, Sunset (Medusa) (1945), on view in the American Galleries of the Museum’s West Building. The crouching figure may have come out of Berman’s study of Albrecht Dürer’s Melancholia I. Or the woman could depict a dancer in a deep curtsy. Or both. Berman was renowned for his set and costume designs for ballet and opera, and the setting of the painting is certainly stagelike.

Eugene Berman, Sunset (Medusa), 1945, oil on canvas, 57 5/8 x 45 in., Gift of the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest) in honor of Beth Cummings Paschal

Berman painted Sunset (Medusa) while living in Los Angeles and modeled the figure on his future wife, the actress Ona Munson. A petite blonde, Munson often used wigs and padding to transform her appearance on the silver screen. In Sunset (Medusa) Berman chose to depict Munson with the same fiery locks she donned as redhead Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939). Personally, I think it’s a shame that he didn’t imitate the serpentine black curls from her role as “Mother” Gin Sling in The Shanghai Gesture (1941). (Could this be where Berman picked up the idea of Medusa?)

Actress Ona Munson as “Mother” Gin Sling in The Shanghai Gesture (1941)


Berman painted images of Medusa throughout the early 1940s. Medusa’s Corner (1943) is a clear forerunner to the painting at the NCMA, which Berman continued to finesse. He also sketched Munson as Medusa on several occasions and even transferred her face onto small assemblages of seashells and coral.

These, I think, are part of the key to unlocking the mystery of Berman’s Medusa. In mythology the gorgon was famous for turning men to stone with her gaze. Few know, however, that she once held the same power over plants. According to Ovid, Perseus—the hero who beheaded Medusa—laid the gorgon’s head on a bed of seaweed. The seaweed then hardened and turned to coral.

Looking closely at Sunset (Medusa), it appears that the figure is holding coral in her hands as she takes her final bow. The architectural setting, too, appears pitted and porous like coral. Could it be that Medusa has petrified the landscape?

Berman often used mythology as a framework to comment on the violence of Second World War without depicting it directly. Though the landscapes he painted were “bullet-ridden,” they never included guns, bombs, or tanks. Medusa may have stood in for these artifacts of destruction. With her power she embodied a cataclysmic force capable of transforming the European landscape into hardened ruins.

One reason I wanted to write this blog post was to get more people involved in the “memory game.” Berman never intended his paintings to have clear meanings, though several elements in Sunset (Medusa) suggest associations. Could that object on the wall be Perseus’s mirrorlike shield? Perhaps the menacing shadow is the hero’s face in profile as he approaches, ready to slay the gorgon? Could Medusa’s impending death be the “sunset” in the title?

Let the games begin …

Laura Fravel, GSK Curatorial Fellow

Hear more about Laura Fravel’s research at Lunch and Lecture: Hollywood’s Golden Age and the NCMA, Friday, October 4, at 11 am.

Three Elements

Ronald Bladen, Three Elements, 1965, fabricated 1966–7, painted and burnished aluminum over welded steel structures, Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest) in honor of Mr. and Mrs. Gordon Hanes

Throughout my summer internship at the NCMA, I have tried to take every opportunity to poke around the collection and explore the Museum grounds. However, it wasn’t until recently that I noticed the beautiful courtyard behind West Building.

As I stepped into the hot humidity of July, I first took a couple of moments to watch the dragonflies skim around the lily pads and over the water in the long reflecting pool. I then turned to seek the shady respite of the trees and laid eyes on Ronald Bladen’s Three Elements.

The three leaning slabs are rigid and angular—a delightful contrast to the lily pad pool just a few feet away. I walked around the slabs contemplating the juxtaposition of this contemporary work of art and the little courtyard, realizing how perfectly the title caught the feel of the piece. Studying the Three Elements made me reflect on the solidity of metal, the breeze curving around the structures, and the fiery heat of the summer sun. Earth, wind, and fire, if you will.

