In an October packed with surprises, at least one was good. A visitor to the exhibition “Jacob Lawrence: The American Struggle,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came away suspecting that one of five paintings long missing from the series, which documents the nation’s turbulent birth in thirty twelve-by-sixteen-inch panels, was just across Central Park, hanging in her neighbor’s living room. How did she know? No image of the painting existed. The two women have lived in the same Upper West Side building for going on sixty years. Pop-in privileges are reciprocal; the museum visitor had seen her neighbor’s painting hundreds of times. At her nudging, the owner made contact with the museum’s curators. A week later, the painting—speedily authenticated—was on the Met’s wall, reunited with its brethren.
“I’m not a collector,” the painting’s owner said the other day, over the phone. “I’m just a person, and I love pictures.” The widespread excitement at the painting’s discovery was gratifying, but the publicity had startled her. “I’m hoping that my anonymity will be respected and that I can go back to Citarella and Fairway and my normal life.”
She and her husband bought the Lawrence in 1960, when she was twenty-seven. “I had a two-year-old and a three-year-old, and I wanted them to have rhythm classes, so I went to a music school. And when I entered the lobby there was a woman hanging pictures. She said to me, ‘You have an honest face. Will you watch my pictures?’ ” The woman’s husband, Mac Fagelson, worked for the Julius Lowy framing company. (“Very prestigious.”) The couple was holding an auction to provide music lessons for children in need. The Lawrence was one of the items for sale, and the young mother bought it, for around a hundred dollars. “It led to a twenty-five-year friendship,” she said.
Fagelson went on to give the painting’s owner a philosophy of art buying. “He said to me, ‘When you buy a picture, there are two things you must consider. One is can you afford it, and two is do you love it. Only time will tell who becomes famous and who is obsolete. So do not concern yourself with those issues.’ ” The Lawrence picture had checked both boxes. “I recognized the content immediately,” she said. “I knew it was the American Revolution.” (Actually, the painting, which features blue-coated soldiers pointing bayonets at a band of grimacing men, depicts Shay’s Rebellion, an uprising of Massachusetts farmers that took place in the newly independent United States.) “I loved it the minute I saw it. My husband agreed. He has a very good eye. The price was nominal. The colors were vivid. The style was different from anything I had seen. We knew who Jacob Lawrence was, but we never invested a lot of importance in it.”
Lawrence made his “Struggle” series between 1954 and 1956, while he taught at the Pratt Institute. Its subject matter spans the nation’s early decades, beginning with Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” speech and continuing through the drafting of the Constitution, the War of 1812, and westward expansion, highlighting the agonies of slavery and the experiences of Native Americans. The discovered painting, the sixteenth in the series, is titled “There are combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to. —Washington, 26 December 1786.” The line is from a letter sent by the soon-to-be President, warning of internal threats faced by the young country. The series was split up and sold, against Lawrence’s wishes, and had never been displayed together in a museum before.
The painting’s owner had begun to suspect that her picture might be newsworthy earlier this year, after she read a Wall Street Journal article about the show’s première, at the Peabody Essex Museum, in Massachusetts. But she was about to leave on a trip to Florida. “I thought, I cannot deal with this,” she said. “There will probably be other opportunities.” After her neighbor urged her to take action, she said, “I put it in a pillowcase, wrapped it in a lot of bubble wrap, went to my granddaughter’s apartment, hung it on the wall, and said, ‘Call me if you need me.’ ” (Covid concerns made her eager to avoid a curator’s visit.)
The other day, the painting’s owner and her husband were invited to visit the exhibition, privately, before the Met opened. (The painting has since left the museum, and will travel to Birmingham, Seattle, and Washington, D.C.) As an homage to Lawrence’s distinctive palette, she wore a royal-blue jacket and a new blue checked scarf. “I usually like earth tones,” she said. “So it was, as they say, bashert.” The painting was still in the gold-leaf frame that Fagelson had chosen. “It doesn’t just belong to me,” she said. “It belongs to the artist. I’m just part of the story.” ♦