When a beguiling oil painting arrived on the campus at Saint Olaf in 2005, it came with a mysterious provenance. It was rumored to be by famed Norwegian impressionist painter Edvard Munch. But it lacked appropriate documents to prove it.

A gift by alumnus Richard Tetlie, “Eva Mudocci”, had received consideration by Munch scholars in the past. One curator at the Munch Museum in Norway had seen it in Washington, D.C., but did not include it in the official catalog of work by Munch. Other scholars dismissed it entirely based on digital images of it.

That was enough for Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson to not take the artwork seriously. Instead, it hung in the dining room of the college president – for years, a conversation piece, but nothing more. That Mudocci, a violinist of some repute at the time, had been a one-time muse of Munch was never in question, and the pair’s close but stormy relationship continued to be a point of great speculation.

But a few recent events has prompted renewed inquiry into the authenticity of the painting. First, author Rima Shore, in conducting research for a biography on violinist Eva Mudocci, discovered documents that led her to the painting. Among them, a receipt of sale in 1959 by a Danish auctioneer placed the artwork among the possessions sold by Kai Nielsen, a close personal friend of Muddoci and her longtime performance and life partner, Bella Edwards.

Several months ago, Becker Nelson sent the painting for a scientific analysis. The results have been encouraging.

“The work can now be dated to the time period that we know that Munch and Mudocci were together,” Becker Nelson said. “And the materials are consistent with those used by Munch.”

But they’re not absolute proof. The authority to determine if the work belongs among Munch’s works rests with the scholar community at the Munch Museum. To date, they have declined to get involved, and museum officials did not respond to our request for comment for this story.

“The problem with authentication, period, is that most people don’t want to do it anymore,” Minneapolis-based art appraiser Miles Fiterman said, “because of legal ramifications that have arisen over the last few decades.”

Art collectors who buy work on speculation can lose large sums of money if an artist’s foundation does not authenticate the work. And in turn, those decisions can leave the foundations vulnerable to lawsuits, which, according to Fiterman, has sometimes forced those organizations to close.

The recent revelations and scientific report has not gone unnoticed by the wider Munch scholar community, however. Reinhold Heller, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago, recently sat for hours with the painting. Though not entirely convinced it was painted by Munch, he does think the subject is of Mudocci.

“Regardless of who the painter is, it is so fascinating to see a work so unfinished that it shows how the artist was thinking. It’s closer to what Munch would have done in 1904 or 1905, which is the time he was together with Eva Mudocci.”

Heller said he expects other scholars to renew discussions about the painting in the near future.

Known simply as “Eva” at Flaten Art Museum, the painting has captured the imagination of students on campus. Director Becker Nelson said now everyone knows who Munch is.

This story was published April 29, 2019.


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