Pivoting to look once more at the vibrant lily pads and fleeting dragonflies, I thought the title also appealed to the elements evident in the pool: the dark, cool water; the clever wisps of breeze tilting the lilies; and the sunlight playfully winking on the surface of the pool. Three Elements not only contrasts a contemporary, rigid structure with the organic timelessness of the pool, but it also causes one to meditate on the variability of the elements, such as the inescapable heat of an afternoon sun and the twinkling light that dances on the water.

This work of art is tied to the environment in which it was placed, creating a larger idea of the inseparability of art and the rest of the world. Whether you have visited the little courtyard already or not, I recommend taking time to see Three Elements and experience the connectivity between the giant work of art and the elements of nature.

Sarah Parks, a 2013 graduate of Emory University, is an intern in adult programs at the NCMA.

The Dentist’s Art

The Dentist

Jan Miense Molenaer, The Dentist, 1629, oil on cradled panel, Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

Does The Dentist make you cringe? At a Teen Arts Council meeting this spring, we were surprised to learn that The Dentist by 17th-century Dutch artist Jan Miense Molenaer was one of the most memorable works at the Museum for our teens. They recalled elementary school trips where this work was seared in their memories for the dental procedure about to unfold. Molenaer captures an anguished patient peering at the viewer in anticipation and clutching the rosary as a colorfully dressed dentist grips his tooth.

The Dirty South Dentist, NCMA Teens Inspired

Gabrielle Guenther, The Dirty South Dentist, 2013

In this year’s Teens, Inspired exhibition, two teens chose Molenaer’s painting to inspire their own works of art. Gabrielle Guenther of Apex High School was drawn by the humorous quality in Molenaer’s work and chose to modernize it in The Dirty South Dentist. Gabrielle’s work comments on the expensive and painful nature of vanity procedures such as grills (jewelry worn over the teeth, made of precious metals and jewels and made popular by the Dirty South rap and mainstream hip-hop cultures).

Gia Adomavicius of Green Hope High School also found her inspiration in Molenaer’s work and chose to explore the lack of bonding between technology and mankind. Her Robot Dentist depicts a mechanical dentist devoid of emotion as she inspects a robot’s oral cavity. Even the personal artist’s touch is missing in the clean, precise medium of digital painting. Contrasted against the exaggerated facial expressions of Molenaer’s painting, Gia’s dentist peers at the robot with a stoic and detached coldness.

Robot Dentist, NCMA Teens Inspired

Gia Adomavicius, Robot Dentist, 2013

One work of art can influence a variety of viewers to share the same powerful emotions and inspire artists to create completely different original works. Visit Teens, Inspired in the Education Lobby (through October 20) to see both of these works and over 20 others inspired by art at the NCMA. For more information about these works and details about entering the 2014 teen exhibition, visit www.teens-inspired.org.

Michelle Harrell is coordinator of teen and college programs at the NCMA.

Lincoln and the War of Ideas

Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, showing in the Museum Park Theater on Saturday (rescheduled for Friday, 9/30), focuses on one month of the president’s term. This is January 1865, and the main drama is discussion of an amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery. Lincoln does the best job of any movie on the Civil War in looking at the complexities and ideas of the conflict. Rather than a movie of battles, Lincoln is a political drama about Congress. The film accomplishes something spectacular: it transforms what could be tedious into a thriller.

The movie shows a divided North—represented by the socially radical Thaddeus Stevens, the centrist Abraham Lincoln, and the socially conservative Democrats—with very different ideas of how the war should end and what should happen to the institution of slavery. In this volatile mix Lincoln develops its own theory for why the president chose January 1865 for the amendment rather than later in the year. In a small scene where two Missouri citizens petition Lincoln, he asks if they would support abolition once the war was over. The citizens say no, they want to hurt the rebels, but freeing slaves might overthrow the social order. This may be the best scene in the film; it is a new and different thesis for Lincoln’s decisions. Spielberg argues that the president recognized that only through the war could he end slavery. If the war ended, many politicians might lose the impetus to destroy the “peculiar institution.”

