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Tell me more: What is happening in this painting?

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Recently, a reader asked me how to find out what the painting Lotus Lilies by Charles Courtney Curran was all about. All the reader knew was that the Terra Foundation for American Art owned this painting, as well as several others by Curran.  This type of query is popular for art works located in New York City museums. When an artist is famous it is relatively easy to help locate information in the catalog. But where do you go for lesser known art works and artists?

Lotus Lilies, by Charles Courtney CurranLotus Lilies, by Charles Courtney CurranOur Search:

We were looking for an established American artist, Curran, who had exhibitions and a successful career in his lifetime. If this is the case for your painting, information will be much more forthcoming, even so Curran is not well known by general audiences in our time so we had to do a little investigating.

We searched the Library's catalog for the artist's name, and found nothing on him listed, so we dug a little deeper and tried Havlice's World Painting Index, for a list of books that the painting, Lotus Lilies, is listed in.  We found several potentially interesting sources:

Next,  we searched for any museum or exhibition catalogs from the Terra Foundation for American Art in the Library's catalog and found:

I also searched the Terra Foundation's website and found that they have a fantastic database of the works in their collection that includes images, artist biographies, provenance, exhibition history, published references, and an interpretation of the painting.  Jackpot.  We also found that another of Curran’s works, On the Heights, perhaps more well-known than Lotus Lilies, is located at the Brooklyn Museum.

Our Find:

On the Heights, by Charles Courtney CurranOn the Heights, by Charles Courtney CurranLotus Lilies is a painting of Curran's new wife and her cousin, on a creek in Ohio where the family owned a summer cottage.  Grace, his wife, is holding a bouquet of water lilies, as she did on her wedding day.

What did we learn? Finding information on a specific painting is not always easy to do, but there are a few things to keep in mind that will help you in a search.  Here are some avenues for consideration when searching for information on a work of art:

  • Where is it located?  If it is in a public collection, check their website for collections information.  Check the Library's catalog for exhibition and/or collection catalogs that may contain the work.
  • Who painted it?  If it is an established artist, one who has been exhibited and has had a successful career, check the catalog for a book on the artist, or books the artist is included in.  Is there a biography, or has the artist's letters been published?  If the artist is not so famous, check for auction records on the artist's work.  Often work by lesser known artists is sold in auctions that list background information on the works and artist for the sale.
  • Biographical dictionaries, indexes, and encyclopedias often have short entries on otherwise hard to find artist that can lead you to more information. Try Who Was Who in American Art, World Painting Index, and Benezit's Dictionary of Artists to begin with.  Also, check our databases for journal articles that may have been written about the artist or an exhibition the artist was in.  This is especially good for contemporary artists who may not be published in a monograph or catalog yet.

Please visit the Mid-Manhattan Art and Picture Collections and the Art and Architecture Collection in the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building for help from a librarian with your art work search.  

Happy hunting!

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