MINNEAPOLIS – An important 19th century painting by Dutch-born, French-trained artist Ary Scheffer has returned to public view after languishing for decades, forgotten beneath a pile of reproductions in a church closet.
The painting was rediscovered after Rev. Steven Olson of Gethsemane Lutheran Church in Dassel approached the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 2007, looking for advice on how to preserve a painting he had found in a janitor's closet.
The museum's experts determined the painting was the long-forgotten "Christus Consolator," painted by Scheffer — one of the pre-eminent Romantic painters in Paris of the first half of the 19th century.
Institute painting curator Patrick Noon called it an "extremely important historical and aesthetic object."
"Close examination showed that this was by Scheffer's hand," Noon said. "His technique is very fine. ... There's no question that it's by him."
Scheffer's 1851 work was iconic in its day, and copies enjoyed wide circulation in Europe and America. But the original went unrecognized for 70 years in Dassel, a town of just 1,300 people 50 miles (80 kilometers) west of Minneapolis, until Olson came across it in the closet, underneath a pile of art reproductions.
"My first reaction was stunned disbelief," Olson said.
Another person Olson consulted about the painting was the Rev. Richard Hillstrom, a former Minneapolis Institute of Arts trustee and an expert in religious art who grew up in Dassel.
"Richard danced like a kid in a candy store" when he saw the painting, Olson said.
Through old records, Noon determined the painting once belonged to a wealthy Bostonian, William Bullard, who had a friend who studied in Scheffer's Paris studio. After Bullard's death, the picture was probably passed to his son Francis, who died in 1913.
That's the year David J. Nordling began serving as a minister for about two years in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and Noon speculated that Nordling might have acquired the painting after Francis Bullard's death. Nordling later went to Dassel, where he died in 1931. His widow gave the painting to Gethsemane.
An appraisal has valued the picture at $35,000. Church officials thought about keeping it, but security and other terms of insurance were too costly. Instead, the church has donated it to the Minneapolis museum, where it will occupy a prominent place in the 19th-century paintings gallery. The church is keeping a photographic reproduction.
"Oh my, I can't believe it. It makes me teary eyed," said church member Irene Bender, dabbing her eyes Tuesday as she looked at the painting in the museum. She had helped trace its history through church records.