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January 21, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST
The only clue was a lone signature in the corner of the painting that read “M. Reid 1887.” But for Mary Pixley, this was enough to solve the mystery.
Pixley, associate curator of European and American art at the MU Museum of Art and Archaeology, originally found the unidentified Victorian painting two years ago at an online art auction. At the time, it bore the unimaginative title, “Woman Holding an Apple, Man Seated on Stair.” Identified as a continental or American piece of art, Pixley took one look at the painting and realized the error. It’s bloody English, she thought.
Pixley explains that the work is a transition piece between the pre-Raphaelite and the Aestheticism movements (the mid- to late 1800s). “I knew such a painting would be a marvelous addition to our collection,” she says. Acquired for an undisclosed amount, the piece now hangs in an ornate antique frame in the museum.
Discovering the history of the painting and its unknown artist became an adventure for Pixley. Experience led her to believe the artist was a female. “A lot of women artists in Victorian times only used the first initial of their name and their last name,” Pixley says.
Initial research revealed a few female artists during the time with the name Marion Reid, but it was difficult to distinguish the exact one. With her resources tapped, Pixley knew she had to go more in-depth. She headed to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
After hours of rummaging through exhibition catalogues, Pixley’s intuition was confirmed. She found the Society of Lady Artists catalogue and saw that the painting had been exhibited in London in 1887 at the Society of Lady Artists. The catalogue also brought to light the painting’s real name: “The Sorceress.”
Further investigation through libraries and schools in London revealed Reid had studied at prestigious art schools. She was 29 when she painted “The Sorceress,” and her use of flowers and colors in the piece references the theme of love.
Pixley’s discovery and achievements have been acknowledged in the art world with enthusiasm. An extensive article about Reid and the painting should be published in the Journal of Pre-Raphaelites, which features art, culture and literature from the nineteenth century, sometime this year, pending revisions.
Pixley hopes more experts will take notice so that other works of Reid’s might be identified.
“I am indeed trying to fill out the rest of her life as much as I can,” Pixley says with a big grin that lights up her small, windowless office. “I’m very proud of this.”