January 23, 2012
The purchase… and Murder of Edith Cavell.
Visitors often ask the museum visitor services staff, “How does the museum get art?”
Today, thanks to the generosity of individuals who have donated either works of art or have donated money that has gone to set up funds for the purchase of art, the museum is able to add works to the collection. When the gallery first started in the 1930’s, however, art was also purchased with funds that came straight out of the University budget (no longer the case today!).
As the infant gallery had just reached the first full year of existence, Malcolm Willey, Assistant to President Coffman (instrumental in the development of the gallery) appealed to Coffman to make available additional funds with which to purchase prints to develop the gallery collection. Coffman granted the request with approval and allocated an additional $1500 for the purchase and framing of prints (May 3, 1935 correspondence, University Archives).
One of the purchases made from this allotment was of a lithograph by artist George Bellows titled “The Murder of Edith Cavell.”
Ruth Lawrence wrote to Malcolm Willey after she and S. Chatwood Burton (Architecture faculty and member of the Fine Arts Committee) met with the dealer. In a correspondence dated May 11, 1935 (WAM 109, University Gallery Correspondence, 1935-1950) Ruth referenced the work and also described the circumstances under which it could be acquired:
“Mr. Burton and I went to see the George Bellows lithographs yesterday. The picture is of Edith Cavell’s execution. Do you remember? It is of her coming down the stairway in the prison. The print was a bit mussed and needed restretching. This originally does not harm a print, but we asked that this be done before we went further, because we wanted it perfect before we accepted it. The print is signed by Bellows and the title is written underneath, in what looks like his handwriting. We will compare it to be sure, when it comes out to the campus. It is Mr. Burton’s opinion that it is a good print, and that it is an exceptional opportunity to get it at a low price. He says Mr. Young, the dealer, is accurate in his statement that in the New York market, we would have to pay $350. The price is $300 regularly in Chicago. Mr. Young is offering it to us at $150. There were 100 prints made of this lithograph, and this is number 93. I shall ask Mr. Young to bring the print to the campus, when it is ready. We can then go over it again. This dealer is a well known one, and I believe he is perfectly honest, but we will make sure.“
Rebecca Wilson is a graduate student in the Master of Liberal Studies program at the University of Minnesota, completing a minor in Museum Studies. She also serves as a Visitor Services Assistant at the Weisman Art Museum.