Austin Peay students discover work from two major artists in University’s collection
As Austin Peay freshman Sarah Potter combed through the University’s art collection in early February, she came across a photo of a man sitting on a rock, his back to the camera.
“I was looking for personality, for stories,” Potter, who’s curating an exhibit for the walls of Human Resources in the Browning Administration Building, said. “I liked it, so I set it aside with the other photographs.”
She showed the pieces she’d chosen to Michael Dickins, APSU’s director of galleries, the next day.
“He was interested in this piece in particular. It looked familiar to him.”
University records listed the photo as “Artist Unknown” and “Title Unknown.” Potter and Dickins started their investigation. Within hours they identified the man in the picture as Winston Churchill and the photographer as American portraitist Philippe Halsman.
Potter’s discovery was the second major finding this year in Austin Peay’s Permanent Collection. A week earlier, Austin Peay junior Katherine Tolleson discovered two drypoint creations by French artist Alphonse Legros.
“Sometimes when Fortune scowls most spitefully, she is preparing her most dazzling gifts.” - Winston Churchill
After finding the Churchill photo listed as “Artist Unknown,” Potter and Dickins removed the photo from the framework in search of other identifiers.
“I said, ‘Maybe there’s something on the back,’ so we pried open the top, and I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’” Dickins said. “I saw ‘Philippe Halsman.’”
Dickins already recognized the photo. Now, he recognized the name.
“I told Sarah, ‘I think I have a Philippe Halsman book on my bookshelf,’” Dickins said. “We flipped through and there the photo was … with a story about how the photo happened.” An excerpt from the story is below.
Halsman’s signature is on the back of the Austin Peay print along with the photographer’s instructions to the printer: “More contrast please! This cropping.”
“This is such a cool find that we didn’t know we had,” Dickins said.
Potter said she’d never seen Dickins that excited.
“Finding the photo was like unveiling a gem.”
A print of the photo also is in the Philippe Halsman Collection at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
LEGROS’ OLD MAN
Tolleson’s discovery happened as she helped Dickins remove acid mats from artwork (the acid stains paper). She found two Legros pieces in the same week.
“I came across this one (a drypoint of a bearded man in a hat), and I couldn’t quite tell if the mat was acid or not, so I checked with Michael,” she said. “As we were taking it apart, we noticed some interesting things about it.”
Alphonse Legros’ signature was clear. Below that was the image’s title, “The Sailor.” And below that Legros writes the image is one of only 10 imprints.
Tolleson and Dickins searched through dozens of Legros collections online.
“We weren’t able to find these exact two, but we found some that were similar,” Tolleson said.
Both Legros pieces are on paper that contains watermarks. Tolleson and Dickins traced one watermark to a 19th century London paper company.
“We found the watermarks were from a company that made paper at about the time Alphonse Legros lived,” Dickins said. “We knew he was in London at that time. That was part of our authentication. The watermark was a key piece of evidence.”
Tolleson and Dickins are researching the history of the other watermark.
“We’ve done our best to find these images anywhere,” Tolleson said.
IMPACT ON STUDENTS
Tolleson found many similar Legros pieces at The British Museum. His work also is in the National Gallery of Art, The Tate and The Met.
Tolleson is composing a letter to email to The British Museum.
“She’s reaching out to learn more about these pieces, to get any information she can and to let them (The British Museum) know we have this piece,” Dickins said. “We don’t know where that’s going to go yet. Hopefully, they’ll go, ‘Wow, we’ve heard about this piece’ or ‘This looks like one of his, but we don’t have any record of this particular image.’ Then maybe we can bridge the gap.”
Regardless of what happens, Potter and Tolleson (and any Austin Peay student doing preservation and research) realize a giant impact on their lives.
“Students now are doing this research and telling their friends,” Dickins said. “Then
stories like this happen. Students learn hands-on research. They’re getting experience,
a real-life skill set.
“They’re dealing with legit work.”
And Tolleson is struck by that legitimacy.
“I honestly thought it was mind-blowing that we even had it,” she said. “I want to know how we got it, I want to know where it came from, how do we have this?
“That’s still running through my mind. I don’t know how we got it.”
Dickins is going to reframe the Halsman and Legros pieces, but he needs help. “The reframing is dependent on donations. These are top priority.”
If you’d like to make a donation to help in the reframing of these pieces (or with the preservation of any piece in the Permanent Collection), contact Dickins at 931-221-6519 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tolleson and Potter hope to present their findings at the SECAC 2019 art conference Oct. 16-19 in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
APSU’S PERMANENT COLLECTION
Austin Peay’s Permanent Collection comprises about 3,000 pieces (paintings, photos, prints, sculptures, drawings and historical objects). The pieces come from students, gifts from the community and donations from visiting artists.
The Permanent Collection includes smaller, notable collections such as:
● Trahern Edmondson Sculptures: Mabel Larson Gallery is the home to three very unique pieces by William Edmondson.
● Ned and Jacqueline Crouch Collection: This collection includes many media, from sculptures and woodwork to paintings and drawings, and features works from William Edmondson, Herbert Baggot, E.T. Wickham and Miles Smith.
● Robertson Collection: A collection of over 300 photographs, giving the University one of the most impressive photography collections in the region.
HALSMAN’S ‘SIGHT AND INSIGHT’ EXCERPT
“Eventually he reached the edge of the garden and sat down on a small rock. His poodle Rufus installed himself behind Churchill’s back.
“Churchill sat looking at the beautiful, typically English rolling landscape in front of him. As far as he could see, it all belonged to him. … I knew that if I emerged and faced him, Churchill would turn away. I quietly selected my position and shot Churchill’s back.
“The most successful of all my photographs of Churchill turned out to be the view of his back, which I had shot almost out of desperation.”
TO LEARN MORE
● For more about Austin Peay’s Permanent Collection, go to www.apsu.edu/art-design/exhibitions-speakers/collection.php.
● For more about the APSU Department of Art & Design, visit www.apsu.edu/art-design.