Bill Kirby

Online news editor for The Augusta Chronicle.

Augustan's muddy Madonna had art experts all in a lather

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Easter Sunday means everything.

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– Bernhard Langer

A story for this morning.

In 1909, an Augusta businessman opened an office in downtown Atlanta. His name was T. Harry Oates and, like his father before him, he dealt in musical equipment. His Atlanta operation was in the then-new Candler Building, which still stands in the 100 block of Peachtree Street.

An associate, Mansfield Douglas Judah, dropped by and — we might assume — made a good-natured joke about the disarray of our Augusta transplant’s unpacking. In particular, he chided Oates on the rooms — they were 424 and 425 of the Candler — and how the janitor had to sweep up so much rubbish, he’d apparently used an old, framed picture as a dust pan.

And then Judah, who fancied himself an art expert, stared at the framed painting.

It was old, no doubt. It was stained with mud, which Oates later said had occurred during one of Augusta’s frequent floods. It showed the Madonna, the mother of Christ and, the art expert proclaimed, it appeared to be the work of Raphael, the great Italian artist of the High Renaissance.

“I knew at a glance that it was an Italian master,” Judah said in a Chronicle story. “I felt instinctively that it was Raphael’s. The face was oval, like Raphael’s women. The hands were wonderful like his always are. The mystery in the eyes was his.”

An Atlanta art expert, H.H. Osgood, was brought in for a second opinion, and he had one.

The Oates Madonna was the work of baroque master Guido Reni.

“The face,” Osgood said in The Chronicle, “is luminous with Guido’s genius for depicting human grief and beauty together.”

Art experts were soon flocking to inspect Harry Oates’ former dust pan.

One claimed it to be the work of Carlo Dolce, another Italian baroque master, though the “tenderness of the mouth is rather against this,” The Chronicle reported.

The capital city’s art connoisseurs were soon filling up Oates’ offices, and experts were reported to be on the way from New York and Philadelphia to inspect it and to possibly buy it.

But how did Oates get it in the first place?

Simple.

He got it from his father, the late Thomas Oates.

The elder Oates was also a dealer in violins and pianos and traveled extensively in Europe. In the 1840s, his son said, he returned from a trip to England with the Madonna oil painting, which he said he acquired from a London bookstore. The senior Oates valued the painting so much, he did not display it like many of his other art acquisitions, but kept it in a trunk.

The trunk and its contents were damaged by water, mud and silt during one of the Savannah River’s frequent Augusta floods.

The Atlanta newspaper reported all this and The Augusta Chronicle picked up the story the next day, July 29, 1909.

All of which brings us back to the mystery of the muddy Madonna. Did they ever find out who painted it, and where is it now?

Well, if you check around the Internet, you will find many depictions of Raphael’s work, including his Madonnas (and there are dozens of them). One, the famous Granduca Madonna (1504), is considered one of the greatest religious paintings of all time. Others are favored for postage — last year’s Christmas stamp, for example.

On none, however, do you find any stain or water marks.

One thing you do find when looking up such artistic work on the Internet is that it is very easy to buy a hand-painted copy of many of the world’s great masterworks, including Raphael’s, for less than $200. (No sales tax and free shipping.)

Maybe what Mr. Judah and the Atlanta art experts saw was just an old, dirty copy of a revered original.

A hundred years later, who’s to say?


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