Is the movie accurate? I had the opportunity to watch it with two Lincoln scholars (James McPherson and William Harris) who both agreed that the details are spot on. Despite a few dramatic additions—I won’t write them here because they are spoilers—the movie gets the dress, style, speech, scenery, and most important, the ideas right. The two issues of war and abolition are inextricably linked.

How does a political thriller fit in with the North Carolina Museum of Art? Somewhat difficult to figure at first. Then I realized the answer was staring me in the face in our American Gallery. Next to a huge painting of the founding fathers are three sculptures of the “Congressional triumvirate” of Henry Clay, John Calhoun, and Daniel Webster. These three men dominated the American politics of their time, were fantastic orators, and represented their own distinct sections of the country. All three were very influential to the young Abraham Lincoln.

Thomas Ball, Daniel Webster (1782–1852), modeled 1852, cast later, bronze, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Lee Humber

A Massachusetts senator and representative, Webster was a prominent supporter of the Union ideal. Though Webster constantly praised New England’s greatness at the expense of the South, his love of the Union was overriding. One of his most famous speeches was in response to an attempt by South Carolina to nullify a federal law. Webster equated nullification with disunion and argued, “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Lincoln often relied on Webster’s arguments and speeches in justifying his own cause for war—a war to preserve the Union.

 

Hiram Powers, John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), originally modeled 1835, carved 1859, marble, Presented to the State of North Carolina by Wharton Jackson Green, 1861; transferred to the North Carolina Museum of Art, 1956

Calhoun, a representative from South Carolina, represented Webster’s political opposite, insisting that the rights of states had priority over the larger collective. Calhoun argued against Webster during the nullification crisis but backed down when President Andrew Jackson threatened force against South Carolina. Though Calhoun died long before the Civil War, Southern states used his arguments in favor of their secession.

Calhoun’s Roman-style bust was placed in North Carolina’s Capitol Building after its completion. In April 1865, when Raleigh surrendered to the army of General Sherman, retreating Confederate soldiers dumped an inkwell atop Calhoun’s sculpted head.

Thomas Ball, Henry Clay (1777–1852), modeled 1858, cast later, bronze, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Robert Lee Humber

 

Lincoln was inspired by Henry Clay and shaped his early political career around the congressman from Kentucky, one of the most influential politicians of his generation. A young, hard drinking Clay helped draft the Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812; as a polished orator he crafted the Missouri Compromise of 1820; in Congress he pushed through numerous bills for internal infrastructure and wrote the Compromise of 1850 as his swan song.

Though a slave owner, Clay argued for Union over secession and denounced the Mexican War as immoral expansion to please the “slaveocracy.” Clay’s pro-Union rhetoric influenced Lincoln, in his first congressional term, to focus on limiting the expansion of slavery. The Civil War further transformed Lincoln’s views from anti-expansion to abolition.

The Thomas Ball statues ignored the midcentury vogue of dressing politicians in Roman togas, instead showing the men as they were—commonly dressed, giving speeches, and resting on the columns of liberty. Ball wanted to show these leading politicians as mortal men with beliefs rooted in the present, not the past.

Nathan Johnson, security guard at the NCMA, is pursuing a master’s degree in history at N.C. State University.

Glory: Behind the Story

The movie Glory, showing Friday in the Museum Park Theater, is a rare story in Civil War film—the role of African Americans in defending the republic from secession and ending slavery. The movie follows Col. Robert Gould Shaw, a wealthy Boston heir, and the 54th Massachusetts (the first official black regiment in the U.S. Army). Until 1863 it was illegal for black men to join the army. Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation opened the door.

The real-life regiment was raised with free men of color from New England, Canada, and the Caribbean. The movie depicts a different regiment. Glory’s 54th is composed mostly of escaped slaves, symbolized in Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington. But the movie’s change is not as poor as it might seem. Glory uses the composition of the regiment to illustrate the status of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) in the Civil War. The USCT ended the war with more than 175 regiments, of which only a few were made of free blacks. Most of the regiments were like the film version—escaped slaves who joined the Army to fight secession and slavery.

