After small trip of its own, N.C. Wyeth ‘Odyssey’ painting safe in Philly museum

“The Trial of the Bow” was thought missing for 30 years until it was recently discovered in the Philadelphia headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company, just a few blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

“When he had the bow in his hands, the godlike Odysseus,Easily did stretch the string, and shoot through the axe-heads:Then he sprang up on the platform, and poured out the arrows before him…”

Thus did the ancient Greek hero Odysseus arrived in Ithaca to reclaim his home and wife. Having revealed himself as the true Odysseus, he laid waste the layabout suitors vying for his Penelope.

“…as heads were stricken, a dreadfulGroaning arose: and the floor ran deep with the blood of the slaughtered.”

That last image was perhaps too gory for N.C. Wyeth, who, in 1929, was commissioned to paint 16 scenes from “The Odyssey” for publication. He instead chose the first part, “The Trial of the Bow,” to illustrate the scene.

“He worked in so much color — it’s quite iridescent,” said Kathleen Foster, curator American art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. “While he was telling a great story — and “The Odyssey” is a great story — he’s employing all the skills of the artist. He’s a great painter.”

Over the years, that set of 16 “Odyssey” paintings dispersed into the the market; most landed in unknown private collections. Only five could be accounted for, including one at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa. This one, which has just been donated to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, makes six.

“We’re still looking for the other 10,” said Foster.

Painting missing longer than Odysseus in epic tale

“The Trial of the Bow” was thought missing for 30 years until it was recently discovered in the Philadelphia headquarters of GlaxoSmithKline, a pharmaceutical company, just a few blocks from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Since the late 1980s, it had been in a hallway just outside an executive office. Few employees had any idea it was something special.

“We knew we had a Wyeth,” said Ray Milora of GlaxoSmithKline. “I think the importance of it was less known.”

Milora does not know how or why the company acquired an original Wyeth canvas. The company became aware that the painting was part of a set of missing Wyeths when GSK prepared to move to new headquarters in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard.

The newly constructed building is mostly glass with open-plan floors. There are no walls on which to hang paintings. With no use for wall decorations, GSK had all art in the old building appraised and made available to employees at reduced cost.

But the Wyeth was retained from that sale.

“Our ability at this time to gift this to the museum, which is where it should be in our mind, is why we did this,” said Milora. “Having a Wyeth in the building is great, but for Glaxo to step forward and offer this back to the museum — we feel it belongs here.”

GSK has long been a patron of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Museum has no other pieces by N.C. Wyeth, father of Andrew and grandfather of Jamie, in its collection.

Art can go missing right in plain sight

It’s not unusual for art to go missing in corporate collections. As companies absorb other companies and their assets, records of what art is hanging in which building are easily lost; as buyers and caretakers move on to other jobs, records are further buried.

One corporation recognized for its sensitivity to its own art collection is Bank of America, which carefully catalogued its vast holdings and made them available to museums for public display. Bob Cozzolino of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts curated an exhibition of the bank’s art in 2008.

“Unless, with the buying of that art, there’s somebody who understands the nature of the materials that they are dealing with, and that is identified within the organization as a position that should have continuity as people go on to other jobs, unless that’s in place, there’s a danger of key pieces not being well kept,” said Cozzolino.

An enormous amount of material culture is bought by corporations, decorating millions of square footage in buildings across the country. Much of it is innocuous and polite, says Cozzolino, but a surprising amount of compelling, serious art can be found in the oddest places.

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