BALTIMORE: A tiny Renoir painting has returned home to a gallery in the Baltimore Museum of Art nearly 63 years after it was stolen and then kept mysteriously hidden for decades until it resurfaced in 2012. Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s painting “On the Shore of the Seine,” from about 1879, was unveiled Thursday as the centerpiece of a new exhibition, “The Renoir Returns.” It opens to the public Sunday.
“It’s a moment we’ve been looking forward to,” museum director Doreen Bolger said. “I always believed in my heart that it would come back. ... It’s what we’re about: preserving works of art.”
The painting, just 14 by 23 centimeters, reappeared in 2012 when a Virginia woman claimed she unknowingly bought it at a flea market for $7 and then prepared to send it to auction. But others, including her brother, later disputed the story. A Washington Post reporter discovered the painting’s connection to the Baltimore museum, and police uncovered a theft report from 1951.
The Renoir became the subject of a dramatic legal dispute involving the FBI, the woman who said she found the painting, an insurance company’s rights to the artwork and the intentions of Saidie May, an art collector who bought the painting in Paris in 1925 and lent it to the Baltimore museum. May later gave more than 800 artworks to the museum, including many when she died.
In January, a federal judge also awarded ownership of the little Renoir to the museum.
“Thank God we had the documentation preserved in our archives,” Bolger said in an interview Thursday. “People always think, ‘oh dusty archives, well whatever.’ No, actually they perform a valuable function whether you’re researching the genealogy of your family or the history of a work of art.”
When the painting was stolen, Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., paid the museum about $2,500 for the loss in 1951. The company based near San Francisco considered whether to make a claim for the painting when it resurfaced but decided “it belonged here,” said Sally Narey, the insurer’s general counsel.
“I’m sure monsieur Renoir would be very surprised by the unique journey that this lovely impressionist painting has taken, and I’m also sure he would be delighted to see that it’s back in its home,” Narey said.
Senior Curator Katy Rothkopf called the painting “our little jewel.” As an artwork, the piece is a good example of Renoir’s high impressionist style and technique with bright colors and expressive brushwork during the late 19th century.
When the painting returned to the museum this year, it needed only a light surface cleaning.
“Wherever it had been, it had been well cared for,” Rothkopf said.
Researchers have confirmed part of May’s story about the painting – that Renoir painted it on a linen napkin, apparently from his mistress.
“If you get close to the painting, you’ll actually be able to see the weave of that napkin,” Bolger said.
A special exhibition on view through July 20 in Baltimore reunites the Renoir with more than 20 other artworks from May’s collection, which helped shape the museum’s modern art holdings.
May, who grew up in Baltimore, began collecting art in the 1920s with an eye toward decorating her New York City apartment but also spent time in Europe learning about art and visiting galleries.
The exhibit looks at May’s various donations to the museum, which include its only paintings by Piet Mondrian, Jackson Pollock, Paul Klee and others.
May wanted to add more modern and contemporary art to the Baltimore museum, in part to complement another major collection of modern art masterpieces from the Cone sisters of Baltimore – Claribel and Etta Cone – who eventually donated thousands of artworks.
With the Renoir back in the public realm, the museum can now reinsert the piece in the history of the artist’s career, Bolger said. The museum would be open to lending it to other museums as well, even though it has been swiped once before.
“Today people take precautions like if it’s smaller than a certain size, it’s screwed into the wall or alarmed and there are cameras and a guard in every gallery,” Bolger said. “Today art museums are very careful.”
Baltimore Museum of Art: www.artbma.org.