When Jonathan Stuhlman arrived at the Mint Museum of Art in the summer of 2006, he encountered a mystery.
Hanging on a gallery wall was a stunning work, a landscape with a light-filled sky, a mountain and three cows wading in a lake. It was the museum's most important painting by a member of the Hudson River School, a group of 19th-century artists who saw God's hand in America's natural wonders.
The work was attributed to Jasper Francis Cropsey, based on a signature on the painting. Museum officials had learned that was wrong, and that piqued Stuhlman's interest. But what really grabbed the new curator of American art was the file on the painting. Filled with letters and reports, it detailed the effort of one scholar - and the Mint - to penetrate the mystery surrounding who really created it.
All this, he thought, would make a good exhibit: "It's the stuff 'Antiques Roadshow' is made of."
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The show is now up, with paintings, letters, sketchbooks and photographs revealing this artistic whodunit. "It's a chance," Stuhlman says, "to show the public what goes on behind the scenes at a museum."
The painting, bright with autumnal reds and golds, was loaned to the Mint in 1945 by Elizabeth Boyd of Charlotte. After her death, it was given to the museum by her estate.
In 1970, it was loaned to another museum for a national touring exhibit on Cropsey. That's when Ila Weiss heard about it. The New Yorker is an expert on Sanford Robinson Gifford, another Hudson River School painter. Cropsey and Gifford, both born in 1823, had traveled to New England, and had painted similar mountain scenes.
Weiss, relying on her eye and knowledge of Gifford's work, sensed something was wrong.
"I suspect that the Mint Museum's painting may be a Gifford to which Cropsey's signature was affixed at a later date," she wrote the Mint in 1971. Replied Mint curator Mrs. Dayrell Kortheuer, "There is a possibility you may be perfectly right."
It would take 30 years to prove it.
Weiss suggested a closer examination of the painting. The Mint staff over the years examined it with ultraviolet light and infrared photography. Nothing was revealed, but Weiss published her suspicions in a book about Gifford.
Then, in 2003, the work was sent for a routine cleaning to David Goist, an art conservator in Raleigh. He noticed writing below the Cropsey signature. After removing a layer of yellowed varnish, he found a new signature and date - "S.R. Gifford - 1862."
The who in whodunit
The exhibit, which includes paintings by Cropsey and Gifford and an accompanying booklet with an essay by Stuhlman, details what's known of the painting's history.
Elizabeth Boyd, who gave the painting to the Mint, inherited it from her aunt, Minnie Stowe Puett of Belmont. She was a member of a well-known textile family in Gaston County.
Research by Mint intern Sarah Francke showed Puett was a prominent suffragette, and in the early 1900s traveled extensively promoting women's right to vote
On a visit to New York she likely bought the painting. That gave Stuhlman a clue as to why Cropsey's signature was substituted for Gifford's.
The early decades of the 20th century saw a revival of interest in the Hudson River School. Cropsey was better known than Gifford, making his work more valuable. So the change was made to increase the painting's price - and the seller's profit.
That provided the motive. But it doesn't answer a key question - the "who" in this whodunit.
No 'smoking gun'
As the exhibit shows, there's a gap in the painting's whereabouts between the 1860s and the 1940s. Stuhlman hasn't found who owned it or who sold it to Puett.
"We haven't found a journal with a smoking gun - 'I (Minnie Stowe Puett) bought this painting at this dealer on this date,'" says Stuhlman. "The story's still unfolding."
One bit of irony: The painting now is more valuable as a Gifford than as a Cropsey, given the rise in Gifford's reputation.
Stuhlman says that matters less than getting the attribution right. He's pleased, as is Weiss. And he has decided to leave the Cropsey name, visible along with Gifford's on the lower left-hand corner.
"It's become part of the painting's history."