Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline PLC has donated a painting with a mysterious past to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The work by N.C. Wyeth was one of 16 illustrations made in 1929 for George Herbert Palmer's translation of Homer's The Odyssey. Wyeth sold the series to a private collector in 1930, but the whereabouts of all but six are unknown.
The Trial of the Bow, which was placed on view earlier this month, is the first N.C. Wyeth work in the museum's collection. Wyeth is the patriarch of three generations of artists who lived and worked in Chadds Ford in the Brandywine River valley, including son Andrew Wyeth, who died in 2009, and grandson Jamie Wyeth.
"This is how we increase the quality of life in our community beyond the economic engine of jobs," said Bob Carr, Glaxo senior vice president.
The large oil on canvas depicts the moment when Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, reveals his identity to Penelope by stringing his bow and firing an arrow through twelve ax handles. The painting was acquired in the late 1980s by GlaxoSmithKline, but the company is still working to uncover who purchased it and where.
Kathleen Foster, curator of American art, said the painting was likely acquired by a now-retired Glaxo executive who was in charge of art acquisitions.
"That's the person who's going to know," she said, adding that details of the sale could point the way to other lost paintings from The Odyssey series that may have been sold at the same time.
GlaxoSmithKline recently moved from its downtown office tower to an ultramodern new home at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and decided to part with its collection of several hundred photos, drawings, textiles and paintings. The new building has glass walls and an open floor plan without a lot of places to hang works of art; employees were given the opportunity to buy some pieces at half the appraised value, and others were auctioned or donated.
"It always captivated me that we had this painting," said Ray Milora, project executive for Glaxo. "We're beyond proud to be able to be here today . . . this is sort of the exclamation point on our move."
More than 95 percent of the museum's collection has come as gifts, so donations like The Trial of the Bow are essential and appreciated, museum director and chief executive officer Timothy Rub said.
The museum also announced several other gifts, including a watercolor by Pierre Joseph Redoute, four paintings from 18th century colonial Latin America, a rare Tiffany chandelier and more than 200 photographs by modernist photographer and filmmaker Paul Strand.