Hidden painting discovered at Sheldon

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September 28th, 2011

Omaha, NE – There’s been an interesting discovery at the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln: a hidden painting etched beneath a famous work.

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“Well, the story begins early this year when we used the painting Walt Kuhn’s Apples in a Wooden Boat for an exhibition on still life,” explained Brandon Ruud, the Curator of Transnational American Art at the Sheldon.

As the Sheldon museum staff prepared to exhibit the work by Walt Kuhn – an American painter from the early decades of the 20th century – they took it to Omaha for some routine conservation.

Walt Kuhn's still life, Apples in a Wooden Bowl, appears to have been painted over a landscape. (Image courtesy Sheldon Art Museum)

“And on the back of the painting, there was an inscription that said Young Pines Among Rocks,” Ruud said. “And this of course was a mystery, because we thought why is Apples in a Wooden Boat, this still life, why does it have the title of a landscape painting on the back?”

As they looked further, Ruud said, they saw faint outlines of another painting hidden beneath Kuhn’s famous work. They then discovered Kuhn had painted a landscape with that title and those exact dimensions nine years earlier.

“Then, exploring this further, we discovered that Young Pines Among Rocks… went undiscovered and unrecorded,” he said. “Kuhn kept meticulous records on everything that he painted, including who he sold it to, the origins of it, any exhibition records. There was (sic) no exhibition records, there was no information, no history of Young Pines Among Rocks.”

The Sheldon then asked for assistance from Bryan LGH Medical Center to X-ray Kuhn’s painting, and they discovered their hunch was correct. Ruud said it’s not that uncommon for artists to paint over an old painting. And he can only speculate as to why Kuhn decided to cover his work up so mysteriously, but he said it likely has to do with the failure of the landscape to attract much interest.

“Kuhn was kind of thinking about his legacy, how he was going to be thought of and placed in the art world,” Ruud said. “And he may have felt that well, my reputation rests with my still life… so I’m going to re-use this canvas, I’m going to erase the fact that there was any landscape here, and turn this into a still life.”

And, he added, “perhaps a little bit tongue in cheek, he wanted to leave us with a mystery.”

Ruud didn’t say the newly discovered painting adds significant monetary value to the work. But he said it makes it tremendously valuable in terms of insight and understanding into Kuhn as an artist.

The Sheldon will hold an exhibit devoted to this painting – with both the painting and the X-ray on display – opening on October 7th in Lincoln.

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