Do you sometimes wonder about the people portrayed in paintings?

This is that kind of story. It is also a bit of an illustration of the detective work that goes into learning about an artwork’s background. Not all research yields as much information as this one.

In the summer of 2018, Clay Alexander contacted Jon Carfagno, Executive Director of Hickory Museum of Art, saying that he, Alexander, was the model for one of the paintings in HMA’s collection. Sorting through his mother’s files, he had found information about a painting he had never known about before. The painter was Wilford S. Conrow, and Alexander had a handwritten letter from Conrow to Alexander’s mother dated July 12, 1956 that detailed some of the painting’s history. Since the letter mentioned HMA, what could HMA tell him about the painting?

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Quite a bit as it turned out. And, a visit from Clay Alexander to HMA on September 18, 2018, with his wife Paula, one of his three sons and daughters-in-law, and two grandchildren, added more insight.

A different letter in HMA’s files from Conrow, this one to Paul Whitener and dated June 4th, 1944, mentions that he, Conrow, has arranged for four of his own paintings to be shipped to HMA by W.S. Budworth & Son in New York City for a Conrow exhibit at HMA. Radio Hour was one of those paintings. HMA’s records indicated that the painting was undated; but this letter placed it as having been painted sometime before 1944.

By extrapolating from Clay Alexander’s birth year (1935) and his apparent age in the painting, Radio Hour would have been painted around 1940. Alexander said it must have been painted in New York City where his family had lived, but he himself has no memory of being painted. The following then is what Conrow wrote to Alexander’s mother in 1956.

Dear Mrs. Alexander,

I am moved to send you this photo of the recomposed, reframed portrait of your little son, declared unsatisfactory when you saw it last. You and your mother, both gracious ladies were so unfailingly considerate during this episode, only one other of the kind that I remember out of more than five hundred portraits commissioned, that I wish to express gratitude to both of you. I also would like you to know the lesson I learned while passing through this barrier, that led me to a higher level of understanding of what to do in professional practice. And that is good.

I was commissioned by your husband on Gordon’s recommendation to paint a portrait of your little boy. You all had faith that I would use my knowledge and understanding of my art; and this implied not only experience but also intuitions that guide me emotionally in painting a portrait.

But my devotion to Gordon, matched by yours, led me astray. My thought became what would Gordon like, what would you, who love and respect Gordon, have me do because that had been what Gordon had done, for instance, a narrow frame. I put in the toy boat, probably irrelevant to the simplest solution of the portrait problem. So I became an artist with no mind of his own. And that irritated your husband.

I understand better than your husband realized. Stupidity in others is hard for me to tolerate. It is perhaps the surest way to make me explode emotionally, ceasing to be the gracious man I would be always. … With your husband discusted [sic] and irritated as I would have been in his place, I took the rejected portrait and reframed it according to my own intuitions, and using the knowledge and experience that was all mine.

The little portrait was cut down to the size you see, and a wide frame carved and signed by Azelio [sic] Pancani, the first putty colored frame a finish now so widely used, set it off with distinction. Pancani had received before coming to America two gold medals of honor for wood carving – from the hands of the King of Italy; and from the hands of Queen Victoria.

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Called “Radio Hour” the portrait was exhibited widely. Its very first showing put a blue seal symbolizing First Prize, on the back of the frame. It traveled to many exhibitions of exhibiting societies, exhibitions at art museum galleries far and wide. It was finally [in 1954] acquired and presented anonymously (I having nothing to do with this) to the permanent collection of the most inspiring art museum I know that specializes in competent American art since 1850 – the Hickory Museum of Art, Hickory, North Carolina. Its director, Paul W. Whitener, as honest as Lincoln, I think of as a man of Destiny.

I could write more. But let this suffice for now, anyway.

Always, my thanks to you and your mother. Always my regard for your husband that comes from fuller comprehension.

Sincerely, Wilford S. Conrow


Bio of Dr. Clay Alexander (Henry Clay 3d), the boy in the painting. His father was a partner in the J.P. Morgan firm in NYC at the time of the painting, and Chairman of the Board of Morgan Guaranty Trust at his death in 1969; and during her years in New York his mother Janet was active in social work. She founded the Recreation Service for Children at Bellevue Hospital, and was a member of the Board of Managers at the institution's School of Nursing.

Dr. Alexander himself has volunteered as a Trustee at the Oceanside Museum of Art in the Greater San Diego [CA] Area since 2009. A retired surgeon, he published his fifth philosophical thriller in 2017.

“Gordon” was Gordon Hope Grant (1875-1962), an American artist well-known for his maritime watercolors. He did seem to favor narrow frames.

Italian-born frame maker Azeglio T. Pancani (1910-2001) started his successful woodworking career in Europe but had immigrated to New Jersey, across the river from where Conrow was active. Pancani is buried in Union County, New Jersey.

The New Yorker, May 9, 1936 lists an article on p. 13: “W.S. Budworth & Son, 424 West 52nd Street, who specialize in packing of paintings, statuary and objects d'art, and are, so far as we know, the only firm in the country to do this exclusively. … Business was founded in 1867 by Grandfather of [the] Budworth who now runs it. Describes the building, methods of packing and some personalities.” [Full article available to New Yorker subscribers here.]

Here’s more about Wilford Seymour Conrow

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This post is # 13 of the 75 stories to celebrate HMA's 75 years.

Post by Karin Borei, HMA Project Coordinator, writer and editor as needed, and HMA blogger since our blog's inception in March 2015.