I spent a fair part of the day today talking with a conservator about evaluating and treating the two paintings that my cousin Carole McMurry let me borrow for a year to research and conserve (introduced in parts one, two and three of this series). It’s usually quite an enriching experience talking with a conservator, and today was no exception. In just a few short hours I learned several key facts about the two paintings:
- The paintings had almost certainly never been rolled to make them easier to transport;
- The paintings were almost certainly not restretched onto their current stretcher bars;
- The canvases were almost certainly bought already stretched and primed (rather than being stretched and primed by the artist);
- The paintings were almost certainly painted while the canvases were on their current stretcher bars;
- The paintings appear more consistent with having been painted in the 1880s than in the 1860s to mid-1870s, as I had expected;
- The style of the paintings was described as American Folk, but a sophisticated type of American Folk that indicates the painter may have received formal training at some point.
These observations about the paintings, when combined with the fact that the woman alleged to have painted them—Elizabeth Miller McMurry—died in 1876, bring into question the true identity of the painter.
In part one and part two of this post, I introduced and discussed a trio of oil paintings that I had last seen back in the 1990s. These paintings were reportedly done by my great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Miller McMurry, who died near Carlisle, Arkansas, on February 6, 1876, when she was only 47 years old. I was told by my first cousin twice removed, Art McMurry, the owner of the paintings at that time, that they were painted by Elizabeth while she and her husband were traveling west by wagon. If that were indeed the case, then these canvases would have been painted at some point between Elizabeth and Luke’s marriage in 1851 and Elizabeth’s death in 1876.
Last month I traveled to Olympia, Washington, to see my father and do some family history research. Thanks to the help of my cousin Crystal (Art’s great-granddaughter), a fellow family historian, I was able to locate and visit two of the three paintings. These two—the pastoral scene and the still life with flowers—were in the home of Crystal’s grandmother Carole (Art’s daughter). The last time I had viewed the paintings, the rain had prevented me from being able to take good photos of the paintings. For the five days I had been in Washington before meeting with Crystal and Carole, the weather had been mild and clear. On the day I was to meet Crystal and drive out to her grandmother’s house, the sky opened up and we had torrential rain as well as thunder and lightening; even the locals were surprised by the volume of the downpour.
Around 1990, when both my grandmother, Dorothy Ruth (McMurry) Black (1917–1997), and her first cousin, Arthur “Art” Edgar McMurry (1915–2001), were still alive, I paid a visit to Art out at his home on Black Lake, outside of Olympia, Washington. Art had become the caretaker of the McMurry family heirlooms, and in addition to the photos and artifacts he possessed, he had a prodigious memory for family history.
Art pointed out three old paintings he had on the walls of his house and told me that they were painted by Elizabeth Miller McMurry (1828–1876), his great-grandmother and my 3rd-great-grandmother. Previous to this, I hadn’t heard anything about Elizabeth being a painter. Her three paintings were amazing. They all appeared to have been painted with oils on canvas and then coated in varnish. Each of the paintings had been framed in ornate, gilt wooden frames. The frame of one painting had three areas of modest damage, and the canvas of that same painting was punctured and torn—apparently from having fallen on a dining room chair at some point. The other two paintings and frames were in better shape.