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T.C. Steele Mystery Painting Unveiled

Last updated on Friday, May 25, 2012

(NASHVILLE) - With a tug of a grey, silky covering, Andrea deTarnowsky revealed a mystery painting from artist T.C. Steele that had not been viewed in at least 86 years.

According to many of the people in attendance, the grand unveiling that took place inside a studio at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site on Wednesday marked a significant discovery in the art world. About a month ago as Conservator Barry Bauman of Chicago readied a Steele painting for restoration, he found the untitled piece hiding beneath.

"For two completed paintings to be stretched over the same stretcher is very rare," Meredith McGovern, the arts and culture manager for the Indiana State Museum, told a group of media and art enthusiasts who had gathered for the big announcement.

deTarnowsky is the site manager for the historical site located in Brown County nine miles west of Nashville.

The painting depicts a woman dressed in black dress and red bonnet standing among a group of trees near a building with a tower jutting into the skyline.

Before returning the artwork, Bauman fixed its yellowing and mended its cracks. He could not attend the press conference, but he did provide a statement about the discovery being a highlight of his career.

"The discovery was a personal reward for me and an even greater reward for the museum," Bauman said. "Discoveries of this nature 'don't happen,' but when they do they carry an everlasting satisfaction that a little piece of the history of art is forever realized."

This is not the first noteworthy discovery by Bauman. Last year, he determined that a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln that hung in the Illinois governor's mansion was in fact not the wife of the 16th president of the United States. The story received widespread news coverage.

Steele died in 1926. That year, his wife Selma authenticated her husband's paintings, including the 1887 piece titled, "An Old Garden," that covered the untitled piece, which was dated 1890. As a result, the back of the untitled piece contains Selma's authentication for the Garden piece.

"Because of course she is seeing this one on top not realizing one was below," McGovern said.

Finding the painting has created additional mystery. Why did the painting get covered up? What is the title of the painting? Who is the female figure? What tower does the painting depict?

McGovern suggested that maybe Steele quickly needed a stretcher for a painting for a potential buyer and that's why he covered an existing painting. Other theories are Steele was displeased by the painting or he forgot about covering it up. Maybe he wanted to create a stir years later.

"It's all speculation at this point," she said.

deTarnowsky said Steele's paintings typically depict actual scenes and sometimes showed his children.

McGovern said she has contacted historians in Delaware and Franklin counties, where Steele is known to have spent time in the 1880s and 1890s. Her sources could not confirm the identity of the distinct tower.

Searches through Steele's letters to family and other records also turned up no clues.
"Until we have that documentation, we can't say for sure," said McGovern, who vowed efforts to stitch the story together would continue.

To view the untitled painting, people can visit the T.C. Steele State Historic Site. It will be on display there until at least November.

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