The little Renoir landscape looks so modest and guileless and transparent that a casual observer never would guess at the secrets the painting hides.
"Paysage Bords de Seine" depicts a river and bushes. On that summer day in 1879, a sailboat was skimming along the River Seine. There were trees and clouds. The light was abundant. Viewers even can see the unpainted canvas peeking out from the frame.
That unconcealed quality is what struck senior painting conservator Mary Sebera when she examined the water view for the first time after it was returned to the Baltimore Museum of Art for good on Jan. 31 after a 62-year absence.
"This painting is so open and direct," Sebera said. "There are many places where you can see right down to the fabric. It's not fully covered."
The only fact that museum officials haven't pinned down about this seemingly artless artwork is — well, just about everything.
Why was it painted, and for whom? According to a charming note in the museum's records, Renoir may have dashed off the painting on a linen napkin for his mistress while they were dining al fresco, but that lady's identity remains a mystery.
Another puzzle is who spirited the painting away from the museum between 6 p.m. Nov. 16 and 1 p.m. Nov. 17, 1951, and how the thief — or thieves — got away with the crime for so long.
Finally, no one knows where the artwork was for the six decades before it surfaced with a splash in September 2012. Marcia "Martha" Fuqua claimed she had bought the painting in a box of odds and ends costing $7 around 2009 at West Virginia's Harpers Ferry Flea Market without knowing its true value.
Fuqua, 52, of Lovettsville, Va., fought to retain ownership of the landscape. But last month, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema awarded title to the museum. The deadline for appeal expires at 11:59 p.m. Thursday. Fuqua's attorney, T. Wayne Biggs, said Wednesday that his client would not bring the matter before a higher court.
Museum director Doreen Bolger said that "Paysage" — which will be exhibited late next month — fills an important gap in the museum's collection.
"We don't have a landscape from the 1870s," she said. "We have a nice group of Renoirs, but most of them are from later in his career. We have 'Child With Hoop' from the mid-1870s, but it's a figure painting.
"At that time, the Impressionists were at their height of exploring nature and atmospheric effects and of painting outside."
Just as Sebera meticulously is lifting the grime from the painting's surface with a cotton swab no larger than a pencil eraser, she and curator Katy Rothkopf also are working together to uncover the painting's past.
So far, they have found just a few tantalizing clues.
Sebera collected powdered fibers that fell from a tiny, slightly frayed area of the canvas and examined them under a polarized-light microscope. She determined that the canvas indeed is linen, as the museum's records claim.
"Linen has a distinct growth pattern that's different than cotton or silk or wool," Sebera said.
"It was a fabric that was commonly used for painting in the 19th century. But the fabric has an unusual weave. What's typically used for paintings is a plain weave, with one thread over and one thread under. This weave structure is more complicated. We don't know what it is yet."
When the painting is removed from its frame and examined in the museum conservation lab's clear, bright light, the weave pattern is visible to the naked eye. The nubby horizontal threads form a stripe pattern that pulls a viewer's gaze from left to right, mimicking the flow of the river in the background.
It's tempting to speculate that the decorative pattern embellished household linens on public display, such as a bedspread, tablecloth … or possibly, a napkin.
"We haven't determined that definitively," Sebera said, "but it's something we're considering."
An appraiser who examined the painting reached a similar conclusion about the landscape, whose value ranges somewhere between $22,000 and $100,000.
"The quick and loose brush strokes painted without definition or resolution gives weight to this theory," appraiser Ted Cooper wrote in a Nov. 12, 2012, report filed in the court case. "Artists often produced these 'souvenirs' of a specific time and place with ready materials at hand."
If Sebera is trying to piece together the painting's history from the raw materials, Rothkopf is chasing the paper trail.
The great Impressionist was in his late 30s and still single when he dashed off the tiny oil. He met the love of his life, the young blond dressmaker Aline Charigot, some time between 1879 and 1881.
Five and a half years after Renoir died, Rothkopf said, the Bernheim-Jeune gallery in Paris bought the landscape for 5,000 francs on June 30, 1925, from a woman identified only as "Madame Papillon."