By Emily Gold Boutilier
William Blake’s The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter (ca. 1799-1800) holds an unusual appeal for scholars, says Barker. The tempera is a gift of Dr. Henry deForest Webster ’48.
On his birthday in 1962, Henry deForest Webster ’48 received an unusual gift: a small tempera painting, well over a century old. The gift was from Webster’s mother, who’d inherited it from her second husband, Webster’s stepfather, who’d received it from his own father, William Augustus White, a prominent art collector.
For decades, Webster kept this 10-inch-by-15-inch painting on a wall near the kitchen door of his Bethesda, Md., home. It hung in his house as he built his career at the National Institutes of Health, which he joined as a young neurologist in 1968. It hung there as he and his wife, Marion, raised their daughter and four sons. When the couple sold their house and moved to an apartment, the painting came, too.
The painting is The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter, by the poet, painter and printmaker William Blake, a towering figure, unappreciated in his lifetime, whose artwork is today concentrated in a very small number of repositories, among them the Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Very few American museums own even a single Blake painting. (More common is to see his engravings in U.S. museums.)
The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter is part of a commission that Blake received in 1799 to paint a series of 50 biblical scenes. This painting tells the story of a mother and father who seek out Jesus to heal their sick daughter, only to learn they are too late—that the girl has already died. Yet when Christ arrives at the girl’s bedside, takes her by the hand and asks her to rise, she does so. The painting shows Christ extending one arm over the girl and raising her gently with the other as her parents lean toward her in amazement. On the left, three apostles witness the miracle.
This painting was the most important work of art in Webster’s home. But more than that, it was a gift from his mother. It “houses a family history,” as one observer notes. About a year ago, feeling his age and with his wife in declining health, the neurologist and successful amateur photographer decided it was time for the Blake to find a new home.
Elizabeth Barker, director and chief curator of Amherst’s Mead Art Museum, checked her phone on April 6, 2011, as she walked between meetings on campus. She had a message from John Urschel, director of gift planning in the college’s advancement office. Urschel had taken a call from Webster about a prized work of art. “I was so excited to hear it was a Blake,” Barker says, “that I felt faint.”
Mead Director Elizabeth Barker “felt faint” when she first learned about the William Blake painting.
Unfamiliar with The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter, she ran to her office, eager to look it up. What she found—and didn’t find—excited her further. There was no clear image of the painting online or on her bookshelves, indicating that there was little published scholarship about it. (It is listed, telephone-directory style, in a catalogue of the artist’s works, but it has never been singled out for interpretation or reproduced in color, Barker says.) As she learned, the painting is part of a series for which Blake used a new tempera paint he’d invented. He hoped the paint would replicate the qualities he liked best in watercolor. But over the years, the layers of glues had degraded, leaving the surviving works fragile and, in many cases, darkened and cracked. “I sat outside on a low stone wall—it was a sunny day—talking to John on my BlackBerry about this painting, telling him that we needed to make every effort to try to bring it to Amherst, because the painting probably needed us, too,” Barker says. “My feeling wasn’t just that it deserved to be seen and published, but that, if it turned out to resemble the other tempera paintings I’d seen [from the series], that it probably needed extra conservation attention.”
A confluence of factors—Blake’s stature in poetry and art, the scarcity of his paintings in American museums and the absence of major scholarship about the piece—led Barker to see extraordinary potential in The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter: It is the kind of work that can change a museum’s reputation. “This is what museums want to have—works of art that are so interesting that scholars make the pilgrimage to see them,” she says. The Mead has other such “destination paintings,” notably Thomas Cole’s The Past and The Present and Robert Henri’s Salome. Often, a destination work becomes inextricably linked with the museum: Everyone associates the Mona Lisa with the Louvre. No one visits the British Museum without seeing the Rosetta Stone. But acquiring destination art isn’t easy. Aside from the prohibitive price tag—one comparable Blake painting sold for more than $900,000 in 2005, and another for about a quarter-million dollars in 2008—such works rarely enter the market. Of the 50 paintings in the biblical series, fewer than 30 survive. Most are already in museums.
The series is “technically very interesting,” says Robert Essick, coeditor of The William Blake Archive, and provides scholars with “central visual statements concerning Blake’s response to the Bible.” Essick describes Jairus’s Daughter as in “remarkably good condition” and “not well known.” It “feeds into this study of what Blake is intending to mean through his portrayals of the human form,” he says: “Blake used gesture, expression and bodily posture as a means of communicating various concepts and emotions.”
When a collector donates an important work of art to a small museum, Barker says, the gift can act as a magnet, inspiring others to give their best items to that institution rather than to larger, more famous museums. For example, when the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams acquired a collection of Sol LeWitt wall drawings, “It moved them into a sort of super-league of contemporary art,” Barker says.
In addition to the scholarship and “destination” potential, Barker had a more personal interest in the painting, too. As a rookie curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, she organized the museum’s Blake retrospective. “It was my first independent exhibition project as a curator,” she says. Held in 2001, it became the museum’s sleeper hit of the season, breaking attendance records. As a child, Barker had a copy of Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Blake’s illustrated collection of poems. She remembers seeing his work at the Tate on her first trip to London, when she was a teenager. Curating the Met exhibition, she’d learned more about the artist as a person. “The thing that struck me most was Blake’s courage as an individual,” she says. He lived in desperate poverty rather than compromise his artistic vision, and when condescending patrons offered him advice that would have watered down his ideas, he didn’t listen. “He didn’t give up, he didn’t kow-tow to the folks with bad ideas and he didn’t become bitter,” Barker says. A member of no major art movement, “he is one of these towering figures who really did it alone. Very few artists made work that looks anything like his.”
