The Hidden History of Paintings

On Friday, October 21, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art announced a major new acquisition: Mary Cassatt’s Woman Standing, Holding a Fan. Completed in 1879, Cassatt made this painting at a critical point in her career. As a young artist living in Paris, she met and began working with the incomparable Edgar Degas. Their relationship was dynamic, and they worked together nearly every day during this period. Degas challenged Cassatt to experiment with new techniques and subject matter as they both explored their identities as modern artists; he would invite her to exhibit with the Impressionists the very year that our new work was completed.

A painting, however, is never frozen in time; it moves from the artist’s easel through a circuitous path of environments and communities. A work of art’s provenance, or history of ownership, can be fascinating and provides a window into an artist’s evolving reputation, as well as into the history of taste. Charting provenance requires a detective’s mind, finding clues wherever possible. Often times such a clue comes from the back of the painting, where inscriptions or labels on the canvas’ stretcher are traces of its passage through time and space. Such is the case with the museum’s new Cassatt. Written on the stretcher, in bold, black letters, are a single word and a number: VOLLARD 5165.

Vollard Signature Detail

The name references Ambrose Vollard, the Parisian dealer who Cassatt met around 1896. Vollard’s aggressive promotion of modern art attracted Cassatt to his gallery, and by 1904 he was buying work from the artist to present to his clientele. The inscription is the dealer’s inventory number, indicating that sometime after 1904, Vollard purchased Woman Standing, Holding a Fan for his gallery’s stock.

As objects, works of art have many stories to tell, both in what they represent on the canvas and in what might be hidden behind. Woman Standing, Holding a Fan is on view in our gallery, so be sure to visit soon to see our latest addition.