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The Lost Paintings Found: What Eloise and Stuart Little Have in Common

As I age, I find that I like my podcasts to highlight two areas of expertise that I never quite enjoyed in school: science and history. I wouldn’t say I was adamantly opposed to them back in the day or anything, but the idea that I would one day seek them out for fun would have struck young me as half an inch away from preposterous. Nevertheless, I indulge in Sawbones, Radiolab, No Such Thing As a Fish, Short Wave, 60-Second Science, Invisibilia, and Stuff You Missed in History Class. My latest find is ArtCurious, a show I discovered only because the new book ArtCurious: Stories of the Unexpected, Slightly Odd, and Strangely Wonderful in Art History by Jennifer Dasal is out this month. ArtCurious the podcast covers the world of art, with wonderful explanations of such things as what really happened to the Amber Room, the story behind “The Raft of the Medusa”, and why the Mona Lisa is fake.

Today, in a similar vein, I’d like to highlight two art mysteries that have direct ties to children’s books. One concerns a painting that vanished. The other, a painting that appeared in the oddest of places.

Someone Call Nate the Great! The Case of the Pilfered Painting

It was such a cute story at first. The first Eloise book by Kay Thompson (or, as she would have said, Kay Thompson’s Eloise by Kay Thompson) had been released and young illustrator Hilary Knight’s star was rising. In gratitude he painted a lush, magnificent, full-blown painting of Eloise, posing the little girl against red velvet finery. This he gave as a gift to Thompson. And, as she was a special friend of the Plaza, she hung it up in the lobby for one and all to see.

And then it disappeared.

Disappeared right out of the Plaza, it did, and on the night of the 1960 Junior League ball too. Sounds like something out of a mystery novel. A reward was posted by Thompson for its safe return but no ransom note was ever sent. I’ll let NPR tell the next part:

“Two years later, Hilary Knight got an anonymous phone call telling him the portrait was in a dumpster on the East Side. He picked up the damaged painting and put it in storage, where it stayed until it was restored … But the mystery remains: Who took it?”

No matter how old you grow, your author photo will never beat this.

Who indeed. To answer that question it may help to understand a little about the personality of Kay Thompson herself. You might wish to read any number of articles about her, or even her biography Kay Thompson: From Funny Face to Eloise by Sam Irvin. Each will tell you that Thompson was not always the easiest person to know. She had done cabaret and film and television. In fact, Eloise was based on a character she did in a cabaret set (and I’ve always suspected the little girl voice was a ploy to garner the attention Fanny Brice had enjoyed for so long). What Thompson never expected was for Kay Thompson’s Eloise (as she was quick to remind you it was titled) to become such a massive hit. Suddenly there was Eloise on television and there was an Eloise room in the Plaza. You could call a number and listen to Thompson’s recorded voice speak Eloise’s strangest lines. Eloise, really and truly, was on her way to becoming the next Madeline.

And Thompson? She grew to loathe her creation. She wasn’t the first author to do so. They say Arthur Conan Doyle hated Sherlock Holmes so much that he killed him off in that fight with Dr. Moriarty (only to have to revive him some years later when the fans insisted). Thompson couldn’t really kill Eloise, but she could pull her books from publication. Doing so denied Hilary McKnight any royalties he could have gotten, so you can imagine how that felt to him. And then, Eloise’s portrait disappears.

It is not inconceivable to believe that Thompson engineered the theft herself. The way I always heard the story, it was Knight who received the telephone call. He was told by a woman where to go, and found it rolled up and stuffed into a garbage can in an alley (of course NYC doesn’t have much in the way of alleys, so that should tell you something about children’s literary gossip right there).

If you walk into the Plaza today, you will not see the original Eloise portrait. You’ll see a perfectly nice second painting that Knight did as a replacement when the first one went walksies. It’s nice, but not quite as tongue-in-cheek as the original. That one, as it happens, was part of a very nice New York Historical Society exhibit called Eloise at the Museum back in 2017. What happened to it after that, we can only speculate. And what happened to it on the night of the Junior League Ball may never truly be known.

E.B. White and Black Vases: The Old Purloined Letter Trick

No matter how lost a painting may seem, there is always that hope that perhaps it will show up again in the future. Eloise came back, after all. Might not other paintings return to us again? They might, but sometimes it takes a practiced eye to spot them.

In 2008 art historian Gergely Barki had a bored kid on his hands. It was the Christmas holidays and Gergely did that thing all parents do when the weather is cold and the child is loud: He turned on a random movie. In this case, Stuart Little. I’m sure you’re familiar with the adaptation of E.B. White’s classic. Mind you, the film took a couple liberties, not the least of which is the fact that Stuart is adopted rather than born to human parents.

In any case, Barki is watching the movie when it gets to this scene.

Do you see it? Right there, just behind the family, is a painting. Not just any painting either. Lo and behold that painting is none other than artist Róbert Berény’s lost masterpiece “Sleeping Lady with Black Vase”. If you’re not familiar with Berény, he’s probably best known as the artist considered responsible for bringing Cubism and Expressionism to Hungary in the early 1900s. “Black Vase” is, by all accounts, a painting of his wife. Now how precisely the painting was lost in the first place is a matter of some speculation. According to Barki, the painting may have been sold in 1928 in Hungary, “because that was when it was last exhibited and, as most of the buyers were Jewish, it probably left the country as a result of the war”. Fair enough, but what the heck was it doing on a movie set?

Well, apparently in the mid-1990s an art collector by the name of Michael Hempstead purchased the painting at a charity auction house in San Diego. He then turned around and sold it to an antique store. Next, a Hollywood assistant set designer went to the shop, bought the work for $500, and after the movie finished she hung it up in her bedroom.

Now the fun part of the story for me is the not insignificant detail that the aforementioned Barki, who spotted the painting in the movie in the first place, also just happened to be art historian and researcher at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest. How lucky is that? Eventually the painting was later returned to Hungary and sold at auction for 229,500 euros ($285,700).

I can draw no startling conclusions from these disappearances and sudden returns. All I can say is that the line between illustration and fine art is thin, but regardless of the distinctions, no one can resist a good missing painting mystery.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.