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Rare Early Works by Catherine Parker at Muleskinner Antiques

Untitled watercolor made by Catherine Parker in 1953.

Discovery Revealed

The world loves discovery stories and the art world has its share of them. In 1986, a series of more than 240 intimate portrait studies that famed regionalist painter Andrew Wyeth had done of a family friend over a period of 15 years came to light. Until their discovery—they were stored in the home of another friend of the artist—no one was aware of this extraordinary body of work that became know as “The Helga Pictures,” named after the model. They made international news, toured the nation and added an important new chapter to the artist’s oeuvre.Closer to home and in recent years, you’ve likely heard about a painting purported to be done by Michelangelo that has been quietly residing in a suburban Buffalo home for decades. For years, the owners affectionately referred to it as “The Mike.” Support for the authentication of that artwork is growing, as has the international discussion of the artwork and its significance.

What these two instances have in common is the fact that both added substantial new knowledge to what was known of an artist’s body of work. The current exhibition on view at Muleskinner Antiques in Williamsville is in this vein. It consists of an entire period of a noted Buffalo artist’s work that has never been seen because it has been carefully stored for more than 50 years. Catherine Parker is one of Buffalo’s most well known artists, and her many admirers are very familiar with her expressionistic, color-rich depictions of nature. Her poetic approach to art-making and distinctive style is unmistakable and her works are highly sought-after by collectors.

What no one was aware of, however, is the artwork that the artist completed while she was living (and for a period studying) in Missouri, Colorado, and Texas. That body of work, a series of approximately 30 perfectly preserved watercolors dating from 1948 to1962, was discovered last year by the artist’s dealer, Dean Brownrout of 20th Century Finest, while helping to organize Parker’s studio as she was preparing to move to California to be closer to family. The works are exceptional examples of American scene paintings from that era. Perhaps more importantly, they represent a rare opportunity to see another side of the artist’s considerable talent and the roots of her artistic development. They also serve as a potent counterpoint to her later paintings. To facilitate making connections between these two periods of Parker’s work, Brownrout has included two major recent paintings by the artist in the exhibition.

The setting for this exhibition—an antique gallery—may seem unusual, however, it is in fact an inspired choice. Since Muleskinner Antiques specializes in Americana, turn-of-the-century furniture, and folk art, Parker’s images of rural scenes are viewed amidst objects and artifacts that would be found in the environs she depicted.

The newly discovered paintings are an accomplished and highly consistent body of work and through them you can see glimpses of the rigorous brushwork that will become a defining characteristic of Parker’s later work. These early watercolors do contain expressionistic marks, however those gestures are more controlled and contained within thoughtfully structured compositions. All of them are scenes that include rural structures—barns, farmhouses, outbuildings etc.—but these objects really become set pieces in paintings that are more about the skies and landscapes that surround them.

Examining the works, it is evident that Parker is fully exploring the limits of watercolor, manipulating the media to achieve varying effects and discovering how those effects can be used to illustrate the textures and features of the natural environment. This becomes clearest when you compare the multifarious sky treatments across the works—from ominous cloud formations and light rain to filtered sunlight. The paintings celebrate the quiet, uncomplicated vistas of rural America, through landscapes that are consciously composed geometries of winding roads, rolling fences and furrowed fields. It is this familiarity with the forms and structures of the landscape and its flora that informed Parker’s later poetic abstractions of the natural environment.

That is why seeing her early work is such a rewarding experience. It provides a unique perspective on her creative vision and insight into her career as an artist. These are very special paintings and the rare opportunity to see them is one that you shouldn’t miss.

The exhibition and sale is on view through October 17. To learn more about the artist and her work visit

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