A mysterious woman gazes out of a gold frame at St. Olaf College. Her painted form is pale and slender in a draping black dress, with dark, wavy hair and placidly downturned eyes. For nearly 20 years, she has been hanging on the wall in the college president’s house, presiding over a messy, unfinished void in the righthand corner of the canvas.
And she could be worth $6 million.
This painting is a portrait of the young violinist Eva Mudocci, who, for a brief time in 1903, had a romantic relationship with expressionist painter Edvard Munch. You’re probably familiar with Munch’s work even if you don’t know it. He painted The Scream – featuring a cadaverous figure slapping both hands on either side of his head like the kid from Home Alone.
For years, St. Olaf has been trying to figure out whether the portrait was painted by Munch. Auction records and correspondence seem to imply he might have. But proving it is harder than you might think. In December, experts at the Munch Museum in Oslo declined to come examine it, claiming they were in the middle of a building project and their curators were busy.
But now the college has some new, promising evidence. In October, a team of conservation scientists from Scientific Analysis of Fine Art (SAFA) swung by. They took some tiny samples from the unfinished painting and compared it to Munch’s other works and the 900 tubes of paint left in his studio after he died.
Here’s what they found: traces of strontium yellow, zinc yellow, and a likely tinge of viridian green – all pigments that have graced Munch’s palette. What they didn’t find: all the rich blues and greens used by later expressionist painters. These weren’t available in 1904, when Munch was painting a “lady violinist,” and when, later that year, he and Mudocci parted ways.
The analysis proves the painting is made of the right materials, around the right time. The painter and the musician’s breakup might even explain why it was left crudely unfinished.
This is not the final word on the matter. They still need to verify if the brushstrokes and graphite sketches match the artist’s distinct style, and they need a Munch expert’s opinion for that. But Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson says there’s hope now that they can get one.
“More recently, we’ve been able to turn some heads,” she says.
And if it is, indeed, a Munch, What then? Riches?
“We’re not going to sell it,” Becker Nelson says. It had originally been donated to the college by St. Olaf alumnus Richard Tetlie, and he was very specific about the painting remaining at the school. Besides, if they sold it to a wealthy collector, the lady could end up cloistered away in some private gallery instead of on display in a small, Minnesota liberal arts college, where it can be studied and enjoyed.