The main action of Glory is an attack on Fort Wagner, a large Confederate base near Charleston, South Carolina. Before that attack most black regiments had been used for garrison duty or labor. Soldiers who had joined to fight were digging ditches at lower pay than white men. The attack on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863 (our showing of the film is just two weeks past the 150th anniversary) changed much of that. Afterward black soldiers were used more and more in combat and helped win the war that reunited the U.S. and ended slavery.

Several paintings in the Museum relate to the Civil War and especially the role of African Americans.

Charles Felix Blauvelt, A German Immigrant Inquiring His Way, 1855, oil on canvas, Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

This pre–Civil War painting depicts a German immigrant asking a black man for directions. Based on his stooped stance and ratty clothing, the African American is clearly on the lowest rung of the social ladder. The German immigrant is not far off—distrusted for being foreign, Catholic, and unassimilated into American culture. Both ethnic groups were on the margins of mid-19th-century society; yet they joined the U.S. Army in droves (150,000 immigrants from the German states and 209,000 African Americans) to protect the republic.

 

Thomas Hicks, The Musicale, Barber Shop, Trenton Falls, New York, 1866, oil on canvas, Purchased with funds from the State of North Carolina

The Musicale was painted just a year after the Civil War’s end and shows a group of musicians playing for a small crowd. The band is made up of two white and two black men, dressed similarly to the equally diverse audience in attendance. The painting highlights the accomplishments of the Civil War: the abolition of slavery, proof of African Americans’ courage and patriotism, and a hope for equality. The two black musicians stare out at the viewer with a smile. They know what has been accomplished, possibly by them, but most certainly by their people. And the musicians are enjoying the fruits of sacrifice.

 

Aaron Douglas, Harriet Tubman, 1931, oil on canvas, On loan from Bennett College for Women Collection, Greensboro, North Carolina

Harriet Tubman was famous before the Civil War for leading African Americans out of slavery and into freedom in Canada, where the Fugitive Slave Law held no power. Douglas’s painting is dedicated to Tubman and her accomplishments. A series of circles expands from the figure of Tubman outward—stretching Tubman herself forward and backward through history. On one side, bowed by the weights they carry, enslaved black Americans trudge up a hill toward Tubman. Tubman herself has her arms raised, breaking the chains that bound her. Though her eyes face back, her stride is forward, leading people onward. Ahead of her is the joy of freedom. There one man holds a hoe, symbolizing the freedom to farm independently; a young woman reads a book, the freedom to gain education; a third man lies back enjoying his leisure time and staring raptly at a towering city.

Despite the title, the originating circle is not on Tubman. Instead, the circle where everything begins centers on the smoking barrel of a cannon. It was war that ended slavery, and the achievements of black Americans in the Civil War that granted them freedom for a future.

Nathan Johnson, security guard at the NCMA, is pursuing a master’s degree in history at N.C. State University.

Vines about Time

We received some extraordinary responses to our #artandtime video project. This was our first experiment with Vine, a mobile app for sharing six-second, looping videos. It was a natural fit for our current exhibition 0 to 60: The Experience of Time through Art (closes Sunday!). We asked for open-ended musings on art and time. Here are our favorites:

Marla Laubisch created a work of art in time. In her Vine, you watch as she paints a small pastoral scene called “Sun and Shadow” (oil painting on panel), filled with vibrant greens and crystalline blues. Keep watching, and the skies turn to violet, then navy, as day turns to night. (Don’t miss Marla’s behind-the-scenes blog post on the making of her video–including a custom built iPhone rig.)

