A Missing Painting, an Orange-Haired Guard & a Magical Rainbow

A Missing Painting, an Orange-Haired Guard & a Magical Rainbow

A recent trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts troubled me. One of Charles’ favorite Hudson River School landscape paintings was missing from its regular location in the American Art wing.  I asked the guard, “Where is the Cotopaxi painting by Frederic Edwin Church?  “I’m not sure,” he replied, “but I think it was one of those paintings on loan and that the owner has taken it back.”

How could that be? One more thing that Charles loved – gone. Things just keep slipping away, piece by piece. . .

Fortunately, I have many diversions and other art to see. A few days ago when I was in New York City to accept an award for Border Crossings: Coming of Age in the Czech Resistance, my sister and I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were amused by the PUNK: Chaos to Couture exhibit, and marveled at the view from the roof deck overlooking Manhattan. We were captivated by the sculptures in Gallery 548, the European Sculpture Court: the heroic Perseus with the Head of Medusa by the Antonio Canova (Italian) and the powerful Héraklès the Archer by Antoine-Émile Bourdelle (French). Extraordinary! Charles would have loved it.

Later, in search of the exit we eyed a guard with an exotic face, framed with a blaze of electric orange hair. His name was Mario. When we asked the way out he paused and questioned, “Did you see the rainbow?” “Which rainbow?” we asked. Mario responded with a sense of urgency, “You must go. Walk straight ahead, turn right at the first hallway and go down three galleries. Turn left and look down over the railing to one floor below and straight ahead. It is magnificent. You cannot miss it.”

Without questioning we followed Mario’s instructions which led us to a huge banner with brilliant streaming colors of clouds at sunset and a star-studded sky which formed an image of the American flag tattered, but still waving in the winds of liberty. My sister and I turned to each other – This must be Mario’s “rainbow” our eyes told each other. It was breathtaking.  We walked over to a nearby gift shop kiosk to get information about the banner. A postcard booklet described it as Our Banner in the Sky painted by Frederic Edwin Church in 1861. It was created within a month of Confederate forces firing on Fort Sumter, South Carolina where Union forces were based. The symbolic image was compelling and patriotic. An eagle soared to the left of a tree and a prominent star appeared to be the North Star that slaves used for guidance while escaping to the North.

The salesperson at the kiosk made a signal and explained, “That banner is a reproduction. The actual painting is over there.” We followed her directions stopping many times along the way to admire dramatic paintings such as Eastman Johnson’s A Ride for Liberty – The Fugitive Slaves, 1862. The painting depicts a slave family on horseback – father, mother, child and baby. They appear to be traveling at early dawn, fleeing to a safe place, caught between the oppressive slave life on the plantation and the possibility of freedom within the Union army lines. Its colors give a romantic view of slave resistance as the painting highlights the courage of these slaves in pursuing hopes and dreams of a fair and just society.

We were surprised when we arrived at the original Our Banner in the Sky. It was like seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time. The painting was so much smaller than we expected – 7.5 inches x 11.75 inches and yet its impact was still quite powerful.

We continued to move through the exhibit when suddenly in the distance was the most unexpected sight – an astounding display of nature’s power, a volcano erupting  violently against a blood-red sunset, exploding and spreading dark smoke like a banner across the sky,  Frederic Edwin Church’s painting on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for this outstanding exhibition – The Civil War and American Art. It was Cotopaxi! Kismet!



2 Replies to “A Missing Painting, an Orange-Haired Guard & a Magical Rainbow”

  1. I saw it at the DIA around Thanksgiving 2014! It was so memorable, I decided to look it up tonight (not remembering your name) and found your blog on a Google Image search. Thanks!

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