Carl Van Vechten, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

October 21, 2020; New York Times

A long-lost painting by celebrated African American Modernist artist Jacob Lawrence was located after a visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle” realized one missing panel of 30 entitled “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” might have, for the last sixty years, been hanging on the wall of a couple she knew.

The panel, “Here are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786,” was one element of Jacob’s re-envisioning of US history, highlighting the roles of Black people, Native Americans, and women in building the country’s democracy. As such, its importance to the world at this historical moment cannot be overstated.

The couple in possession of the painting, had, it turns out, become suspicious that the painting might belong in the series when they read about the exhibition when it visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts, so when their friend suggested the neighbors contact the museum, they did so. The couple had bought the piece at a charity auction 60 years ago.

This is the second of six missing panels to surface in the past three years. Yesterday, the missing panel joined the rest of the exhibition at the Met, and from there it will continue on the show’s national tour.

The Met’s director, Max Hollein, said in a statement, “It is rare to make a discovery of this significance in modern art, and it is thrilling that a local visitor is responsible.” Randall Griffey, the co-curator of the Met’s presentation (with Sylvia Yount), describes the work:

“It’s a group of blue-coats—new American officials—in an obvious confrontation with hardscrabble farmers, which is what the Shays’ Rebellion is about,” said Mr. Griffey, adding that the angular, Cubist composition and palette with earthen skin tones are the hallmarks of the series. The Met’s modern paintings conservator, Isabelle Duvernois, who has worked intimately with Lawrence’s works in the exhibition, paid a visit to the couple’s apartment to give her own appraisal and guarantee that the painting was in condition for exhibition and travel.

The series, “Struggle: From the History of the American People,” was painted between “1954 to 1956 in the midst of the civil rights movement and there is some poetic balance in the missing panels being rediscovered now. Four panels remain missing, but curators are hopeful they might turn up as the exhibition continues its tour.—Ruth McCambridge