The Wolfsonian's collection is, among other things, a trove of mysteries. Although we have trustworthy information about the great majority of items we hold—information about who made them, where, and when—that still leaves thousands of pieces that came into the collection without thorough documentation.
What this means is that anyone who does research here, from curators to graduate student workers, needs to be a skilled detective, knowing which hunches to follow and where to track down information. Sometimes the missing piece comes from an old book, exhibition catalogue, or newspaper article, sometimes from a living expert—an artist's granddaughter, a curator, a historian, or an avid collector. Remarkably often, we get results, records are updated, and (literal or metaphorical) high-fives are exchanged. Still, many mysteries remain unsolved. In the spirit of inviting blog readers into our research process, we are starting a series about unsolved mysteries in our collection.
Mural study, c. 1941 Alois Fabry, Jr. (American, 1912–1986), artist Tempera and gesso on canvas The Wolfsonian–FIU, The Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection, 188.8.131.52
The Wolfsonian has dozens of studies for murals that artists submitted to competitions for public art in post offices and other federal buildings during the New Deal era. Among these are four that a dealer indicated were made by artist Alois Fabry, Jr., for the New Rochelle, NY, post office competition. It seems likely that three of these were indeed meant for that post office (though Fabry did not get the commission). But in doing some research to prepare for a 2008 exhibition about the New Deal, I discovered that the fourth study didn't fit.
This misfit study, pictured above, consists of vignettes from early America illustrating the "Four Freedoms" proclaimed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in an early 1941 speech. A close look reveals pretty quickly that this work was not meant for New Rochelle—it almost certainly relates to Springfield, Massachusetts. Three of the four scenes connect directly to the city: dissident Puritan William Pynchon (far left) purchased land from the Pocomtuc Indians where Springfield was later established; abolitionist John Brown (second from right) lived in Springfield during the 1840s; and the manufacture of rifles (far right) at the Springfield Armory equipped the Union Army during the Civil War. I am not sure how the "Freedom of Expression" scene relates to Springfield, though it could be a depiction of Massachusetts education reformer Horace Mann.
Once the connection to Springfield was made, it seemed like it would be easy to figure out what commission this study was intended for. There was one major New Deal mural commission in Springfield, a series of separate paintings about the history of the region by artist Umberto Romano (American, b. Italy, 1906–1982) for the Main Post Office in the city. Perhaps Fabry painted his study with this commission in mind? The timing makes it unlikely. Romano completed his murals in 1937, before the concept of "Four Freedoms" was in wide circulation. A researcher we hired for the New Deal exhibition went through files at the National Archives and Archives of American Art but turned up no information about this work. Inquiries to the Massachusetts Historical Society and Connecticut Valley Historical Society also led nowhere.
I am pretty confident, still, that Fabry intended this work as a study for a mural in a location in or near Springfield. But that's where the trail runs cold. If any readers have clues, hunches, or relevant knowledge, please get in touch!
– Jon Mogul, associate director of research, education + grants