Watkins Museum acquires painting of Quantrill’s raid

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Donors have helped the Watkins Museum of History purchase a painting depicting a pivotal moment in Lawrence’s history, and the painting has quite a story of its own.

“Lawrence Massacre,” by American artist Ethel Magafan (1916-1993), depicts Quantrill’s infamous raid on the town 160 years ago. Quantrill’s proslavery forces attacked Lawrence — largely considered an antislavery stronghold — killing between roughly 160 and 200 people and destroying much of the property. The town quickly rose from the ashes as the people rebuilt.

Watkins Executive Director Steve Nowak surprised members of the Douglas County Historical Society Thursday night with the announcement that the museum had purchased the painting.

The painting is based on Magafan’s mural design, which was submitted to a Works Progress Administration (WPA) competition in 1936 as part of the Lawrence Post Office centennial celebration. Magafan had based her design on illustrations from magazines such as “Harper’s Weekly” and “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper” to capture the harrowing events of the raid, according to a news release from the museum.

Magafan’s design won, and she was among few women artists awarded a WPA commission, according to the release. The mural never came to fruition, but a Lawrence couple who collected her work commissioned her to paint the version that now hangs at the Watkins.

“When painting the commission, the artist deviated slightly from her original design to include a more prominent and accurate depiction of Lawrence’s First Methodist Church,” according to the release. “The Methodist Church, located at 724 Vermont Street, was pressed into service as a morgue for victims of Quantrill’s raid on August 21, 1863.”

This painting of Quantrill’s raid on Lawrence, commissioned by a local art collector, is based on the artist’s winning 1936 design for a mural submitted to a WPA competition marking the Lawrence Post Office Centennial. (Watkins Museum of History / Contributed photo)

The painting took an interstate journey to find its new home. The couple who commissioned it took it to Denver. It was offered to the Watkins through a gallery there in April, and it made it back to Lawrence in time for the historical society’s 90th anniversary. The original sketch of Magafan’s design is in the collection of the Denver Art Museum.

Jeff and Mary Weinberg, members of the historical society, donated funds for the painting’s purchase, according to the release.

“(T)he painting’s subject and its interesting history made it an important addition to the museum’s collection but purchasing it would have required a significant fundraising effort,” Nowak said in the release. “Luckily, Jeff and Mary Weinberg came forward and made the acquisition possible in time to celebrate the historical society’s 90th anniversary.”

“Lawrence Massacre” is now on display in the Community Room on the ground floor of the Watkins Museum.

Learn more about the Watkins on its website, watkinsmuseum.org. It’s open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays at 1047 Massachusetts St.

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