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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Time Machines and Lost, Altered, and Destroyed Artworks

Working in a photograph archive is often like having access to a time machine. I sometimes feel like the wide-eyed Marty McFly running around learning about the past.  Photographs are excellent sources of historical visual documentation, which link the past to the present.  I am especially drawn to photographs that are documentary evidence of how people, places, and things have changed over time. 

When studying an art work, historians and conservators look for documentation of the work’s past, including its provenance and exhibition history. They also use photograph archives to find historical visual documentation of the work.  Sometimes what they find is something different than the art work they know.

Scholars have often used the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Peter A. Juley & Son Collection to find such documentation.  Many of the collection’s 127,000 photographs (ca. 1896-1975)  have enlightened and informed art historical research over the years.

For example:

Three Riders of New Mexico

This 1919 portrait by American artist Ernest Leonard Blumenschein (1874-1960) was cut in half and given to the two adult females featured in the painting after they supposedly had an argument about the little girl’s expression.  To this day only the left side of the actual painting exists, while the other half is believed to have been destroyed. 
The Blumenschein was physically altered and then lost in part, but another example of an altered painting is one that was intentionally repainted by the artist.  This photograph ca. 1930 documents John Sloan’s painting, “McSorley’s Saturday Night” in its second state before it was reworked by the artist in 1948. When compared to later photos of the painting, the Juley photograph provides insight into the artist’s original and changing intentions. 
In many cases the Juley photographs provide visual evidence of works that no longer exist. This Edward Hopper painting, “Corn Belt City” (1947), which was never reproduced and only exhibited a few times, was destroyed in a fire in the mid-1970s. The Juley photograph is the only known visual documentation of the painting. 

So hop in the time machine and view more photographs from the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection on our digitized collections page,  Flickr Commons set, or search online.

To read more about the history of the collection, visit our website.

Emily Moazami, Photograph Archivist, Research and Scholars Center, Smithsonian American Art Museum

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