Alli Burness re-created a work of art in time. Upon a simple suggestion (by yours truly), she traveled to Rome to re-enact a seminal early work of art by Robert Rauschenberg. In 1952, Rauschenberg photographed Cy Twombly descending Roman steps. It’s a meditation on time, movement and change in a series of five photographs. Through several twists and turns, Alli found the steps in Rauschenberg’s work, and created her own interpretation. As she traveled on from Rome, she continued the idea, making Vine variations on other steps she came across. For the full story, read her blog post, and my storify.

rnaoncfixd romped through the art museum in time. His Vine chronicles an playful tour through the permanent collection, punctuated by old and new art, and marked by a (collectors item) 0 to 60 temporary tattoo.

Fantastic work! We’ll be sending these three an exhibition catalogue, and inviting them to join us for a summer concert or movie.

Steinhardt Collection of Judaica

Building an art collection is not rocket science. At least, it’s not science. You don’t just identify what you want and then go out and get it. Chances are, when you look for a specific thing, you will not find it—until you stop looking for it. I’m a great believer in serendipity, keeping oneself open to all possibilities so that when something unsought but irresistible shows up one can carpe diem—seize the day.

The Museum really seized the day—April 29 to be exact—when we entered the fray of the largest auction of Jewish ceremonial art in decades, the sale of the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection at Sotheby’s, New York (video: A Treasured Legacy). A highly successful hedge fund manager, Michael Steinhardt is one of the most innovative and generous philanthropists of Jewish causes. He is also a famous contrarian: in 2011 he delivered the NCMA’s annual Kanof Lecture on the topic: “Reflections of a Judaica Collector Who Is Both an Atheist and Deeply Jewish.”

Collecting Judaica as part of their general interest in Jewish culture, Steinhardt and his wife, Judy, eventually built one of the largest private collections of its type in the world. The collection ranged in time from biblical antiquity to the present and included many rare and extraordinary items, chief among them a beautifully illuminated 15th-century Italian manuscript of the Mishneh Torah.

In January Sotheby’s announced the sale of the Steinhardt collection. Though our coffer—the Judaic Art Fund—was low, we could not afford to pass up this unexpected opportunity. Trust in serendipity! While Sotheby’s was still cataloguing the nearly 400 lots in the sale, I arranged to preview the entire sale with Gabriel Goldstein, our consulting curator of Judaica. We initially identified 11 pieces of highest interest for the Museum’s Judaic Art Gallery. We looked for objects that were beautifully designed and crafted and that made a clear statement of their purpose. And since art is fundamentally about the stories we tell, we also looked for pieces that would add the most to the evolving narrative of our Judaic art collection. Further research and discussions with Sotheby’s experts and other scholars reduced our wish list to six pieces. Emergency fund-raising commenced through the Friends of the Judaic Art Gallery. By April 29 we had secured sufficient contributions and pledges to bid competitively for five of the six targeted lots. We set maximum limits for each bid.

Sotheby’s promotion of this auction was over-the-top. In an effort to stir global interest, the highlights of the collection traveled to Europe, Russia, and Israel. A week prior to the sale, Sotheby’s presented the whole collection in a dramatic, museum-worthy exhibition at its Manhattan headquarters (video).

As with previous auctions, we arranged to do the bidding over speaker phone from my office. A representative from Sotheby’s was at the other end of the phone, and in the background you could hear the auctioneer coaxing bids from the room, the phone bank, and the Internet. The sale was long, divided into morning and afternoon sessions. We invited major contributors to sit in while their lots were cried. Some museum staff joined us. Even from a distance, you couldn’t help but feel the electrostatic thrill of an art auction. And when our lots came up, no one breathed.

“Fifty. You have fifty thousand against you. Do you want to bid sixty?”

“Sixty.”

“Sixty. There’s seventy on the floor. Do you want to bid eighty?  Eighty-five?”

“Eighty-five…”

Inevitably, we lost several pieces we really wanted. A sumptuous Torah Crown from mid-18th-century Venice would have given us our first great piece of Italian synagogue silver. Alas, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought it for $857,000. We also lost several smaller things when the bidding vaulted past our limits. However, there was little time for regrets. Another lot was coming up.

