Lost Duveneck Masterpiece Found
Frank Duveneck's painting, titled Yacht Harbor, was exhibited in the 1904 World’s Fair. The artwork’s location went cold 25 years ago, until 2020 when a solo investigation pieced together a trail of clues and shined new light on its disappearance.
The Saint Louis Public Schools acknowledged in 2020 that they had lost an important 20th century painting. It was obvious that school district officials were worried — and maybe more than a little embarrassed — because, until this year, no one currently inside the Saint Louis Public Schools knew it existed.
Let’s back up 118 years.
In 1902, a local chapter of the Society of Western Artists appointed a civic committee to buy six paintings for the St. Louis Board of Education for purposes of educating and inspiring their school community. By public subscription, $790 was raised for the purchase. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch conducted a voting contest among school children, who selected the schools to be recipients of the gifts. The Riddick School, with the most votes, received the best and most expensive picture, Yacht Harbor, painted by Frank Duveneck. Yacht Harbor was purchased for $300.
Today, the painting is estimated to be worth between $100,000 and $200,000.
Renowned as a painter, sculptor and etcher, Frank Duveneck was one of America’s important art instructors during the first two decades of the 20th century. Since the beginning of the realism artistic movement, over 160 years ago, there have been few artists as talented as Frank Duveneck. John Singer Sargent called Duveneck “the greatest brush of his generation”. Duveneck helped usher out the Hudson School style of painting, in favor of a more liberal, singular stroke.
Frank Duveneck chose, after the sudden passing of his wife from pneumonia in 1888, a life of teaching, returning from the landscapes and visual opulence of Italy to the home comforts of his river town birthplace in Covington, KY, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.
But, by then, his name and impact were already indelibly inscribed on the art world. So much so that in 1915, he was recognized with a special gold Medal of Honor for his “distinguished contribution to American art” at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.
News travelled swiftly in 1919 of his passing due to lung cancer. In the years remaining just prior to his death, he bought back many of his paintings, sculptures, etchings and drawings from the public, then donated them to the Cincinnati Art Museum, working to fill their gallery walls at the time. Today, Duveneck's work can be seen in museums all over the world, including Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, The Met in New York City, and the British Museum in London. Largely an overlooked hero today, his contributions as an artist and teacher still indirectly influence millions.
Duveneck's artistic style in his later years reflected a new style, highly influenced by Impressionism. The canvases were largely plein air landscapes. The paintings are colorful and vibrant.
Painted in the beginning of the 20th century on the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts, Yacht Harbor was considered by many to be one of Duveneck's best paintings. The Encyclopedia Americana listed Yacht Harbor as one of a half dozen of Duveneck’s most remarkable works.
The painting was described in 1904:
"In the foreground, on an expanse of blue water reflecting a luminous sky, several yachts ride at anchor. Beyond, along the gently rising short, the scattered houses of a village are seen, half hidden among the trees. the water is limpid, full of rippling movement, and there is a feeling of atmosphere in the picture, which is admirable in composition and charming in color."
Two years after the painting was acquired by the St. Louis Public Schools, it went on display in The Palace of Arts building at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The other Duveneck painting on display at the Exposition, titled Duveneck’s Mother, now hangs at Northern Kentucky University’s Steele Library in Highland Heights, KY.
Dusting off the Dead
In 1936, seventeen years after Duveneck's death, Cincinnati Art Museum approached the St. Louis Board of Education to express their interest in borrowing the painting for a retrospective show, titled "Exhibition of the Work of Frank Duveneck". By this time, Yacht Harbor, now retired from the spotlight, hung in an unassuming corner of a corridor at Riddick School, covered with dust. On learning of the painting’s importance, the school principal, Miss Jennie Kenefick took it down from the wall in Riddick School and lent it for the exhibition. Once it returned, the painting was moved to a vault in the Board of Education Building in downtown St. Louis.
But, soon after, on September 29,1937, the painting was loaned for an indefinite time to City Art Museum, now St. Louis Art Museum. Not only did the painting return to the building it left in 1904, it was well documented and cared for, with conservation efforts carried out by Clements L. Robertson, staff member of SLAM, in 1968. It even came out in 1982 for an exhibition titled, “Impressionism Reflected: American Art, 1890 – 1920”. But mostly it stayed in museum storage.
But that changed in 1995, when the St. Louis Public Schools, at the urging of David Mahan, Superintendent at the time, requested the return of the painting.
An art collector himself, Mahan wanted the painting back in the school district’s possession and was instrumental in its return.
Even as the painting was being delivered to the school district’s Archives and Records building on September 27, 1995, a letter to Mahan from SLAM requesting SLPS donate the painting to the Museum went unanswered.
To find out what had happened to the painting after it was returned in 1995, I reached out in July 2020 to the current Superintendent, Dr. Kelvin Adams. He wasn’t familiar with the painting, nor was he optimistic it would be found. The Board president, Dorothy Rohde-Collins, wasn’t familiar with it either. Nor was Louis Kruger, formerly in charge of the collection. His response to my inquiry: “I am sorry to say at this juncture the SLPS would not have knowledge of the whereabouts of the Frank Duveneck painting you describe and of which you provided a photograph.”
