Twice-Scorned, A Portrait Lands in Santa Barbara
|Thomas Lawrence and Studio (?), The Best Children, late 1820s. The Armand Hammer Foundation, on loan to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art|
When Hammer bought it, the picture showed two children, the girls. His restorer removed overpainting to reveal the reclining boy at left, in red. Why was one figure painted out? Hammer suggested that the boy had died and the family had him painted out. This is possible—anything's possible—but it's not necessarily likely. Other family portraits of the period commemorate deceased children as well as surviving ones. The child mortality rate was high, and death was accepted as part of a family's history.
In Hammer's telling the erasure of the boy threw off the painting's composition. The girl at left was looking at nothing. That, presumably, was why the Met deaccessioned it. With the boy restored, the painting again made sense as a major Lawrence portrait. This analysis bolstered Hammer's belief that he was a uniquely brilliant art collector (an opinion not widely shared).
Hammer promised his collection to LACMA. Instead he gave it to his vanity museum in Westwood. UCLA took over Hammer's museum and later returned some art to the separate Armand Hammer Foundation, in exchange for releasing some of the more onerous conditions of Hammer's bequest. The Lawrence was one of the works UCLA returned. Now owned by the Hammer Foundation, it's on loan to SBMA. It's shown in the salon-style hang of the Ludington Court. For the record, these are mostly lesser paintings that benefit by being seen from a distance.
The Best Children has puzzled specialists because its style is consistent with Lawrence's early career, yet the ages of the children (of William Samuel Best, 2nd Baron of Wynford, 1798-1869) imply a date in the late 1820s. SBMA's website theorizes that Lawrence executed the faces only and the rest was done by assistants.