As they’ve demonstrated before, being a curator often involves some sleuthing – see how a simple search uncovered the puzzling life of a 20th-century portrait painter for our curator of decorative arts.
Recently, while searching through our painting collection for portraits of Henry and Clara Ford, I came across two created in 1926 by an artist named Carl Bennett Linder. Displayed at Henry and Clara Ford’s Fair Lane home, these portraits came to Henry Ford Museum in 1951, following Clara’s death.
A search of our collections database revealed that we actually own nine canvases by Mr. Linder – all portraits of the Ford family. Curious, I searched the Ford family papers, where I found letters and receipts spanning from 1924 to 1936 for an even larger group of paintings of the extended Ford family: Henry and Clara’s son, Edsel, and his wife, Eleanor; the Ford grandchildren; and even a portrait of Mrs. William Clay, Eleanor Ford’s mother. Mr. Linder was apparently a favorite artist of Henry and Clara, as he produced several portraits of them over the years.
The Ford papers also contain catalogues of Linder’s exhibits, including the prestigious Knoedler Gallery in New York, where Mr. Linder exhibited in 1920, 1926 and 1942; several catalogues feature photos of the Fords as well as other industrialists. Clearly, Mr. Linder – although little known today – was an important society portrait artist in the 1920s and 1930s.
The accompanying exhibit catalogue essays indicated that Mr. Linder was born in Helsinki, Finland, and lived in New York City but spent significant time each year traveling in Europe. His name appears in most online art databases and biographical dictionaries – but interestingly, no death date is listed. This was turning out to be quite a mystery! I knew I had to explore further.
After a string of online search failures, Carl Bennett Linder surprisingly turned up on a Jewish genealogy website as Sam Linder – born in Helsinki, Finland, on the same date as Carl Bennett Linder. At age nine, Sam Linder immigrated to Chicago in 1895 with his family (which included seven siblings). Now we were getting somewhere.
Tracing Sam proved fascinating. He appeared in the 1900 census at age 13, as an office clerk in Chicago. By 1910, at age 23, he was still in Chicago but was now listed as a portrait painter. In 1920, at age 33, his name changed to Carl Bennett Linder – and his new residence? New York.
Mr. Linder’s last exhibition was at the Knoedler Galleries in 1942. A copy of the exhibit brochure is included with the Ford family papers in our collection; on the cover, Linder handwrote a personal note to Clara Ford, inviting her to the show in New York and concluding by wishing her and Mr. Ford well.
The last letter in the Ford papers dates to 1943, when Ford’s secretary, Frank Campsall, wrote to Mr. Linder, inquiring about the dates of Linder’s many portraits of the family. In his response, Mr. Linder apologized for any delay as his mail was being forwarded to his new home in Rye, New York. He apparently remained in Rye, as the online Social Security Death Index reveals that Sam Linder died there in 1981.
What emerges from this sleuthing is a 20th-century American immigrant story. To achieve success, Linder gave up some of his past, thereby creating a bit of a mystery for researchers. But for me, as a curator interested in studying objects for what they say about the past, solving this mystery is a great satisfaction.
Charles Sable is curator of decorative arts at The Henry Ford; he enjoys a good mystery, whether in a book, movie, but especially in the museum’s collections.