Recently, as I was examining a collection of framed artwork for a quick verbal appraisal, I was reminded of an important but often overlooked piece of valuable information: a gallery label on the verso or backside. The reason for these types of quick verbal appraisals is to determine if the artwork presented has any value. Usually found in the attic, basement or garage, or snatched up for pennies at a rummage sale, the client is fairly certain nothing of significance will be discovered, but who knows, a Van Gogh could be lurking in the shadows—why not?
This collection was clearly from someone’s attic and had been put there decades ago, as all of the dusty, old cardboard-scented forgotten art was brand new around 1920. All of it was genre stuff, including a paper silhouette, nicely executed and cut but glued down and torn, and really nothing worth fixing. Two very faded Audubon reproductions with a dot pattern and trimmed to fit their frames, were without value. Along with a few more faded prints by anonymous artists, damaged with mold build-up and water stains whose identities and values have long since passed into history, was a reverse painting on glass, oval and convex with an inscription painted on the bottom, “Stormy Cove – Poland.” It had some paint loss but was in overall good condition, and because of the type of glass it was painted on, maybe worth looking into. Maybe worth around $350.
The final piece, waiting decades to be discovered among the debris, was a small (10 inches by 14 inches) paint and pencil sketch, or at least nothing that looked finished, on paper. An original, it was signed in pencil in the lower left quadrant with a legible signature at that.
It was marked by age and neglect; acid burns and that foggy haze on the interior of the glass – mold had settled in. I was about to dismiss the piece as another unknown artwork of undistinguished origin when the label on the verso caught my attention. As old as the artwork, it was an exhibition label from the St. Louis Art League, written with the “u” in Louis and League stylized in the classic ancient Roman “v”: “St. Lovis Art Leagve.” How stylish and rather academic of those folks in St. Louis. With all levity aside, being a member of any art league in St. Louis in the early 20th century is something to write home about, and there was a good chance this artist was listed.
The whimsical sketch was signed in pencil in basic block letters, Mildred Bailey Carpenter. The label, also written in pencil, identified the artist as Mrs. Mildred Bailey Carpenter, with her address in suburban St. Louis. She titled the work, The Dancer, and priced it at $20.
The label identified the exhibition as “Thvmb-Box Sketches & Scvlptvre.” These useful facts provided enough information to pursue meaningful research and provide value. The reason for mentioning “useful facts” and “meaningful” research is because often, one can over-analyze insignificant clues that waste time and get you nowhere.
Who Was Who in American Art, the source book for listed American artists, referenced Carpenter, born in St. Louis (1894-circa 1984), as a painter, writer, illustrator, teacher, lecturer and decorator. She studied in St. Louis and Madrid (1955) and with her husband Fred Green Carpenter, also a listed artist, in Provincetown, Mass. (1937). From there, the biography becomes more meaningful to my research as it lists her as a member of the St. Louis Art Guild and that she exhibited with the guild from 1919-46.
“Thumb-Box Sketches and Sculpture” was at first a puzzling reference. A New York Times article from 1911 solved the mystery. Turns out that thumb-box sketches were a popular form of visual art in the teens of the last century. The name alludes to their size. Marketed to people of modest means, living in modestly-sized homes, the pictures were not thumb-sized but were small enough to be accommodated in the bungalows of the middle-class. Many of these works were impressions of a fleeting effect, more sketch than finished painting.
The Dancer is just that – a deliberately half-finished combination of pencil drawing and watercolor depicting a harlequin dancing with a nude woman in a kind-of Ballet Russes fantasy.
Now I had a comfortable range to date the artwork. Based on the drawing’s condition, the hand-carved frame in the Arts & Crafts style and the period of popularity of thumb-box sketches, I estimate the artwork as circa 1919-1920.
The St. Louis Art League and the St. Louis Art Guild were probably closely related. The Guild was established in 1886 when the St. Louis Sketch Club, a group of male art students attending Washington University School of Art, decided to include women and expand its scope to include photography as well as the performing arts. In 1916 the Guild added a theater, where playwright Tennessee Williams produced many of his plays before moving to New York. Celebrating its centennial in 1986, its roster of distinguished artists includes Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and Charles M. Russell as well as the Carpenters, Mildred and Fred.
Carpenter was a portrait painter, a writer for the St. Louis Globe Democrat, an illustrator of children’s books and an art instructor at Washington University. She painted outdoor scenes, imaginative figures and murals in oil, watercolor, acrylic and pastel. She was truly a renaissance woman.
From time to time, Carpenter’s work appears at auction, often in St. Louis but sometimes as far away as New York. In 2003, a drawing and watercolor, Nude Female Floating Among Vines, sold for $1,000 hammer) at Ivey-Selkirk Auctioneers in St. Louis. Other works on paper by Carpenter have sold for slightly higher prices. All of this information resulted from a time-worn, brown paper label glued to the back of a picture frame.
Mary Manion is the acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio, Milwaukee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.