By late afternoon, we had won three lots against strong international competition. We prevailed because we simply wanted these pieces more than anyone else and we were fortunate to have lined up donors willing to stake us all the way. As I write the pieces are still in New York, waiting to be shipped to Raleigh. They will go on view in late October. I’ll write more about them in the fall.

A Scott Family Who’s Who: The Mystery, Magic, and Scholarship of the Scott-Jacobean Project

George or John?

Identifying the sitters in the NCMA’s Scott family portraits is one of the main goals of the Scott-Jacobean Project. After two and a half years of research, one thing is certain: who these people are is anything but clear. Of the seven NCMA Scott paintings, five identities are in serious question.

The portraits came to the Museum with names attached—ancient inscriptions on the front and decaying labels on the back—with places, death dates, and other details. Unfortunately, very little of this information is original to the painting; much of it was added 100 or more years after the paintings were made, long after the sitters were dead. It’s likely that someone in the Scott family felt the need to put names to these ancestral images, but memory rarely serves portraits well. Karen Hearn informed me of this last year while consulting on the Scott portraits. As former curator of 16th and 17th century art at the Tate Britain, she has found that the identification of subjects in 400-year-old portraits is frequently wrong. Portraits have been mistakenly identified as that of a more popular or infamous relative. A generation or two after a person’s death, there’s no longer anyone living who knew the person, so who’s to know the difference?

Read More »

A Study in Paint

UNC Scott presentations at the NCMA

“There is nothing like firsthand evidence.” —Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet

This summer I have the opportunity to continue the research begun by Perry Hurt, associate conservator at the NCMA, on seven fascinating examples of late Tudor and early Jacobean portraiture that have traditionally been associated with the Scott family of Kent, England. My part in this project began in the fall of 2012 when I participated in Dr. Tania String’s UNC–Chapel Hill graduate seminar The Tudor and Jacobean Portrait: A Theoretical and Practical Investigation. During this seminar students focused research on the NCMA portrait group, made presentations to Museum docents and staff, and interacted with specialists such as Dr. Tarnya Cooper, chief curator and 16th-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery in London. Interest in these portraits has continued to grow, and the NCMA has begun the initial steps of research and conservation in anticipation of an exhibition that will reintroduce these fabulous paintings to the public.

I have been working with the NCMA to reconstruct the provenance, or ownership history, of the portrait group. While this might sound straightforward, it actually requires a great deal of deductive reasoning (think Sherlock Holmes … the Benedict Cumberbatch version, of course!). The lives of these portraits since their creation have had to be pieced together from typewritten letters in the curatorial files, a handful of 19th-century references to the portrait group (the NCMA portraits were first mentioned in 1838!), and the circa 1970 notes of a New York City appraiser.

Another important source of provenance information has been the backs of the portraits … yes, the backs! For instance, the reverse sides of most of the portraits feature the initials of a “T. F. Best,” who has been identified as Thomas Fairfax Best (1786–1849) of Chilston Park, Kent. It was during his ownership that the paintings were given their current frames by the London-based frame maker William Cribb, identified by labels on the backs of the frames as providing a variety of services in addition to framing:

Old Frames Re-gilt, and Glasses Re-polished, and Silvered. / Pictures Cleaned, Lined, and Repaired. / Glasses conveyed to any Part of the Country on Spring Machines / constructed for the sole purpose.

The backs of several of the portrait frames also bear a second label belonging to “Frasers, Depositories & Strong Rooms,” where the portraits were apparently stored in the late 19th century by one of Thomas Fairfax Best’s descendants, a “Mr. [?] Archer.” The precise date and reason for placing these portraits in storage, however, remain a mystery.

I’ll provide updates on this project as I travel to London with Dr. Tania String this summer to investigate the identities of the portrait sitters and artists.

Leah Thomas is a second-year graduate student at UNC–Chapel Hill with a focus on Renaissance portraiture.