Thursday, June 28, 2012

The Saga of Seal and Polar Bear, Part III

Welcome back to my continuing adventures with Seal and Polar Bear!

In my last post, I introduced you to the artist who painted this peculiar scene, Charles Sidney Raleigh. Today I’ll tell you what I’ve learned about the painting itself.

I started my research by consulting the records room in our Collections Management Building, which contains our object files.

One of the many filing cabinets dedicated to our object files.

While perusing the folder for Seal and Polar Bear, I found a reference to a second version of the painting, located at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.
The fact that there were two versions of this peculiar work intrigued me, so I grabbed our library’s copy of the National Gallery’s catalogue of American vernacular painting. 

Law of the Wild, 1881 (image courtesy of the National Gallery, Washington D.C.)

The version at the National Gallery is called Law of the Wild, but it’s the same basic composition, and was executed in 1881, the same year as Seal and Polar Bear. That wasn’t all I learned, however. While reading about Law of the Wild, I saw a reference to a third version of the painting.

Wait, there’s a third version?

According to the catalogue, an image of this third painting is kept in Raleigh’s artist file, which is located at the Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, a microfilm copy of Raleigh’s file can be accessed at the Boston Public Library, and so I took a research trip to look at it.

I hadn’t visited the library before, but its grand, Italianate fa├žade made it easy to find. 

The exterior of the Boston Public Library, designed by architect Charles McKim and completed in 1895.

The interior of the library is as grand as its exterior.

The library is famous for its murals by John Singer Sargent.

After I had explored the library, I settled down with the Raleigh’s microfilm reel, and found two photographs of the painting. 

 The date 1886 had been written on the pictures, which suggested that this version had been painted five years later. Unfortunately, the pictures were small and blurry, so I wasn’t sure whether I was really looking at a third version of the painting, or just a poor, misdated photograph of one of the two known versions.

I found a note mentioning that this third version had last been seen at the Bourne Archives in Massachusetts, which was now part of the Bourne Historical Society. I called and asked whether the Historical Society had a painting called Seal and Polar Bear in its collection.

“Why yes,” the archivist answered, “I’m looking right at it.”

Seal and Polar Bear, 1886 (Image courtesy of the Bourne Historical Society)

The archivist generously sent me pictures, and once I had them, it was easy to see it was a different painting, with very jagged icebergs and a seal whose mouth resembled a beartrap.

I was excited to see this third version, but it raised new questions. Why would Raleigh paint three versions of the same composition, for example, and who was the intended audience? There is a story waiting to be told here, and if I had all the time in the world, I’d tackle it. I had an exhibition to prepare, however, so I needed to put this story on the backburner, for now at least.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of Seal and Polar Bear

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