For Blake, the biblical series was transformative, leading to “breathtaking productivity and rare financial security,” according to the Mead. In a letter to a friend dated Aug. 26, 1799, Blake described the commission: “As to Myself about whom you are so kindly Interested, I live by a Miracle. I am Painting small Pictures from the Bible. … I think I foresee better Things than I have ever seen. My Work pleases my employer & I have an order for Fifty small Pictures at One Guinea each.” (Blake scholars have traditionally identified the “employer” as British government official Thomas Butts, although new research suggests that Butts’ wife, Elizabeth, may have been the actual unnamed patron.)
After learning what she could about the painting, Barker, along with Urschel, visited Webster at his home near Washington, D.C. There she made her case. “We would take care of it according to the highest standard, forever,” she recalls saying. (Providing such care can be a financial burden for families.) “[Later] I mentioned that, when families make the collective decision to give something to a museum, they don’t lose it altogether. They just have a new location for their reunions.” In fact, some 20 descendants of Eleanor Phipps Blackstone and Benjamin Blackstone Jr.—the subjects of two John Singleton Copley portraits at the Mead—held a reunion at the museum last summer. Barker also described the credit lines that accompany paintings as “a monument that exists in perpetuity.”
In addition, Barker told Webster that the painting would improve the Mead’s collection. “It isn’t about getting more,” she says. “It should always be about improving the quality. The danger is the possibility of dilution of quality simply by accepting large numbers of gifts that don’t represent an improvement on what you already have.” The Mead has an impressive collection of English portraits but is “pretty weak on British subject paintings,” she says: “It simply wasn’t a collecting interest of the founding organizers of the museum. And the market has become so prohibitively expensive that, for a small school like ours, it would cost more than we could afford to go out and build that collection from scratch.”
She discussed the potential “magnet effect,” saying the painting would demonstrate to other collectors “that we will care about, research and publish [their paintings]; that we will make them available; that we will really appreciate them. We’re unusual among college museums in not having a gallery but a real, bona fide museum that’s about research and a permanent collection and the development of original, creative ideas from a highly credentialed curatorial staff. Their objects won’t just languish in storage or be seen every 25 years in a retrospective.”
Webster felt it his duty to ensure the painting’s care and safety for all time. “I wanted to find it a good home,” he says. “There’s a lot of pressure on museums to keep the world’s collection of art in shape and available, and I think that’s what pushed me.” The day before Thanksgiving, he called Urschel to say he’d made the decision to donate The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter to the Mead. “This is an emotional gift,” Urschel says. “It lived in his family for generations. He’s treating the college in the same way his mother treated him—as a member of the family. He could easily have sold it for a lot of money. He could easily have given it to someone else. But he chose Amherst.”
When the painting arrived at the Mead, staffers examined it with a magnifying glass.
Strapped in the belly of a temperature-controlled 18- wheeler, the painting arrived at the Mead on Dec. 5, 2011. The next day, Barker examined it with a magnifying glass: “I was trying to see if there’s a signature, and I think there may be. It’s just really hard to read.” Soon a conservator and an appraiser will look at it, too. There’s a possibility—“a small but real chance,” Barker says—that the frame could be original to the Butts family. Even after the appraisal, Barker will not publically discuss the painting’s value—once a work enters a museum collection, she says, it is priceless.
The Blake painting is not the only valuable work recently donated to the Mead. In 2011 alone, the museum received, among others gifts, Le Château de la Croix-Blanche à Saint Mammes (après-midi de Septembre), by Impressionist Alfred Sisley, from the late John C. Haas ’40 and his wife, Chara C. Haas. Leonard Gordon ’59 donated seven paintings and two scrolls from his collection of South Asian art. In 2010, Sanford Sternlieb ’46 donated 46 American prints—including works by John Sloan, Edward Hopper, John Marin and Jack Levine—from the collection he’d formed with his late wife, Esther. That same year, John Quisenberry ’60 gave the Martin Johnson Heade painting Three Roses in a Metal Vase on Gold Velvet. But among recent acquisitions, The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter holds a unique appeal for researchers, given the breadth and depth of scholarship about Blake and the relative obscurity of Amherst’s new painting. Already, Barker has kicked some publication-related wheels into motion. The painting will be included in an annual list, published in Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly, of works by the artist that have appeared on the marketplace or entered public collections. It will also be published in the scholarly catalogue The William Blake Archive. Barker plans to write a brief article for submission to Blake: An Illustrated Quarterly after researching the painting’s provenance. (She will travel to England to examine 19th century sales catalogs.)
Barker expects that Amherst students and faculty will use the painting in their own research, too. English students might view it in the context of Blake’s poetry, and history students in the context of a tumultuous historical moment in England. (Blake was on a government watch list because he had friends who supported the French Revolution.) She hopes that women’s and gender studies classes will examine the painting from a feminist perspective. Organic chemists on the faculty might provide helpful input on the painting’s condition. And of course, Barker says, “I’m strongly hopeful that the studio artists and the art historians will want to come see it.” Among the related items in the Mead’s collection is a series of Blake engravings of scenes from the Book of Job—“another milestone commission for the artist at the end of his life,” Barker says.
The painting is already on view at the museum. Webster hopes to see it there someday. “My definition of immortality is to have a book in the library,” he says. (He does: Cellular Neuroscience: Projects and Images, 1957-1997, which has been cited numerous times by other scientists. It is primarily about his career at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.) Now Webster’s name is also on a wall at the Mead, on a card to the right of the painting.
Leading up to the painting’s arrival at the museum, Barker spoke to Webster almost daily. On the Monday after Thanksgiving, while she was on the phone thanking him, she glanced at the date. It was Nov. 28, 2011, the 254th anniversary of William Blake’s birth. For years, it’s been one of the few birthdays she’s marked on her calendar.
Emily Gold Boutilier is the editor of Amherst magazine.