After decades out of the public eye, a nearly two-century old painting by a renowned Kentucky artist — and his apprentice — is now on view at Louisville’s Speed Art Museum.
The unveiling of the religious work marks the end of a four-year journey for the archivist who spearheaded its restoration.
Tim Tomes could hardly contain his joy as he looked at the restored painting, now safely installed at the Speed Art Museum’s Gill and Augusta Brown Holland Gallery.
“I just want to do jumping jacks,” he joked.
Tomes is the archivist for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville, which owns the painting. While he’s happy that the piece is securely in place, the painting’s subject matter is anything but joyous.
It’s called “The Dead Christ Mourned (The Three Maries) After Carracci,” often informally called “The Three Marys.” It was painted in 1824 by Matthew Harris Jouett of Lexington, along with his apprentice, John Grimes.
As the title suggests, it’s a copy of a painting by the Italian Baroque artist Annibale Carracci, which hangs in the National Gallery in London. Tomes says Jouett likely copied the work from an engraving he found in a Bible.
The painting depicts a dramatic biblical scene. Mary, the mother of Jesus and three other women, the three Marys in the title, are grieving, trying to console one another over the body of the crucified Christ.
Tomes described the scene.
“Jesus’ mother has fainted, she’s fallen to the ground, she’s fallen backwards her eyes are rolled up in the back of her head, she’s pretty much lost her breath,” he said. “Mary Salome is holding her up so she doesn’t fall all the way back.”
Matthew Jouett was almost exclusively a portrait painter, and Tomes says it’s not clear why he chose to recreate this particular scene or paint it on a canvas eight feet high and ten feet long.
“Jouett was not Catholic, he was not known for painting religious scenes,” he said. “And why did he blow it up so big, about five times it’s original size? We don’t know. We think it was a study between him and his apprentice, so it was an education piece.”
The painting’s provenance is not clear, either, but Tomes says it was sold at auction shortly after Jouett’s death, and by the 1850s it was hanging in what is now the Cathedral of the Assumption in Louisville, where it spent many years above the church organ. It was removed in the mid 1970s during renovation work, and stored in various places. The painting was heavily damaged during one particular move.
In 2015, Tomes, with church approval and no previous experience in this area, launched a campaign to have the painting and its original frame restored. He raised $80,000 in private donations. Two years later, he drove the painting himself to ICA Art Conservation center in Cleveland, where restorers and their apprentices painstakingly cleaned and repaired it. The frame was restored by a Washington, D.C. firm, Gold Leaf Studios.
Susan Hughes is the executive director of the Jack Jouett House Historic Site in Versailles, Kentucky, where Matthew Jouett spent part of his childhood. Matthew was one of 12 children born to Sallie and Jack Jouett, who was a Revolutionary War hero.
Hughes says she’s eager to see this particular Matthew Jouett work back in public view, as it’s such a departure from his widely displayed portraits.
“I think the faces in this painting are very evocative,” she said. “I was reading somewhere where he wasn’t very good with hands, and yet the hands on this one are very good. But I think maybe he was just expanding his repertoire.”
“The Three Marys” is on loan to the Speed Art Museum and hangs in the Holland Gallery right off the main entrance.
Curator Erika Holmquist-Wall says it’s not just a work of art that’s being preserved here.
“It was a master American painter at the time, training a younger pupil, learning from the Old Masters,” she said. “For me, that’s what I like to think about, and the fact that it took a team of apprentices and it was used as an educational tool in the restoration process.”
This has also been an education for archivist Tim Tomes, who hopes to use what he’s learned to help preserve other works in the archdiocese’s art collection.