The Lost Cloars
They're out there somewhere. Stanton Thomas and the staff of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art would love to find them.
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Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993
The Idyl, 1950
Last seen in a New York City gallery catalogue in the 1970s, and also used as an illustration in Hostile Butterflies, The Idyl is clearly the artist’s fantastical statement of the traditional Garden of Eden scene. In what is arguably the most mysterious of his lost works, the dark-hued couple below in the garden look upward with wonder and delight, towards an orange-blossomed magical tree that seems to glow right off the canvas. In this work, Cloar appears to be channeling Henri Rousseau, the French Post-Impressionist so devoted to painting surrealistic landscapes, whose luscious colors seem to foreshadow Cloar. Thomas notes, “Like Rousseau’s fascination with Eden-like jungles, Cloar drew upon his experiences in Costa Rica to create this New World Adam and Eve.”
Dr. Thomas had plenty of Cloar images to choose from, of course, since so much of the artist’s work was bought and sold right here in Memphis, much of it out of his own studio on Greer, where he lived until his death in 1993. But there’s no complete catalogue of Cloar’s oeuvre in existence, and some of his most striking work has vanished. “We don’t know the whereabouts of about two dozen significant Cloar paintings,” says Thomas.
Criminal conspiracy? Hardly. “In most cases, these particular paintings,” he explains, “have probably been passed along from one generation to another. And somewhere along the line, the paper trail of ownership has been lost.
“We do know the identities of the original owners of nearly all these ‘missing links,’ and sometimes the next two or three,” he continues. “But at some point, the trail goes cold. For instance, a particular painting might be part of an estate that is divided several ways, and at that point, the piece gets ‘lost’ as far as the art-collecting public is concerned.”
Part of the problem, Thomas says, is that individual works of the man who was arguably twentieth-century Memphis’ greatest painter were considerably undervalued by the time their original owners died. “I can only imagine that, in settling estates, paintings by Cloar were simply lumped into groups with other works, and not specifically named. Most of these paintings aren’t really lost; it’s perhaps better to say they’re just ‘missing in action.’ Some of them are probably hanging right now over fireplace mantels or in guest bedrooms, where the current owners are likely unaware of the celebrity of the artist.”