By David Hendee
OMAHA, Neb (Reuters) - A few lost threads in the tapestry of the life of a founder of American modernist art apparently are hiding behind a still life in a Nebraska museum.
Artist Walt Kuhn's masterpiece "Apples in Wooden Boat'' was painted over a landscape that disappeared more than 80 years ago, according to sleuthing by the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska.
Ghostly images revealed by X-ray, as well as an ink title uncovered on the canvas's frame, strongly suggest Kuhn painted over "Young Pines Among Rocks'' to create the famous still life, said Brandon Ruud, curator of Sheldon's transnational American art.
"The landscape vanished," Ruud said. "This discovery is extremely important to art historians' understanding of Kuhn's output as an artist and understanding modern art in the mid-20th century."
Kuhn, who lived from 1877 to 1947, was an organizer of the landmark Armory Show in New York City. The controversial 1913 exhibition introduced Americans to modern art, particularly the work of European painters Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Marcel Duchamp.
A quarter of a century later, Kuhn may have been thinking of his legacy when he created "Apples in Wooden Boat," Ruud said.
Kuhn is noted for his still lifes and psychologically penetrating portraits of circus and burlesque performers, not landscapes.
Kuhn painted "Young Pines Among Rocks" in 1929. It was exhibited in 1930. It never was sold and never seen in public again.
Then in 1938, the 25th anniversary of the Armory Show, "Apples in Wooden Boat" appeared.
"The Armory Show was a seminal event and perhaps he (Kuhn) was thinking about his career and what he was going to leave behind," Ruud said.
"And so the landscape became a still life."
Unlike the landscape, "Apples in Wooden Boat" was an immediate success, Ruud said. The 25- by 30-inch oil was exhibited and purchased by New York art dealer Maynard Walker in 1940, who sold it that year to the Nebraska Art Association, the forerunner of the Sheldon museum.
The mystery of what happened to "Young Pines Among Rocks'' started to unravel last year when the Sheldon sent the painting to the Nebraska State Historical Society's Gerald Ford Conservation Center in Omaha for cleaning and preparation for an exhibit.
Kenneth Be, a Ford Center conservationist, noticed that the painting's texture showed lines and brush strokes from an underlying work that had no relation to the visible composition, Ruud said.
The canvas and frame were heavier than normal, suggesting a build up of paint.
Be removed the canvas from the wood frame and found gray paint that wasn't in the blues, reds, browns and greens in "Apples in Wooden Boat."
Written on the frame, Be discovered the words, "Young Pines Among Rocks," written in ink with a pen or brush.
Kuhn kept meticulous records, documenting all paintings, exhibits and sales. The dimensions of the pines and apples paintings were identical.
Still, Be and Ruud couldn't be sure that perhaps Kuhn cut away the frame's original canvas and reused the wood for a new painting.
They turned to the radiology department at the BryanLGH Medical Center West in Lincoln. The painting was X-rayed in late September.
The images don't reveal the details of the original painting but show differing densities of paint pigments in shapes and forms that indicate another composition beneath the still life, Ruud said.
Artists commonly paint over compositions. Some could be unhappy with the original work and revise several times over the years. Kuhn may have done so to recycle a canvas and frame during the Great Depression, Ruud said.
Kuhn completely altered his composition from a landscape to a still life.
"The question is, was he dissatisfied?'' Ruud said. "Some scholars suggest Kuhn never destroyed his paintings. This contradicts that a little bit."
Both paintings apparently were created while Kuhn vacationed in Maine, Ruud said.
The artist's description card of "Apples in Wooden Boat'' notes that his models were red and green Astrakhan apples.
Kuhn produced a series of small paintings of apples at a rate of one per day one summer in Maine. His daughter Brenda set up the arrangements and replaced rotten apples with fresh fruit daily.
In a letter to his publicity agent, Kuhn wrote: "Whether this effort has been successful or not, I promise you that I shall never look another bowl of red apples in the face."
The Sheldon Museum owns 13 Kuhn paintings.
"Apples in Wooden Boat'' returns to public display Friday in a special exhibit about solving the mystery of the hidden painting. X-ray images and conservation tools will also be displayed.
Ruud, Be and others will discuss conservation of the Kuhn piece at a half-day symposium October 15 at the museum. The panel will also provide private collectors advice on how to care for their artwork.
Ruud said "Apples in Wooden Boat" is a staple of modern art.
"It doesn't mimic reality, but it evokes reality,'' he said. "The vibrant blue of the cloth background, the muted brown boat and the greens and vivid reds catch your attention across a gallery. It's amazing."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)