Connected \\ December 12, 2018

Hidden Treasure

In the midst of helping his mother sell their family home in Western Massachusetts after living there for some 53 years, John Hanson got a surprising phone call. The agent hired to prepare the property for an estate sale had a question: What did he know about the rolled-up artwork stored on a closet shelf in a third-floor bedroom?


I have never seen it in my life,” was his answer.


The painting, which measures 4-feet-by-8 feet, is an engaging panorama of an imperial summer palace in Beijing, China, known as the Garden of Nurturing Harmony. Hanson said his mother received the painting from her mother and he guessed the artwork had remained “stored for a future use that never came.”

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A portrait sketch of Dorothea Jordan Reynolds, ca. 1920.


Hanson has since learned that his grandmother, Dorothea Jordan Reynolds, a woman they affectionately called “Dodo,” bought the painting at a New York City gallery in the 1920s or ’30’s. The family suspects that perhaps in her enthusiasm to be the winning bidder, she did not account for the fact that it was too big for any wall in her home.

An auctioneer suggested that the painting had value, but would likely be sliced into sections for better saleability. “It’s funny because there were things we lived with all of our life and we were fine about auctioning them off. There was zero emotional pull. But something about the notion that this painting would be significantly altered just didn’t feel right to us,” said Hanson. “We decided if a museum thinks it should be in a museum, then it should be in a museum.”

Hanson took some photos and reached out to one museum and never heard back. Then he emailed Daisy Yiyou Wang, PEM’s Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art. Less than 24 hours later, the family got a reply.

On a hot July day in 2015, the family brought the painting to one of the museum’s conference rooms. “As soon as we unrolled it, Daisy basically took one look and said the museum would be interested in having this for their collection,” Hanson said.

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Ted Reynolds, John Hanson, Dorothea Reynolds Hanson and Daisy Yiyou Wang, The Robert N. Shapiro Curator of Chinese and East Asian Art, pose before a painting that the family recently donated to PEM. Panorama of the Garden of Nurturing Harmony (Yihe yuan), Guangxu or Republican period, probably early 20th century. Ink and color on paper. Peabody Essex Museum. Gift of Dorothea Reynolds Hanson in memory of Dorothea Jordan Reynolds. 2015.28.1. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


At the time, Wang was in the very early stages of planning for the Empresses of China’s Forbidden City exhibition. The donated painting, now on view in the last gallery, helps tell the story of the influence wielded by Empress Dowager Cixi within the Qing dynasty. In the 1880s Cixi personally oversaw the restoration of the property, which had been pillaged by Anglo-French troops some 20 years earlier.


For eight years, I lived in West Beijing five minutes from that garden,” said Wang. “That garden is very dear to my heart.


Wang stressed that PEM curators take the intentions of donors seriously, and advocate to get works entrusted to the museum on view whenever possible. She said she was thrilled to meet with the extended Reynolds family when they came to PEM in August.

As many understand intimately, the process of downsizing as a parent ages can be stressful and filled with moments of melancholy. Hanson said their summer trip to the museum offered a welcome respite, and an experience he will not soon forget.

“Our visit created a nice little family event with everyone talking about our family and reminiscing,” said Hanson. “I think it would give my grandmother great satisfaction to know that something that caught her eye at an auction way back then is now hanging in an art museum with her name on the label. Our family is delighted to know that this painting has found its proper home, to be studied and admired. To think it sat in dark closets for 80-plus years still boggles my mind.”

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