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Road Show

From the beginning, I traveled the back roads and not the interstates—or at least tried to. I often found myself straying from the appointed path to visit pretty towns, the oft-deserted crossroads. Madison, Georgia was my perennial favorite, but I also came to love St. Francisville, Louisiana and La Grange, Tennessee. Derita Williams took me there. Derita is a dealer who has introduced me to any number of clients in Memphis and throughout that part of Tennessee, extending down into the Mississippi Delta. She’s also taken me to more than a few fine places for barbeque. After all, nowhere smokes pork like Memphis.

Paintings travel too. We have found good Southern paintings in Australia, throughout Europe, and, of course, all over North America, including Hawaii. There have been late night deals with collectors that were nearly spontaneous, as well as protracted negotiations with museums where they traded away storeroom pieces, deemed less important to their mission, for headliners that might hang in their public galleries.

One of the six big William Aiken Walker paintings I have owned came out of a shop that sold canvas awnings in Rockford, Illinois. Louisiana subjects flow steadily from California, which must testify to the migration there of some collector whose numerous present-day descendents wound up with something from their ancestor’s estate. And luminist subjects painted in Florida in the final quarter of the nineteenth century are most often found today in the cold upper Midwest. Henry Morrison Flagler had friends and clients who discovered, as did he, that Florida in the winter was a nice place to be. Martin Johnson Heade, George Herbert McCord, and Herman Herzog produced breathtaking canvases there, at least in part to appeal to the tourists visiting this new land of leisure.

Ferdinand Richardt was a Danish artist who set out to paint many of the natural and scenic wonders of the New World. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia owned Richardt’s view of Harpers Ferry, one of the artist’s masterpieces. Mr. Rockefeller traded it to another dealer, and we wound up with the painting. It stayed with us for a few years, but then went to an exceptional collection in Richmond, Virginia. There were those who never understood that when a West Virginia locale was painted before the “Great Unpleasantness,” it was still referred to as Virginia—even though that part of the state became West Virginia in 1863.

Richardt, like many itinerant artists, would frequently paint several different views of the same site. He did this most notably with Niagara Falls, but also with the far more obscure Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. The first version came to us from a Philadelphia dealer who had somehow found it in Texas. His Friday afternoon call said he could make out the words “Echo River” and a date in the inscription on the dirty canvas. My call to the reference desk at our local public library revealed that there were several Echo Rivers, one of which was in Kentucky. My guess was that meant this was Kentucky, perhaps Mammoth Cave, because the canvas showed rocks completely surrounding people in a boat, traveling by torch light. This was tourism in the South in 1857. The painting was with me the next day, and my call to Melinda Young Stuart confirmed the location. This respected Richardt scholar knew of the artist’s series of six such paintings and later surmised that the example at hand was the first of those painted.

A little hope is all I need. From nearly forty years out, I can see lots of pieces that just worked, fitting together like so many puzzle pieces. It only makes sense that any artist would have painted a subject he found rewarding from more than one perspective. Maybe it had to do with the time of day and the light. Perhaps a quarter turn to the left gave evidence of color not seen when hard at work on a first approach. I am always hopeful that I will find other versions, second efforts of a vision that testifies to the beauty of the South.

I was in Savannah, cast as an extra in the film adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, when I took the call that led me to our second encounter with Mammoth Cave. Tom Nygard, a widely respected dealer in Western art living in Bozeman, Montana, was on the line, relaying the story of a Kentucky painting, one with an inscription that referred to Echo River. Tom’s father was from Norway, and Tom maintained close ties with Scandinavia. Someone there had found another version of Richardt’s Echo River and sent a photograph and descriptive details to Tom. Well, we decided that we would chance as much as $25,000 without actually seeing the painting. We ended up paying $30,000—but it turned out that we were negotiating in Danish Kroner, or about $4,100. Along with hope, a little luck never hurts.

Joachim F. Richardt (1819-1895)
Echo River (1857)
Oil on canvas
15 1/4 x 24 1/2 inches
Signature Details: Lower Center
Owner: Private Collection, Alabama
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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