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Acquiring a Work of Art: Little Brown Girl

This is the beginning of a series of blogs relating to the IMA’s acquisition of art for its African American collection.  Eight works by African Americans have come into the American Art before 1945 collection since 1993, the first of which has the most unusual story.

I was in the process of organizing the exhibition A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans when I made my first African American acquisition for the museum in 1993.  It was an atypical purchase because the painting, Little Brown Girl by Indiana artist John Wesley Hardrick, had been a gift to the museum in 1929.  At that time the IMA was known as the Herron Art Museum or the John Herron Art Institute.  The policy in those days for lending works from the museum’s collection was very broad and record keeping was not what it is today.  This resulted in the painting being listed as missing in inventory in 1942. Repeated inventories failed to reveal its whereabouts.  The painting remained unaccounted for until 1993 when it was offered to the IMA by a New York dealer because of the artist’s Indianapolis connection.  A discussion with the dealer revealed that the painting belonged to a collector in Maine, but the trail leading back to the Herron Art Museum had gone cold.  The museum’s director went to see the painting and noticed the number 29.40 on the frame, the wooden stretcher and the back of the canvas.  This number confirmed the painting belonged to the IMA, since it was the accession number placed on the work when it was acquired by the museum.  The number indicates that it was the 40th piece of art to be added to the collection in 1929.

Little Brown Girl by John Wesley Hardrick

Little Brown Girl by John Wesley Hardrick

John Wesley Hardrick was one of the artists in A Shared Heritage exhibition, which was why research was being done on him and his work.  Little Brown Girl had been awarded the Harmon Foundation Bronze Medal in 1927. The Harmon Foundation presented awards to African Americans for distinguished achievement in the fine arts. The painting became so popular that a group of African Americans in an Indianapolis congregation took up a campaign to raise funds to purchase it for the museum. The sitter, Nellie Henderson about eleven years old, was a singer in the church choir at Allen Memorial Chapel where Hardrick was a member.  Hardrick chose this young girl to sit for a portrait required for his class at Herron.  Every Saturday Nellie’s father would bring her to the art school to sit for the artist.

The problem of how to bring the painting back into the collection had to be solved.  The museum could not buy back a painting that was already part of its collection, but it could compensate the dealer for her financial investment in the painting.  Negotiations are often difficult with any acquisition, but they were even more problematic since the IMA was trying to acquire a painting it already owned.  The dealer bought the painting in good faith and the seller knew nothing about its history. After numerous discussions, the dealer and the museum reached an amicable agreement that resulted in the return of Little Brown Girl after more than a 50-year absence. Through an accident of fate, Little Brown Girl was offered to the IMA at a time when I was researching Hardrick for the Shared Heritage exhibition.  Otherwise, I would not have recognized the work as ours or realize its importance to the artist and the collection.   However, fate cannot always be depended upon to make things right, so we now rely on strict rules and regulations along with meticulous record keeping to ensure that such a loss is never repeated.

Filed under: Art

11 Responses to “Acquiring a Work of Art: Little Brown Girl”

  • avatar
    Harriet Warkel Says:

    I have been asked to speculate on how Little Brown Girl may have been lost. There are some leads that indicate the painting was lent to a hotel in Wawasse, Indiana, and no record of it ever having been returned from that loan. This might indicate that the painting was sold along with the rest of the contents of the hotel. Clearly someone was asleep at the helm in the Herron Art Museum because they did not realize that we had a painting on loan to that hotel that had to be retrieved before it disappeared along with the furnishings. Since this is only conjecture and based on incomplete records, pointing fingers is useless. But I thought that I should address what the most likely reason the painting was lost. As I indicated in my blog, with todays stringent rules and records, along with an equally stringent lending policy, such a loss could not occur.

  • avatar
    ejly Says:

    I’m a fan of Hardrick’s paintings, and I’m glad to read that this painting has resumed an honored place in the collection of the IMA. Thanks for writing up the acquisition story.

  • avatar

    My father Harry L. West (now disceased) was John Hardrick’s 1st cousin. Our family is interested in locating any of his paintings which maybe for sale and or being informed as to the provenance and location of any other of his paintings.

  • avatar
    Joyce Rice-Saunders Says:

    I am the niece of one of John Hardrick’s daughters. Honestly I still can’t understand how the museum could let such a notable painting go missing for more than 50 years. That the painting was on loan to a hotel on Lake Wawassee just seems so improbable considering the demographics and the era. Why don’t the curators at IMA take up the challenge and do a more thorough investigation, not to point fingers but to determine how Little Brown Girl went missing and how the person IMA acquired it from got it? I get the feeling there just might be a real interesting story to share!

  • avatar
    Harriet Warkel Says:

    I would love for Hardrick’s niece to contact me at the IMA.

  • avatar

    Written at the begining of the year yet still very relevant, you should add your twitter link, ill follow for sure :)

  • avatar
    Harriet Warkel Says:

    Sorry, I do not have a twitter link. Just keep an eye on the IMA blogs because more of these will be coming.

  • avatar
    My Review Says:

    More than that, I think it should be encouraged

  • avatar
    HARDRICK Raphael Says:

    I am John Wesley Hardrick gran son and I am a real fan of this particular painting and of course of his whole Art work.
    I am living in Switzerland and I dream to set up an exhibition here with one of the finest Art Museum of Geneva (Musée Rath).
    Now you seem to have a better organisation to lend a painting and I wonder how we could arrange ourselves to bring some of J.W. Hardrick works in Geneva for a special exhibition.

  • avatar
    Kathy Says:

    Hi, This is a fascinating story about one of my favorite paintings at the IMA. I read it some time ago and am revisiting to ask a question. I just read in The Herron Chronicle that the former art institute director “retrieved” another work from a Lake Wawasee hotel in the 1940s that he had loaned. I see you were one of the authors of that book; perhaps you can share more about what else might have been loaned and what still may be missing. Thanks.

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