Lost Painting Resurfaces


There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786 depicts Shays’ Rebellion, the 18th-Century uprising of farmers struggling against heavy taxation in western Massachusetts. Artist Jacob Lawrence’s often lengthy captions for panels in the Struggle series feature excerpts from famous speeches as well as reports, letters, and etitions from anonymous soldiers and

20th-Century work depicting Shays&rsquo Rebellion, a post-Revolutionary War uprising of struggling farmers in western Massachusetts, has resurfaced after six decades and is now part of the traveling exhibition Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle, organized by the Peabody Essex Museum.

This is the first museum exhibition to feature the celebrated series of thirty panels comprising Struggle: From the History of the American People, painted from 1954 to 1956 by Lawrence, one of the best-known Black American artists of the 20th Century.

The panels interpret pivotal moments in the American Revolution and the early decades of the republic between 1770 and 1817 and, as Lawrence wrote, “depict the struggles of a people to create a nation and their attempt to build a democracy.”

Panel 16 had been known only by the artist’s title, There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. — Washington, 26 December 1786, because the painting has not been seen since the current owners bought it in 1960 at a local charity art auction.

Last October, a visitor to the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which displayed an empty frame in place of the missing panel, suspected that a Lawrence painting owned by neighbors might belong to the series and encouraged them to contact the museum.

They did, loaning the painting to the Met for the exhibition’s final weeks there and for future venues.

Four other panels remain unlocated, three represented by reproductions and the fourth only by its title.

“It was our fervent hope that the missing panels would somehow surface during the run of American Struggle in New York, the city where Lawrence spent most of his life and where the series was last seen publicly,” said Met curators Randall Griffey and Sylvia Yount. “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.”

The exhibition moves from Birmingham Museum of Art in Alabama to the Seattle Art Museum from February 11 through May 23 then to The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., from June 26 through September 19, 2021.

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