The Green Lady at the Davis Museum

When I was at the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College as the Curatorial Assistant to Dr. Claire Whitner my work was mostly research. On topics from contemporary photography, Goya prints to 19th century prints of actresses, it was my job to find out whatever I could. It was always wonderful to see the hours I spent reading oddball articles being used to create background information for future researchers.

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A 1897 print of English Actress Sarah Bernhardt by William Nicholson. One of my favorite research projects.

Most of these projects were short and completed in the course of day. There were two projects that broke that trend. One was on the World War I work of Kathe Kollwitz, a German Expressionist printmaker and sculptor. The other was a work by Joshua S. Reynolds. It is an image of a woman from the mid to late 18th century.

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The painting in question: Portrait of a Lady by Joshua Reynolds (1963.26.) Most likely made between 1755 and 1775. Credit: The Davis Museum and Cultural Center

 

I spent my final semester there, digging into books and articles trying to establish three main data points: the year it was painted, who the woman was and her provenance. All three were tied up into each other. Sometimes I would stumble upon something that would reveal parts of all three, other times I could only resolve a tiny fragment.

The main problem is that at some point since her sitting, this woman had lost her tie to Reynolds. Being painted by such a super star should have mostly saved her identity, especially as he kept very detailed records of his sitters and their names. Yet, for whatever reason during one of likely many moves, she lost that importance. What we did know for certain was that she had been painted by Reynolds because a conservator at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston had removed the years of yellowing varnish and grime.

After three months of part time research, we were still pretty much stuck. What we needed was to go to London where Reynolds worked, and go through the archives at various museums. What we could uncover was a rough date of when she was painted from her clothing and how the red in her cheek had aged in a particular way. From the entire listing of all of Reynolds’ paintings that numbered over 2000, we had 82 possible identities. Finally, we could establish more clearly how she had ended up at the Davis Museum. 

As a now Wellesley College alum, the most important part of all of this for me was we found out more about the Wellesley College Alum that was attached to the donation of the work. Virginia Middleton Maloney Lawrence was class of 1964, and still lives in Boston today. The work was donated in 1963, when likely she was engaged to the son of the donor. The work was given to the Davis Museum in honor of her by  James Lawrence, Jr. It had been held in the Lawrence/Brandegee family since the early 20th century, purchased on a honeymoon in Rome.

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The Brandegee Estate where this painting most likely hung for more than 55 years. Credit: Digital Commonwealth from Massachusetts Collections Online

All of this was great progress from where we had started: a painting once called The Green Lady. Now her beauty is truly visible, we understand the connection to the museum and have a lead to when she was painted.

What caused me to write this was a sadness that I wasn’t at Wellesley to see the presentation made on Friday. I can’t be there to see what else they have learned, to see the excitement of people seeing the painting. While I know her history is more secure and more established, I can’t be part of her future.

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