In June, 2015, the Clarke Auction Company, located in Larchmont, NY, listed a portrait of George Washington, Lot 12, after Rembrandt Peale. The attribution was based on the inscription on the back of the painting (verso), read as, "Mr. Peale's original portrait of Washington. Collection Miss Eugene Starkland 1890". I acquired the painting for a fair price in hopes to prove it was painted by Peale circa 1824 and collected by Starkland in 1890. The painting appeared to be early enough. The quality and style is nearly identical to the well-known "Patriæ Pater ", series or porthole portraits, of George Washington painted by Rembrandt Peale 1824-1830's . My professional contacts and I studied paint strokes and made comparisons to Peale's portraits. I spent months trying to link the portrait to Peale or Starkland. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough evidence to connect the work to either name. I had to remove the "Peale" and begin looking for clues for the actual artist.
I begin rethinking the verso. The inscription is in black paint, appearing original to the canvas. It begins with a strange code:
" #OH8 " or " #OHg ". Perhaps it is a collector's reference number. It doesn't appear to have traced over the word "Copy" or "After", but it seems suspicious and out of place. Also out of place, I see the word "Collection" is print block style, in contrast to the cursive style of the remaining inscription. It seemed to me that the word "Collection" was added to the original script.
First, using an image editor and a photo of the verso, I remove the block print word "Collection". We now see a consistent cursive style in the remaining text.
I remove the rectangle shaped box surrounding the code. I also realize the nonsensical wording in the auction listing of a "Miss Eugene Starkland". Miss refers to an unmarried women and not someone to have assumed a husband's first name, Eugene, as was customary in print, on occasion, during the time period. The name also appears to have the letter "i", not found in Eugene. I learn the name Eugenia is the feminine first name related to the masculine version, Eugene, from the Greek word 'eugene' meaning 'well-born', or 'good genes'. With closer examination, I also realize the last name is not Starkland as listed in the auction catalog, but Shankland. Now I have a real name; Miss Eugenia Shankland. As it turns out, Miss Eugenia Shankland was a member of the "Life Class" of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. She was eminently successful having painted several fine alter pieces for various churches in the capitol city. Eugenia's father was a highly respected clerk for the U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C.
Gaining momentum, my research goes deeper. I uncover U.S. Senate Records between July 16, 1894 and August 2, 1894 that describe a Eugenia Shankland painting on 3 separate occasions. In each, the work is titled a "copy of Mr. Peale's original portrait of George Washington by Miss Eugenia Shankland, 1890" The wording is consistent with the title on the back of the painting. I find the Senate approved a motion made by Senator Kyle of South Dakota to purchase the portrait of George Washington painted by Eugenia Shankland. In the motion, Senator Kyle claimed the work to be "almost perfect" and the "only copy of the Peale portrait of Washington." According to Senator Kyle, the Senate owned original Peale was "fast cracking" and "liable to deteriorate" . The motion was approved to spend $1,000 for the Shankland portrait.
I go back to my PhotoShop project and remove the retraced portions around the code and restore the exact title description used by the U.S. Senate. The cursive font, it turns out, is a perfect fit in the retraced area. It becomes obvious that the inscription was written by Miss Eugenia Shankland to note the painting was a copy of Mr. Peale's original, painted in 1890. Miss Shankland's portrait of George Washington was first exhibited in the room of the Committee on Foreign Relations. Once acquired by the Senate in 1894, it was moved to the office of the Vice President, Adlai Stevenson, of the Grover Cleveland administration. It was later placed in the new Library of Congress building.
Eugenia died in 1896. Sometime afterwards, according to the Library of Congress records, her portrait of Washington was deaccessioned by the Library of Congress and, it is believed, acquired by (or gifted to) her only surviving relative; a sister, named Miss Marguerite Shankland. Marguerite was the Pennsylvania State Registrar for the Daughters of the American Revolution. She later married Barritt Hinman Sawyer of New York. This brings the painting to New York, as it was reportedly "collected". The painting, properly credited to Eugenia Shankland, resurfaced at auction with Parke-Bernet of New York City (now Sotheby's) in 1953. We can assume the verso had been altered at some point after this sale. The painting's provenance thereafter remains undocumented until it was consigned to auction in 2015, with the modified inscription, and from a private collection in New York City.
With long overdue respects to Miss Eugene Shankland - she is the artist of the "almost perfect" copy of Mr. Peale's original portrait of George Washington. Although not the "fruit" I was hoping for, the experience of peeling back the mystery was sweet enough.