Another Chapter in “The Von Wagner Code”

There has been another discovery since last we wrote about “The Von Wagner Code” and posed the question of whether a masterwork had been discovered in a storage closet at Florida Southern College.

Although the discovery doesn’t officially confirm that the work upon which “The Von Wagner Code” exhibition is centered is a verifiable work of Alexander von Wagner, it adds another piece of evidence to suggest that this could be true. 

In August, Diane Baires – who is the curator of Florida Southern’s Melvin Gallery and works as the Art and Art History Department assistant at the college – located an inventory and an article from 1951 about the college’s art collection that listed a painting in the student lounge called “Claudius Triumph” by “Alexander Wagner.”

“Upon its rediscovery in 2016, it was initially believed that the painting was gifted to the college in 1953 as a 17th century Italian Baroque painting by Domenico Fetti, based on a letter that was believed to relate to the painting,” said Dr. Alex Rich, the Polk Museum of Art’s curator and director of galleries and exhibitions. Rich also is an art history professor at Florida Southern. 

Instead, research confirmed it to be a variant of von Wagner’s 19th century “The Chariot Race.” 

Based on this inventory and newspaper article discovery, however, “we now know the college knew it was by von Wagner way back when after all and that it was on campus as early as 1951, nearly two years before the questionable ‘Fetti’ gift of 1953,” Rich said. “But the college was not aware that the von Wagner was a masterwork, obviously, given what happened to it.”

Sometime in the 1950s or early 1960s, the painting was cut out of its frame, replaced by a mirror, and rolled up in a closet. 

And over the 60 years it was stowed away, what it actually was — a von Wagner — was forgotten. 

“No evidence suggested its provenance, apart from our knowledge of who gifted it,” Rich said. “Upon its rediscovery, it was thus mistaken as the ‘Fetti’ gifted by the same donor in 1953. The confusion stemmed from the fact that both gifts — the von Wagner and the Fetti — were from the same donor but for two entirely different paintings.”

The 1953 letter that offered the gift of the Fetti work and that was thought to concern the rediscovered “Chariot Race” painting was written by Emile E. Watson. But as it turns out, Watson gifted the von Wagner before 1951, and the Fetti in 1953. Excitingly, we know the college once believed it had both a von Wagner and a Fetti.  We have the presumed von Wagner on display at the Museum, but now there’s another thrilling mystery: Where is the Fetti painting?

Learn More

Want to hear more about this exhibition? Watch the Aug. 16 episode of WEDU’s “Arts Plus.”