The Secret of Grandpa's Paintings


An Awakening to an Artist’s Legacy

The herd of sheep grazing in the farm yard had not made a move or uttered a sound in over sixty years.  It was just an old painting.   Hidden beyond the incandescent ring in the darkened room, the sheep were out of sight and out of mind.

One of four paintings now hanging in the room. It was not even the one that was bequeathed to me.  They said it was painted before 1915. It certainly was no stranger to the passage of events. Put away in the attic so many decades ago, it was there — cloth-draped —  when children were born and died below, when two world wars were waged, when hopes were high and when fears were realized.

Following the artist’s death, it was handed down to the next generation as part of that inexorable process of dilution and recombination of the physical possessions that each of us leaves behind when we are called to that higher plain.  Cleaned and framed, its soft pastoral beauty shone forth almost as a dream.

“Look at these. Patricia found them in the back of the attic.”  Mom extended a dirty, rain-stained cardboard box into the circle of light.  Some kind of old glass negative plates, the type they don’t use anymore.

Ignoring my indifference, she proceeded to hold one after another up to the light.  Five by seven inches. Probably junk.  Who cared about somebody’s old pictures?

To please her, I half looked up at them.  Part of the rubbish that old people leave in their attics, cellars and chests for somebody else to throw out.

Suddenly, my inattentive gaze sprang into focus as she held what could have been the fifth or fifteenth plate.  Rising from the chair, I stared at an apparition, and my hand groped for the light switch.

Photo of sheep.

The flood of light revealed the painting hanging there on the wall. It wasn’t just a picture from the imagination of the artist’s eye.

He had caught a real time and place — just as real as right now!  The shape and poses of the sheep on the canvas and those on the glass plate were identical.

Through a different medium, he had left the same picture, each to validate the other. True, he’d moved the tree on the canvas, and added a beautiful suffusion of pink that no camera could have captured.  But the tree had really existed somewhere, and the sheep were exactly as they had once been on some long-forgotten day.

You seldom think of pink as coming from the sun except at sunset, but the pink glow had indeed come down from above, filtered through the artist’s canopy of blossoms.

Science says that matter is never lost, but that it just changes its composition.  Each instant in the universe of time and space is in fact a unique combination of matter in its forms and places.  Never to be duplicated, but there, looking from the plate to the canvas, it had been.

So they were just an old photographic plate, scratched and dirty, and an old painting.  But reunited, as they had once been in the artist’s eye, they represented a reaffirmation of the realities of time and the precious transience of each second of eternity.

My grandfather, William Mulhern, never even signed his paintings.  But he left a legacy of Bucks County scenes for us all. And something else as well.

A version of this article originally appeared in Accent – Bucks County Courier Times, PA.

A later discovery revealed this photo and its corresponding painting:

Posing in old photo.
Man on snow.
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