Last fall, a Manhattan nurse and her 20-year-old son headed down to the Metropolitan Museum of Art via motorbike. Their purpose, however, was not to drink in the two million works of art that the Met has in its possession. Instead, they were on a mission to get someone’s—or anyone’s—attention.
Three days prior to their cross-town trip, the nurse in question had heard about the discovery of a long-lost Jacob Lawrence painting. The work was part of a series on view at the Met, and had been discovered just a few short blocks away from where she herself lived. Lawrence’s name sounded familiar. A painting in her own home had a difficult-to-read signature by the same name, as well as a 1996 article on Lawrence—who is one of the most prominent Black artists of the 20th century—taped on the back. After a quick Google search, her son found an image of their painting, which had been given to his mother by her mother-in-law, his grandmother.
Speaking to the New York Times this week, the nurse recounted their subsequent trip to the Met: “I grabbed a young kid at the information desk in the lobby and said, ‘Listen, nobody calls me back. I have this painting. Who do I need to talk to?’” Flash forward to that night, and two curators and a conservator were heading up to her apartment to take a look at the work. The painting was indeed the real deal, and an important part of Lawrence’s seminal series. Now, it’s set to go on view later this week at the Seattle Art Museum, where “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” has traveled.
The reason for the delay in exhibition is due largely to conservation treatments that the painting required. That process, however, yielded its own fair share of further discoveries. Once unframed, a title in Lawrence’s own handwriting—The Emigrants — 1821-1830 (106,308)—made itself apparent. The nurse’s son also pointed out that what had previously been described as a prayer book was in fact a pot with the red rose of the United States. A baby featured in the work could be considered a new discovery, too, as it had not been clearly visible in the surviving black and white photograph of the work.
For those intrigued by this story—as well as Lawrence’s awe-inspiring paintings—there’s a chance that further chapters are still in store. After all, three additional panels from this very series are still considered missing. “Oh, we’re totally going to find them!” curator Lydia Gordon told the Times. And now, thanks to the establishment of a new email address ([email protected]), reporting their whereabouts might be a little bit less difficult.