Canyon Suite Watercolors
Canyon Landscape

Light Coming on the Plains

Autumn on the Plains


Photo Credits: Kemper Museum of Art and Design

Formerly attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe,
Canyon Suite Watercolors, watercolor on various papers.

One moment you’re sitting quietly at home, then the phone rings and you’re swept up into a nationally publicized forgery case. That’s how it was for me and the Canyon Suite Watercolors. I was asked to come by the Kemper Museum of Art and Design and take a look at some works that had come into question. When I arrived at the museum I was met in the storage room by Crosby Kemper, his personal lawyer and the museum’s director. The Wall Street Journal was already on the story. The twenty eight watercolors comprising the suite were laid out on tables while Mr. Kemper and the Director told their part of the story. When asked if any of the pieces looked suspicious I pointed out that in some the paper and the medium looked too fresh for their supposed age. These works would prove to have been executed on an Italian watercolor paper that wasn’t available in the United States until the 1950's.

I was also shown a copy of a letter of provenance describing their discovery. While the document spoke of the finding of a package it failed to mention the contents or even include the term watercolor. This omission immediately caught my attention.

First some background on the watercolors. The twenty eight watercolors comprising the Canyon Suite were purportedly done between 1916 and 1918 while the artist taught in Canyon, Texas. As the story went they had been gifts to a former lover, an undergraduate at the time, when he left to fight in World War I. They had languished until their supposed discovery, in the late 1980's, shortly after Georgia O’Keeffe’s death, bundled in a package housed in a garage. Several prominent art historians signed on to their authenticity. At one point in the 1990's they were kept on deposit at the National Gallery of Art while the institution sought a donor to purchase them. They had been at the National Gallery when Kemper first saw them and subsequently purchased them for his
own museum.

The works had not been included in the then recently published catalogue raisonné compiled and published by the National Gallery of Art and the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. The catalogue committee, headed by Barbara Buhler Lynes, had spent 6 1/2 years examining works attributed to O'Keeffe. Other watercolors had been excluded by the committee. The Canyon Suite represented the largest single group of watercolors excluded. If I recall correctly, representatives of committee examined the Canyon Suite on two occasions.

Mr. Kemper was notified by letter of the decision of the catalogue committee to exclude the twenty-eight watercolors comprising the Canyon Suite. When the catalogue raisonné was published and the status of the watercolors became public, Mr. Kemper had had reasonable questions as to how the watercolors once deemed authentic by the National Gallery were now thought to be questionable. This is where the phone call to me was made. Ever the prudent business man, Mr. Kemper wanted answers of his own before hearing from others. The task I agreed to was to examine the works and gather information to form a second opinion before meeting with representatives from the catalogue committee.

To this end I read the many biographies of O’Keeffe and examined the artworks at great length. The literary sources consistently indicated that O’Keeffe rarely gave works of art away and when she did she was known to ask for them back or seek their return after the recipient had died. This well-documented trait conflicted with the story that the works were gifts to an undergraduate lover who had left to fight in a war, a war to which O’Keeffe was adamantly and vocally opposed.

More important than the stories associated with the artworks were the watercolors themselves. Over a period of several weeks, each piece was individually examined. The periods of examination were closely limited in order to keep the eye “fresh”. Once the individual examinations were complete, the artworks were grouped according to paper type. One major group was executed on low grade construction paper. On the verso of these pieces were scars and breaks in the paper where another sheet had once been attached. Some edges of these papers had been relatively recently trimmed. There were also unusual patterns of fading on the verso of the sheets from exposure to light. It became apparent that these sheets had once served as mounts for other artworks. The original artworks had been removed, hence the areas indicating detachment, and the paper, trimmed to the proper dimension, then flipped over to present a clean surface for the execution of the watercolor. Not only was salvaging paper was not a characteristic of the artist’s working method, but it was very cheap paper that didn’t warrant salvaging in the first place.

Other papers were also problematic. Some watercolors were on bond paper, a light weight highly processed paper manufactured and used largely as document paper. Again, not a typical artist paper and due to its extreme sensitivity to moisture and general inability to absorb water, wholly inappropriate as a support for a watercolor.

Judith Walsh, then paper conservator in the lab at the National Gallery of Art, was instrumental in establishing the Canyon Suite as fraudulent. She is an internationally recognized expert on papers and has published widely on paper and artist’s working methods. Her investigation centered on the types of papers used in the group, O’Keeffe’s working methods and comparing the Canyon Suite with examples of watercolors whose authorship is unquestioned. It was Judy who traced the history of the modern watercolor paper used in the Suite and discovered that it had been manufactured by the Fabriano paper mill in Italy and wasn’t available in the United States until the 1950's.

My approach was more forensic, drawing upon my research into the history of the physical handling of works of art on paper. I wanted to see how the physical evidence left on the artworks jived with the story of their discovery. As the works were examined, it grew increasingly clear that the pieces had not lain undiscovered for nearly seventy years in a bundle. Furthermore, the placement of damages on the verso, the idiosyncratic edge trimmings and the odd placement of thumbtack holes strongly suggested a previous life for many of the papers and indicated a purposeful intent to hide their source. In the course of the research I saw only reproductions of genuine O’Keeffe watercolors but it was apparent that the papers used in the Canyon Suite were not typical of those used by traditionally trained artists. If Georgia O’Keeffe had worked in collage or employed found items in her work the reused papers might have made sense. But O’Keeffe didn’t work in that manner.

One of the most interesting aspects of dealing with forgeries is the emotional. We love art and when art proves to be false its like being cheated on by a lover. Walking the client through the emotional loss becomes a significant factor in the process.

Representatives from the Kemper, including myself and the four principles on the Georgia O’Keeffe catalogue raisonné project met at the Kemper Museum on 16 December 2000 and information was exchanged. The report produced as a result of my research was eventually presented to the dealer, who accepted it's findings. The watercolors were returned and the dealer reimbursed the museum and made additional gifts to the collection.

Copyright © 2008 by Mark Stevenson Paper Conservation. All rights reserved.  Revised: 08/23/08 01:59:29 -0400.