Every work of art has a biography: the story of its creation, the particulars of its first sale, the places it has been displayed, the people who’ve owned it, the glories it’s seen, the depredations it’s suffered.
We call this timeline a provenance, and the twists of fate befalling a particular painting are, to some, as rich as the very pigment on the canvas. Some paintings, however, refuse to divulge the complete stories of their lives.
And that is why Sean West contacted Answer Man.
It was in the late 1970s that Sean, who lives in Falls Church, first saw the large painting in the handsome gilded frame. It was in the house of a friend who lived on Potomac Avenue NW, not far from Sibley Memorial Hospital. Four expertly painted, rosy-cheeked faces stared out incongruously from a crude sea of yellow. Someone had brushed yellow paint over a master’s work, leaving only the quartet of faces visible.
A few years later, Sean’s friend — a man named Gene Pilcher — asked Sean whether he wanted to buy the painting. Sean did. He paid $500 for it.
By then, the yellow paint had been mostly removed, revealing what was obviously some sort of public service announcement. A bare-shouldered woman protects three children from a speeding locomotive. Painted words exhort: “America Warns You! Drivers, cross crossings cautiously.”
After the painting got a much-needed cleaning, Sean saw that it was signed “Howard Chandler Christy.”
Christy (1873-1952) was part of the golden age of American illustration. He first made his mark by illustrating stories for such periodicals as Scribner’s and Century magazines. He was especially adept at painting women. While Charles Dana Gibson was known for his Gibson Girl — the ideal of American pulchritude, circa 1900 — Christy was known for the Christy Girl: a lusher, more sensuous, and often more naked, female. (Christy painted the nymph murals in New York City’s Cafe des Artistes.)
Sean was able to learn that his painting was done by Christy in 1935 as a commission for the Association of American Railroads, a Washington-based trade group, which distributed a poster version as part of a safety campaign. But where was it between when it was painted and when Sean bought it?
“I have been searching off and on to find out where it was for 50 years,” he said.
Sean has exhibited the painting periodically, including at Union Station in 1998 to mark the 125th anniversary of Christy’s birth and at Distinctive Bookbinding and Leather Design near Dupont Circle in 2008. Along the way, he met Jim Head, a Tysons Corner lawyer who became smitten with American illustrators after absentmindedly pulling a book of Gibson drawings from a library shelf at college.
Jim is working on a biography of Christy and was able to fill in some details. The woman in the railroad painting is Elise Ford, one of Christy’s favorite models and the mother of his out-of-wedlock daughter. (In time-honored bohemian fashion, Christy met both his wives when they modeled for him. Another fun fact: He was a judge for the first four Miss America pageants.)
Although Christy worked mainly in New York City and at a studio on his estate overlooking Ohio’s Muskingum River, he traveled to Washington frequently, especially after turning primarily to portraits. Six Christy portraits hang in the U.S. Capitol, as does his depiction of the signing of the Constitution. There are three Christys in the White House. His “Three Bathers” is at the Old Ebbitt Grill in the District. An Amelia Earhart by Christy is at the Portrait Gallery.
Jim doesn’t know why so much of the railroad painting’s provenance is blank. Back then, original art created for illustrations wasn’t considered very valuable, he told Answer Man. “The value was in the reproduction rights,” he said. “A lot of works that Christy did were burned in a bonfire. Some were used to patch the chicken coop on his house.”
For now, Sean’s painting hangs in Jim’s office. “He needed a place to store it,” Jim said. “I was having a writer’s block working on the chapter on Elise Ford. Once that painting arrived, pretty miraculously my writer’s block went away.”
Both men are curious about the painting’s past. Sean isn’t sure how his friend Gene got it. “I think somebody owed him money and left it with him,” he said. And he doesn’t know where Gene is now. He heard that Gene had moved to Alaska.
So now the mystery is in your hands, readers. Does anyone remember seeing this painting hanging somewhere? E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.