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Walter MacEwen: Every painting tells a story, but this classic work by Walter MacEwen had a secret, too!

March 27, 2020

6 minute read

Walter MacEwen- Every painting tells a story, but this classic work by Walter MacEwen had a secret, too!

At Lowy, Larry Shar grew up surrounded by the kind of art most people see only in museums. Old Masters, Impressionists, maverick moderns, cutting edge contemporaries — works created by the greatest artists of all time came to the Lowy atelier for restoration, or to be matched to the perfect frame. It was not unusual for young Shar to walk up Madison Avenue, en route to the home of an important collector, with a Matisse tucked under his arm. But when Shar was starting his own collection, he was drawn to a little sketch of a young boy by Walter MacEwen, a once-celebrated nineteenth century American ex-patriate artist whose reputation had dimmed with time. “As a Brooklyn-born American, then art student, then restorer/framer and collector, I have always been attracted to American painters working abroad to hone their talents and translate them to a particular American idiom; one such artist is Walter MacEwen, whose work I was first introduced to in the 1970’s,” recalls Shar.

Shar’s sketch of a young boy, by Walter MacEwen

Walter MacEwen was born in 1858, one of five children in a prosperous Chicago family.When he was nineteen, he followed in the footsteps of many artistically-inclined young gentleman of the period by moving to Europe to pursue his dream of becoming a painter. His education began in Munich, but, like his contemporary, John Singer Sargent, he was fascinated by the works of Frans Hals, one of the emblematic painters of the Dutch Golden Age, so he started spending time in Holland.

Everything Dutch appealed to MacEwen – the light, the landscape, and especially the people; peasants, laborers, children, old wives, young lovers.  For years, he concentrated on painting naturalistic scenes of ordinary people going about the business of life:

Returning from Work (1885) captures a weary field worker adjusting her garter;

The Ghost Story (1887) shows a group of women pausing their embroidery and other domestic chores to listen to a friend’s supernatural tale;

Eh! Eh! Les autres, allons jouer! En Hollande (1889), also known as Gamins Hollandais, depicts boisterous children playing on a beach.

MacEwen’s artful paintings of quintessential Dutch scenes appealed to critics and collectors back in America. They appreciated his ability to find beauty everywhere and to tell a story about the seemingly simpler times that preceded the Industrial Revolution. MacEwen won prizes in America and Silver and Gold medals throughout Europe, building an international reputation and a celebrated body of work. Museums at home and abroad added his works to their permanent collections.

But MacEwen’s name lost some of its luster after WW I, when tastes changed and collectors turned their attention to artists who were looking ahead to the future instead of romanticizing the past. By 1935, he stopped painting and focused on print-making. He died in 1943, leaving many of his paintings with family members, including his nephew, Alfred Robinson McEwen, who owned a beautiful house in an idyllic country setting in Vermont.

In January, 1958, Alfred McEwen, his wife, and their two dogs visited their remote country retreat to settle in for a cozy winter weekend. That evening, residents in the area observed a strange light that turned out to be a blaze so fierce that it illuminated the night sky. Firefighters identified the McEwen house as the source and struggled to plow through a long road impeded by snowbanks to reach the inferno. By the time they arrived, all was lost — the McEwens and their pets perished in the flames, a tragedy so haunting that, in later years, the daughter of one of the firefighters was moved to write a poem about it. The fire was so hot that it reduced the house to rubble, melted the family’s Chrysler, and destroyed many of Walter MacEwen’s precious paintings.

The fire made a deep impression on Alfred McEwen’s grandson, Robert Ludlum, although it happened before he was born. He was fascinated by family folklore and grew up hearing stories about his Great Great Uncle Walter, whose paintings hung in his father’s house and in the palatial home of his Great Great Aunt Laura’s Connecticut estate, an exact replica of the Petit Trianon in France. Ludlum felt a bond with his ancestor. He shared his love of art and, although he grew up to be a banker, his private passion was painting.

When one of Ludlum’s jobs prompted him to move to Holland for a period of fifteen years, he used the time to follow in his Great Great Uncle’s’ footsteps, visiting villages such as Egmond aan Zee to explore the landscapes and polders that were familiar sights in MacEwen’s paintings. Back in New York, Ludlum created his own paintings in his downtown studio until, in an ironic twist of fate given that his ancestor’s paintings were destroyed by fire, his canvases were ruined by the rising waters of Hurricane Sandy.

It was Ludlum’s dream to have a MacEwen of his own and that dream came true when he acquired The Chaperone. In the painting, a young man sits at a table, smoking a long pipe, while seemingly courting a shy young woman. Nearby, an older woman keeps watch over them, even as she works industriously on a long lace panel. The light behind the figures filters into the room through a paned window, which is draped in soft, gauzy curtains. A classic image of Dutch domesticity, the painting invites the eye into an orderly world, where everything is in its place.

Recognizing that his prize possession was showing mild signs of age, Ludlum brought the painting to Lowy for cleaning and restoring. Larry Shar, still a MacEwen afficionado, welcomed the opportunity to restore The Chaperone to its full beauty. Unlike Shar, Lowy conservator Sebastian Dereibus was not familiar with MacEwen’s work, but after carefully and methodically removing a layer of yellowed and discolored resin varnish from the painting, he was struck by the artist’s deft use of light. “The transformation was literally luminous,” he says. “It went from being a drab monotone genre scene into a bright crisp winter interior, and the quintessential Dutch silver light came into full view.”

The Chaperone’s visual splendor was not its only revelation. When Lowy’s Adam Sperling set out to do some structural work on the painting, as he started to separate the canvas from what he thought was an old lining, he found a second canvas hiding underneath! “I generally work with the paintings face down, so there was then a dramatic reveal as I first lifted
the stretcher up with only the backing canvas to reveal the under painting for the first time,” says Sperling. 

The discovery, and finally the full second canvas with the artist’s study.

MacEwen had placed what appears to be a study for Eh! Eh! Les autres, allons jouer! En Hollande, the artist’s celebration of childhood, underneath The Chaperone, where it was hidden for over a century. Sperling describes the discovery as being “Very cool. I really like MacEwen’s work and it is always interesting to see a window into the process of such a polished artist.”

The revived MacEwens will hang in a prominent spot in Ludlum’s home and serve as a beautiful tribute to family history and timeless art. “It’s such a good feeling to still have this painting in the family, and just amazing to see it restored to its original glory in the hands of
experts,” he says.

Shar’s MacEwen – that little sketch he purchased in the 1970’s – has a story, too. The child depicted resembles one of the children in the recently-discovered canvas, and could be a study for Eh! Eh! Les autres, allons jouer! En Hollande or Kite Flying, another painting by MacEwen. Shar recalls that “At the time, I couldn’t afford a monumental painting like the one we just did for his descendant, but I did have a magnificent 17th century Dutch frame in Lowy’s inventory. I decided to give MacEwen the recognition he deserves by using it to frame this sketch and turning it into my Rembrandt! I enjoy living with it to this day.”

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