Identity Theft - How a Cropsey Became a Gifford

Tales from the Museum

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Docents at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, NC enjoy sharing a painting with two signatures, a plaque giving artist attribution and wall text that explains how a museum mystery was solved.

Sanford Robinson Gifford and Jasper Francis Cropsey are familiar names among Hudson River School painters. These artists and their contemporaries painted the scenery along the river in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic region in the mid to late 19th century. The painters shared a quality in their work that was later termed Luminism to describe their focus on light and atmosphere. They painted the same subject matter and often had similar elements of composition. It can be difficult for the untrained eye to tell the difference between the painters in some cases and, as the Mint's story goes, it was difficult for the professional eye as well.

To make a long story (the subject of entire exhibition) short, in 1945 the museum was loaned a painting attributed to Jasper Cropsey. The work was signed and dated 1871 but little else was known, including the exact title.

In 1969 the painting was included in a Cropsey retrospective at The National Collection of Fine Arts (now known as the Smithsonian American Art Museum). The exhibition was organized by William Talbot who suggested the title Mount Washington from Lake Sebago, Maine. The exhibit prompted Ila Weiss, a Gifford scholar to write to the Mint expressing her conviction that the painting was a missing work by Sanford Gifford and requesting that the museum use ultraviolet light and infrared photography to look for overpainting. No evidence supporting her claim was found.

The painting went on to be included – as a Cropsey - in exhibitions at the National Gallery in 1978 and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1988. Weiss continued correspondence with the Mint in between.

In 2003, the painting was sent to a conservator for minor repair work. Upon removing the yellowed top layer of varnish a second signature and date were found. S.R. Gifford 1862 was revealed and the long lost Indian Summer in the White Mountains was found! Dr Jonathan Stuhlman, Senior Curator of American, Modern and Contemporary Art at the Mint says that more detective work is needed to determine what happened to the painting between 1862 and 1945. Perhaps then docents will also be able to share how a Gifford became a Cropsey.

Image: Sanford Robinson Gifford. Indian Summer in the White Mountains, 1862, oil on canvas. Bequest of Miss Elizabeth Boyd. 1945.3. Collection of The Mint Museum, Charlotte, North Carolina.