The photograph he mentioned was a black and white image, taken by SLAM at some point during their possession of the painting. They sent it to me during my search efforts. No color photo of the painting was ever published or known to exist.
David Mahan, the Superintendent who requested the painting be returned, had passed away in 2016. I was afraid I was nearing the end of my search.
But, finally, some traction.
The school district’s former archivist remembered seeing the painting up until she retired in 2009. This was the same individual who received the painting back from SLAM at the request of Mahan in 1995.
According to the former archivist, the painting came to hang in the main corridor of the Records Center/Archives building, formerly Gratiot School, just one mile from the museum, and did so for over a decade. It was hung “high enough, out of harm’s way, needing a ladder to clearly observe it, or even touch it.”
But the building was sold in 2015 to a private developer and is now luxury apartments.
The St. Louis Public Schools hit its lowest enrollment of just over 23,500 students in 2011. The district systematically closed schools and began selling many of the historic buildings in order to shrink its size to match the declining enrollment. State leaders took over SLPS in 2007 as the district was hemorrhaging money and the local school board was crippled by politicking and infighting. In addition to selling off properties, the school district made staffing reductions and outsourced certain services.
The Gratiot School building, during this time, was also known as the Records Center/Archives. Since 1993 it was used to hold and secure the school district’s records and archives. But, in 2010, unable to properly house or even manage the school district’s records and archives anymore after the state took over leadership, the district approved an MOU, or Memorandum of Understanding with the Missouri Historical Society and Missouri History Museum to turn over specific contents of archives and records to the Museum and Historical Society.
But the painting was not among the 5 artworks donated to MHM. SLAM did not receive the painting either. Nothing else was deaccessioned or donated or sold in 2016. There would’ve been processes and documentation for that.
Eventually the school district needed to move the records and archives collection to a different location in order to clear out the building, until the archives and records could be transitioned over to MHM and other facilities.
The interim location chosen had no central air conditioning, a few failing window units, and was sweltering in the Summer. Ostensibly secured.
Had the painting even made it there? The last time the former archivist had seen the painting was in January 2009, when she retired from SLPS.
I was looking for any evidence that could tighten the window of time when the painting was last seen.
I spoke with a Missouri History Museum employee, now curator, in charge of then documenting some of the SLPS collection at the interim building in 2016. It took some time to dig in his files, but eventually, he found, then emailed me, a color photo he took of the Duveneck painting in 2016.
The photo, taken at the interim location, shows the once magnificent painting, now encased in a lack-luster frame, resting on the floor, leaning against another painting, both leaning against a wall; a far cry from the prominent placement on the wall of the Palace of Arts in 1904 where a Monet now hangs.
Adding injury to insult, there is visible in the photo a small tear just above Duveneck’s signature in the bottom right of the painting, likely a casualty of the move from the Gratiot School building to the interim building.
But, most importantly, this photo was proof that the painting had indeed made its way to the interim storage building in 2016. This single photo now proved to the leadership at St. Louis Public Schools that the painting was still likely in their possession and gave a time stamp to its location just 4 years ago; much better than the trail that had gone cold 25 years ago.
New Evidence In Hand
With this new evidence forwarded to the SLPS, Dr. Adams agreed to conduct a more thorough search of the interim building, as well as the headquarters in downtown St. Louis, to look a second time for the painting.
On September 16, 2020, I received an email from Dr. Adams:
The picture has been located and is presently in my office. Thank you very much for your persistence and making us aware of this work of art. We will determine next steps and keep you informed. Thank you again!!! Please reach out if you are interested in seeing it."
The Yacht Harbor Recovered
On September 21, I drove to downtown St. Louis where SLPS is headquartered. I entered the building, got my temperature checked (for Covid), went through the metal detector, then sat on a lobby bench, waiting for what seemed like an eternity (only about 5 minutes) to meet Dr. Adams in person and to see the Duveneck painting.
His assistant met me in the lobby and brought me up to the second floor, where I sat and waited less than a minute before being greeted by Dr. Adams. We elbow bumped, what's come to become a Covid-era greeting. I followed him around the corner into a large meeting room, where I was met by Yacht Harbor, resting on the floor away from any possible foot traffic. To be in its presence was electric.
I was assured that the meeting room is not being used for meetings right now and that it's securely locked. I also noted the temperature of the room was conducive to a painting. This is silly to note in a building that's occupied with people. But it's a far cry from the conditions the painting existed in for the last 4 years.
Aside from the small tear above the signature, the painting appears to be in relatively good shape. It definitely requires a good cleaning and some conservation efforts. But, all in all, I believe the painting's worst days are behind it.
During our meeting, Dr. Adams mentioned he plans to loan the painting to a local museum. I initially grew concerned that the painting might stay within SLPS walls, once again out of public view, possibly damaged further or even lost again. But I was reassured the painting will be restored, conserved and made available to the public once again.