Discovering the True Identity of ‘Lady in White’

Anna holmes combines her love of art and history in the auction business.

The lead up to an auction is a fascinating time for us, as we often unearth new and exciting details about the artworks in our care. This leads to an even greater appreciation of the artists and works we are entrusted with.

One of these compelling artworks is Lady in White by Laura Muntz Lyall, to be offered in our forthcoming Canadian and Inuit Fine Art Auction on May 27. This beautiful portrait of a woman was consigned to us as a possible portrait of Mrs. Robert Reid – the wife of Robert Reid, past president of London Life Insurance Company in London, Ontario. This line of provenance was assumed because the painting purportedly came from the home of Mr. Reid.

During the course of our research on this Muntz painting, we came across a black and white photograph of the painting in an 1899 edition of the Toronto Globe, which was reproduced in Joan Murray’s book, Laura Muntz Lyall:Impressions of Women and Childhood. This exciting discovery led to further research on the identity of the sitter portrayed in Lady in White, who we now believe to be Wilhelmina Hawley, an American painter.

As we shared in our essay in the auction catalogue, Wilhelmina Hawley was a dear friend of Laura Muntz. Both women studied at the Academie Colarossi in Paris, and were part of the same artistic circle as James Abbott McNeill Whistler. The two women lived and painted together from 1893 to 1897. They clearly had a strong connection while living in Paris, sharing in their love of art, while also travelling to the artist village of Rijsoord, Netherlands in the summer of 1892 to paint.

We believe that Muntz executed this portrait of her friend in 1897, the same year that the work was exhibited in Paris. This portrait of Hawley was then lent to an exhibition at the Women’s Art Association of Canada in 1899 (the year the work was reproduced in the Toronto Globe). We can only assume that when Laura returned to Canada in 1897, she brought this portrait back with her. Murray’s book also shares another portrait of Hawley that Muntz painted in 1895, depicting Wilhelmina reading in an elegant white dress.

Incredibly, we were able to make contact with the descendants of Hawley – her great granddaughter in fact. She has confirmed that this painting does indeed depict her great grandmother, Wilhelmina Hawley.

The relationships that this painting represents and the connections it has inspired is truly moving. As a lover of art and history, I feel grateful to have had the opportunity to not only admire this painting, but to learn about the connection between these female artists of the 19th century and to reconnect a family with their ancestor. We can now definitively offer Lady in White as an important historical portrait of Wilhelmina Hawley.

Lot 58

oil on canvas, laid down on board
inscribed on the reverse “From the estate of Robt. H. Reid – London, Ont. (said to be a portrait of Mrs. Robt. H. Reid)”
57 ins x 37.5 ins; 144.8 cms x 95.3 cms
Estimate $20,000 – 30,000

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