The Curious Case of Willie Gee

Philip Mould did AGAIN. About one month ago, I read the book excerpt of the fascinating story of Mould buying a painting from eBay across Atlantic for $200 and, after removing the overpaint, revealing a masterful portrait by the young hand of Gansborough. Today he made the news by identifying an unsigned work at auction as a landscape painting by Gansborough. Of course, he didn’t announce it before he successfully bid for the painting through phone at £50,000. And this time he outwitted not an unknown eBay dealer, but Sotheby’s.

A portrait of a black boy at Neal Auction (Lot 625)
A portrait of a black boy at Neal Auction (Lot 625)

This reminds me of the curious case of a painting of Willie Gee which was auctioned last weekend at Neal Auction. When I was looking through the online catalog of the “Summer Estate Sale”, I was suddenly caught by a familiar face of a black boy. The description on the live auctioneers only gives the title “The Portrait of Willie Gee” and a simple Google search revealed that Willie Gee was the newspaper delivery boy of Robert Henri and a portrait of him was hung at Newark Museum.

I can vividly recall my reaction when I saw that painting by Henri the first time. (Good paintings always chill my spine. And this one was no exception.) It is almost the first painting once you climb to the second floor which houses the modern American paintings. As you turn right, there he is: Willie Gee, a young boy of big forehead and large eyes. He looks out, not directly toward the viewer, half innocently and half passively.The apple in his right hand, looming out of the dark oversized coat, is the only contrasting color out of a world of gray darkness.

At first, I was very happy at the finding since it was an unsigned work. There are some minor differences between the two paintings. The boy in the unsigned work look slightly more nourished with the flesh around the cheeks and his forehead looks round. But without examining the painting on-site, it maybe just some mis-judgement from the photo.

As I talked with Geo, we immediately realized that there is a contradiction here: Without a signature, someone can identify the boy as Willie Gee, yet the appraiser at Neal would not even attribute the work to Robert Henri. What gives?

Since I knew this was not an antiques roadshow story, I began to look at the picture in a nit-pick at the style. First, it lacks an overall dark-tone which would distinguishes the highlights. Secondly, the brushstrokes lack the fluency of raw and unpolished power. The visible brushstrokes in Henri’s Willie Gee are succinct and effective in delivering architectural form. Some thick improvised impasto around his nose was applied directly with great skills and confidence. Lastly, Henri’s Willie Gee demands extensive looking. Henri once said, “Feel the dignity of a child. Do not feel superior to him, for you are not.” The alertness from slightly frowned eyebrow contrasts with the resignation from the off-focused pupils. The boy may be silent, but one cannot help to think what was in his mind. All these ambiguities and contrast are lost in the painting offered in the auction house: Willie does bear striking similarity, but he is just posing here for a quick session.

Willie Gee, 1904, oil on canvas, The Newark Museum.
Willie Gee, 1904, oil on canvas, The Newark Museum.

Today, I was curious to find out how much it had fetched in the auction. In fact, the Neal Auction provided more description on this lot on their own website.

625. American School, early 20th c., “Portrait of Willie Gee”, oil on canvas, unsigned, 25 in. x 20 in., in a later wood frame. $1800/2400

Provenance: Dutchess County, NY Estate.Note: The young boy depicted in this portrait is almost identical in facial features and clothing to Robert Henri’s “Portrait of Willie Gee ” of 1904, now in the Newark Museum of Art. In the early 1900s, Henri painted many portraits of the lower-class citizens of New York City, earning his group the name “The Ashcan School.” Willie Gee, a local paperboy, was one of Henri’s subjects at a time when Henri was teaching painting in the city. It is feasible, therefore, that this portrait may be by one of Henri’s students.

I would agree that the portrait could have been done by one of Henri’s students. The likeliness is so good that either the painter had the access to the model or he had to make a copy out of an original one. But the different poses in two paintings suggest that latter is unlikely. Willie was not a professional model, and probably only some of Henri’s students could have access and interest to paint someone who would not be able to afford a portraiture.

Starting from 1902, Robert Henri began to teach at the New York School of Art. A bunch of artists went to his studio. Considering that so many of his pupils became well-known, it is worth investigating the identity of the painter of this Wilie Gee portrait. To my surprise, the painting did not sell (based on the preliminary sale results). Maybe the quest for identifying the real painter of this Willie Gee will continue.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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