Girl in portrait is a mystery that owner wants to solve

She sat for his mother in Lutherville about 40 years ago and he wants to give the painting to her

  • Brooke Lynch, 70, of Ellicott City, with an oil painting of a young girl done by his mother, Georgianna Lynch, about four decades ago. Lynch inherited the painting after his mother died, and would like to give it to the girl pictured as a gift from his mother, but first he has to find her identity.
Brooke Lynch, 70, of Ellicott City, with an oil painting of a… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
December 05, 2010|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun

The rosy-cheeked girl in the Peter Pan-collared pink dress and patent-leather Mary Jane shoes sits frozen in time, captured on canvas by a Baltimore County artist about four decades ago.

But the identity of the little girl is a mystery, which the owner of the portrait now wants to unlock.

Brooke Lynch hopes to return the painting to the girl, who sat in a Lutherville studio as his mother, artist Georgianna Sinclair Lynch, worked on her likeness.

The odyssey of the portrait began when a parent contacted Lynch to commission a painting sometime around 1970. Lynch agreed and worked on the picture for more than a month, first photographing the child and then having her sit on a posing bench to finish some details. When she was done, she called the parents to view her work.

"When the parents came to pick it up, they liked it but tried to get mom to reduce her price, which I think would have stood at about $300," said Brooke Lynch, who is retired and lives in Ellicott City. "Mom could be a little bull-headed. She refused to lower her price and ended up keeping the picture."

The outcome of that commission was unusual, said Lutherville art dealer Lance Bendann, who has worked with portrait painters and their subjects.

"Most artists realize that painting a portrait is something like a journey and some journeys are longer than others," Bendann said. "An artist typically works with the subject to make the hair or the smile right. At the end, everybody is happy. It sounds unusual that there was an impasse at the end."

The oil canvas sat among Georgianna Sinclair Lynch's possessions at her Lutherville home before she moved to the Glen Meadows Retirement Community. It had no label attached or clues to the girl's identity.

Lynch took possession of the portrait when his mother died at age 86 in 1999 and says he could not bear to throw it away because it is such a nice painting. He surmises that the family lived in Baltimore, where many of his mother's commissions resided.

But locating the girl, who would probably be in her mid-40s now, might not be easy.

"Finding the identity of the subject of a portrait is like finding the needle in a haystack," said former Maryland Historical Society curator Stiles T. Colwill, who is now an interior designer. "It can be impossible."

Colwill, however, offered some hope in a personal account. While paging through an auction catalog, he spotted an unidentified portrait that he knew was his mother and even recognized the hat she wore. He bought the painting and determined it was painted by a friend in the 1930s.

The story of the patron who wouldn't pay became entrenched in the Lynch family.

"I've had it floating around in my cellar for years," the artist's son said of the framed canvas, which measures 20 by 25 inches. "I have refused to throw it out."

Lynch said he understands why his mother was unwilling to cut her price on the painting. He said she learned about the laws of economics as a young woman growing up in Virginia's Gloucester County. Her father, who was in his 60s when she was born, had been an officer in a Virginia unit during the Civil War.

Rural Virginia was poor, but she had a successful uncle in Baltimore, John Talliaferro, an engineer who had a patent with the Crown, Cork and Seal plant in Baltimore. He enrolled her at the Hannah More School in Reisterstown and offered to pay the tuition.

She arrived in Baltimore on an Old Bay Line steamer. And when her uncle picked her up in his limousine at the Light Street piers, "she asked him why the car stopped every so often," her son said. "She had never seen a traffic signal."

After graduation from Hannah More, she earned a degree from the Maryland Institute College of Art.

She taught at Garrison Forest School for a number of years before taking time off to raise her family. She then resumed her career and studied with Baltimore artist Ann Didusch Schuler at her East Lafayette Avenue school. Schuler said in a 1999 Baltimore Sun obituary of Lynch, "She was just a fine artist, who really enjoyed her work."

Lynch adopted the Old Masters techniques of MICA faculty member Jacques Maroger, a former Louvre conservator who mixed chemicals and compounds to give oil paintings a rich and luminous quality.

One person who commissioned a portrait from Lynch said she was "gracious" even when encountering obstacles during the process.

"It took a couple of sittings," said Mary Elise Lanahan, who sat for Lynch 52 years ago, when she was 21. "After the first time she began to sketch me, I had a haircut. It changed my looks and I could see she was not happy. It was upsetting to her, but she was gracious. She was a dear lady, quiet and soft-spoken."

Though she painted children, she was better known for her paintings of judges, elected officials and business owners.

"All of her works were alive — they were vivid," her son said. "They looked like they were going to come out of the painting and talk to you."

Lynch recalled his mother's work process. In the early stages of a portrait, she used a Speed Graphic camera to photograph her subjects and compared those negatives to her early sketches. Once she had established a face and pose, the subject came in to her studio on Martingale Road for more work on the painting.

"My mother was a talented professional," Lynch said. "But she remained thrifty. I kept telling her, 'Art is your passion, go to Paris, go to the Louvre.' She never did."

Tips about portrait

If you have information about the identity of the child in the portrait, please call The Baltimore Sun's newsroom at 410-332-6100 or e-mail

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