Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Catalogers: Art Historical Detectives

August Kollner, The Elms, etching. Gift of Clarence Wolf.

The Elms, an etching by Augustus Kollner, initially seemed like it would be a relatively straightforward work to catalog.  The artist’s name, title and date, 1844, were all printed beneath the image. 

However, in a cataloger’s world of art historical mysteries, things are not always as they seem.  Woven among blades of grass on the lower border of the print and barely visible to the naked eye is another date: 1896.  

So which date is correct?  For the answer we must look back into Kollner’s biography.

Augustus Kollner moved to Philadelphia in 1840 and spent his first few years traveling throughout the East Coast making sketches of the scenery.  He also created watercolors and drawings during his explorations of the Philadelphia area.  It seems likely that Kollner sketched the idyllic riverside scene depicted in The Elms during this time; an assumption confirmed by the 1844 date.  However, later in life Kollner made oil paintings, watercolors, and prints of his earlier sketches.  In addition to labeling these later works with the date they were created, Kollner would also include the date of the original drawing.  This leads to the very confusing situation of two works of art made by the same person, of the same scene, but inscribed with two conflicting dates.

A little more digging reveals another clue to this mystery.  In the collection of the Free Library of Philadelphia, there is a watercolor drawing by Kollner called The Elm Tree Opposite Laurel Hill.  It depicts the same scene as the etching at the Library Company: a grouping of tall trees on a riverbank with a stone building on the right.  This drawing is also dated 1844.  Given Kollner’s unusual system for dating his works, it is safe to say that the Free Library’s watercolor was created in 1844 and the Library Company’s print was made in 1896, when Kollner revisited his previous work. 

In fact, Kollner did not just copy his previous drawing into another medium; he made a few key changes when he revisited the work over 50 years later.  He populated his etching with a boat on the river, two men conversing in front of the trees and woman standing on the wooden balcony of the stone building.  He also identified the building as the Falls Hotel by labeling the sign on the building (which is present in the drawing, but left blank).  With these changes, Kollner situates the scene in a more specific location - the neighborhood of East Falls, across the Schuylkill River from West Laurel Hill Cemetery.   

With a magnifying glass and a bit of research this art historical mystery is solved.

Alison Van Denend
IFPDA Foundation Curatorial Intern, Summer 2014

See Nicholas B. Wainwright, “Augustus Kollner, Artist” in Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography. LXXXIV. Philadelphia: Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1960. 325-351.

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