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Mint Exhibition Explores Identity Theft in Art World

November 21, 2009

Exhibition at the Mint Museum of Art centers around American painting with mysterious past

Love a good mystery? A new exhibition at the Mint Museum of Art contains the elements of an art history whodunit—a carefully crafted forgery, a persistent art scholar and a painting thought to be lost for more than 100 years—while taking the viewer behind the scenes of museum life. The exhibition, Identity Theft: How a Cropsey Became a Gifford, is on view November 21, 2009 through March 27, 2010.

Identity Theft centers around one of the Mint’s most important Hudson River School paintings, Indian Summer in the White Mountains by Sanford Robinson Gifford. For more than 50 years and despite questions raised by art scholars, this painting was attributed to Jasper Francis Cropsey and titled Mount Washington from Lake Sebago, Maine, based on Cropsey’s apparently original signature and date in the lower left corner of the painting. Conservation work in 2003 revealed a Gifford signature and a new date beneath Cropsey’s—a find that solved one mystery and uncovered another.

Identity Theft explores the story behind the painting’s authorship and the various processes through which its reattribution was made possible, highlighting typically undisclosed issues, such as connoisseurship, conservation, archival research and the art market. The exhibition will bring together a dozen carefully selected works of art, including three of Cropsey’s known paintings of New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, as well as six of Gifford’s known paintings of the same subject. By displaying paintings of the site by both artists—along with sketchbooks, photographs of the site, and other historical documentation—the Museum will provide its visitors with a thorough look at how it came to reattribute one of the key works in its collection.

The Gifford painting came to the Mint in 1945 when Charlotte resident Elizabeth Boyd placed the recently inherited work on long-term loan. The painting—a pastoral Hudson River School landscape—was signed and dated “Jasper Francis Cropsey, 1871.” At that time, scholarship on American art was still in its infancy, and there was no reason to question the attribution. The painting was subsequently included in the first major retrospective of Cropsey’s work after his death.

In the 1970s, Dr. Ila Weiss, a Gifford scholar, contacted the Mint Museum of Art to voice her suspicions that the Mint’s painting might, in fact, be by Gifford. She argued that not only was the painting’s aesthetic much closer to Gifford’s than to Cropsey’s, but that Gifford had also produced paintings depicting Mount Washington whose compositions were much closer to that of the Mint’s painting than the examples by Cropsey. There even existed an identically-sized canvas of Mount Washington by Gifford that had vanished in the late 19th century.

All signs pointed to the Mint’s painting as being the one that had vanished, but when the area around the signature was examined under blacklight, nothing indicated any overpainting. Thus, despite compelling evidence, the painting remained tenuously attributed to Cropsey.

In 2003 the painting was sent for a routine cleaning and the conservator uncovered a signature just below Cropsey’s—a Gifford signature accompanied by a date. It was decided that the Gifford signature and date should be fully revealed and that the Cropsey signature and date should remain as well, since they did not distract from the painting’s overall aesthetic and had indeed become a fascinating part of its history.

Presented as an historical detective story, this exhibition not only will allow visitors to see how issues such as conservation, provenance and scholarship play out in the museum, but will also give them a sneak peek into the behind the scenes aspects of museum life. By bringing together strong examples of both Cropsey’s and Gifford’s work, this show encourages visitors to carefully study why a painting might be attributed to one artist or another, and ultimately discover how the Mint’s Cropsey “became” a Gifford.

Identity Theft: How a Cropsey Became a Gifford was organized by The Mint Museum. The exhibition is supported in part by the Betty J. and J. Stanley Livingstone Foundation, a grant from the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, the Curator’s Circle for American Art and private donors. For a complete schedule of education programs surrounding this exhibition, visit www.mintmuseum.org.

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