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The results are in: Scientists provide compelling clues in St. Olaf’s Munch mystery

This fall, a team of experts visited St. Olaf College to collect submillimeter samples from a painting long-rumored to be an unfinished work by famed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.

The college had reached out to scientists with an in-depth knowledge of the artist’s work after newly discovered correspondence and auction records further linked the painting, a portrait of violinist Eva Mudocci, to Munch.

Now, the results are in — and they are compelling. Elemental and molecular analysis of the portrait’s pigments, binders, and fillers reveal that they align with the time period Munch was known to have spent with Mudocci, and are indeed consistent with the materials documented in the works of Munch.

“These findings really open the door for the next steps,” says Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04, who has begun consulting with a range of Munch experts around the world.

Adam Finnefrock of Scientific Analysis of Fine Art (left) and Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04 (right) with “Portrait of Eva Mudocci” attributed to Edvard Munch.

New documentary and forensic evidence
The portrait of Mudocci came to St. Olaf as one of more than 2,000 artworks donated by alumnus Richard Tetlie ’43 following his death in 1999. For years, the portrait hung in the dining room of the St. Olaf president’s house. While it was a regular conversation piece often rumored to be a Munch, there were gaps in the painting’s provenance, or chronology of ownership.

That changed when Mudocci scholar Rima Shore approached Flaten Art Museum staff nearly two years ago with a request for access to the painting and corresponding files. Her international research revealed reliable correspondence and auction records that corroborate the existence of this unfinished painting.

With credible provenance in hand, the college began looking at the stylistic and scientific analysis needed to provide an attribution. Conservation science experts from Scientific Analysis of Fine Art (SAFA) came to campus in October and collected imperceptible samples from the portrait, which they took back to their labs in Philadelphia and New York for analysis.

Flaten Art Museum Collections Specialist Mona Weselmann (top) and Scientific Analysis of Fine Art President Jennifer Mass (bottom) examine the canvas edge after the frame was removed during the SAFA team’s visit to campus to collect submillimeter samples from the painting.

SAFA scientists have previously analyzed other works by Munch and his expressionist contemporaries, including his iconic painting The Scream, which has been internationally recognized, revered, and reproduced. As part of their work, SAFA experts also assisted Oslo’s Munchmuseet in cataloging the over 900 tubes of paint left in Munch’s studio at the time of his death, which can be used for scientific comparison.

In the report on their findings, the SAFA scientists  note that “all of the pigments, preparation layers, and binders inferred or identified here are found in the works by Edvard Munch.”

Noting the presence of strontium yellow, the report explains that this pigment was in use in the last years of the 19th century and first years of the 20th century and places this work to within the expected timeframe for the Mudocci portrait. Absent from the palette are specific blue and green pigments used later by expressionist painters, but not available in 1904.

The report also notes that the combination of pigments in one of the samples (vermilion, Prussian blue, cobalt blue, strontium yellow, zinc yellow, and likely viridian green) is consistent with Munch’s palette.

“While SAFA’s report does not definitively prove that the work was created by Munch, it reveals that the painting is fully consistent with Munch’s materials and working methods,” says Becker Nelson. “Furthermore, by establishing the timeframe it disproves the theory that the painting was a fake created posthumously to capitalize on Munch’s soaring reputation.”

SAFA President Jennifer Mass notes that the history of Edvard Munch, Eva Mudocci, and her famous Stradivarius violin is a compelling one.

“The new provenance research surrounding this work made the timing right for a scientific study of the materials and techniques used to create it. Finding specific period materials such as strontium yellow in the painting’s palette adds to the body of evidence required to attribute the work,” Mass says. “While such materials alone cannot be considered a ‘fingerprint’ for a specific artist, they provide compelling evidence that calls for the further study of this painting. The evaluation and attribution of any painting combines connoisseurship, provenance research, materials analysis, and conservation assessment. We are excited to be working with St. Olaf as the story of this painting and its history unfolds.”

While such materials alone cannot be considered a ‘fingerprint’ for a specific artist, they provide compelling evidence that calls for the further study of this painting.SAFA President Jennifer Mass

The story of Mudocci and Munch
These findings are outlined in Shore’s recently released book, Lady with a Brooch: Violinist Eva Mudocci — A Biography & a Detective Story.

Mudocci met Munch in the spring of 1903 in Paris. Munch created his three known (lithographic) portraits of Mudocci, including Lady with a Brooch, in 1903.

Shore provided documentary evidence showing that Munch was indeed painting a “woman violinist” in Berlin in January 1904 — and that Mudocci and Munch had a falling out that year, which could explain why the portrait in St. Olaf’s collection is unfinished. She also provided several key pieces of information regarding the painting’s ownership, including a 1959 Copenhagen auction record confirming its purchase by Poul Rée (who later sold it to Tetlie, who bequeathed it to St. Olaf) from the estate of Danish illustrator Kay Nielsen — a “foster son” of Mudocci and her partner Bella Edwards.

Jennifer Mass of Scientific Analysis of Fine Art (left), Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson (middle), and Flaten Art Museum Collections Specialist Mona Weselmann (right) examine records that have helped establish the painting’s provenance.

In addition to Shore’s research, Mudocci’s granddaughter reached out to the college after seeing news of the SAFA work on campus this fall. She noted that Mudocci’s family has always accepted that the portrait of Eva was painted by Edvard Munch.

While all of these findings are encouraging, they cannot alone determine if the painting is authentic. The next step is to conduct additional research in coordination with Munch scholars.

“There are still many questions,” says Becker Nelson. “But we are very eager to connect with the scholarly community to draw on their expertise while analyzing the work in the new light shed by documentary and forensic evidence.”

We are very eager to connect with the scholarly community to draw on their expertise while analyzing the work in the new light shed by documentary and forensic evidence.Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04

The painting also presents an opportunity to further develop St. Olaf College’s curriculum and opportunities for experiential learning. The process of uncovering the painting’s origins highlights many of the desired skills the college seeks to develop in its students, including a passion for using science to substantiate and support historical references and the desire to appreciate artists and their contributions to society. St. Olaf will be working to develop these opportunities with key faculty members and the Piper Center for Vocation and Career.

To start, Becker Nelson has worked with the Piper Center to develop a summer internship that will enable a St. Olaf student to conduct a close study and formal analysis of the Mudocci portrait. The student will travel with Becker Nelson to Oslo this summer to conduct research and meet with a group of international Munch scholars.

“This is just one example of how Flaten Art Museum’s extensive collection is enhancing the college curriculum in departments as seemingly disparate as chemistry, art history, physics, economics, studio art, and Norwegian,” says Becker Nelson. “It’s a thrilling project to be a part of for me, personally, and so exciting to share with our students.”  

Read more about the story behind the St. Olaf Munch mystery in a story published April 9 in The Wall Street Journal.