It is now five years since that Feb. 21 day when I walked past the Seward House and witnessed the egregious removal of the massive Thomas Cole painting “Portage Falls on the Genesee” from the drawing room by the Emerson Foundation, who had been pledged by Seward’s grandson to maintain the house and effects as a museum in his memory.
The painting had hung there safe and unmolested since the 1840s as a gift to Seward, who as governor had the foresight to extend access to the Erie Canal to many areas throughout the state. The Cole painting shows the engineering necessary to move the canal through the area we now know as Letchworth State Park.
The foundation defended its actions in various ways — the painting was too valuable and vulnerable to be left there, the money from the sale would benefit their operation of the house, and actually, it was not a very important part of Seward’s history.
The 2017 PBS documentary “The Erie Cannal — Building an Empire” certainly counteracts that last assumption. Further, museums cannot ethically sell off their artifacts to finance operational costs.
It was once my pleasure as a staff member and guide at the Seward House to state that everything in the house belonged to the Seward family, except for some replacement rugs and curtains. To have a massive reproduction of the Cole painting in the drawing room is reprehensible. It is not the painting Seward loved and referred to in his letters.
So, here I am again on the fifth anniversary of the painting’s loss to wonder why the foundation hasn’t returned it despite the New York State Attorney General’s Office and the charities bureau chief’s 2013 directive to do so. No, I do not know where the original painting is. According to the foundation in 2013 it was in a secure, undisclosed place.
I, for one, would like to see that safe, secure and disclosed place to be once more in William Henry Seward’s drawing room.