Provenance (n) 2: the history of ownership of a valued object or work of art or literature - merriam-webster.com
My first exposure to the importance of knowing an object’s provenance was in my early twenties when I worked my way into the antiques department of a department store. We used it primarily to legitimize the objects we were selling, therefore increasing value. Such legitimacy was occasionally harmed when a co-worker would offer to “check the providence” for them.
My undergraduate art history classes didn’t touch on the concept very much either. Perhaps it was treated as a vocabulary word; something of which to be aware. But, beyond the very basic college studies, provenance is critical to academic research and can be even be important in identifying war crimes. The primary reason I find it to be fun is that it gives each work of art its own narrative. The artist births the artwork and sends it out into the world to have a life of its own.
This is why I’m appreciative of museums providing provenance on their gallery pages. I was clicking around on the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston website and came across Horace Pippin’s Country Doctor (Night Call) (1935). After being struck by the painting, I read the provenance and noticed that the piece was at one point given to the playwright Clifford Odets by the family of Dr. Morris Leof. Well who was Dr. Morris Leof? Who was the gallerist who represented Pippin who was not exactly a main stream artist at that time?
These questions led me down a rabbit hole of research which I will share over the next few weeks as I explore the life of the painting Country Doctor (Night Call).