The Elmhurst History Museum recovers and restores a historically significant painting by famous artist G.P.A. Healy

Usually history museums acquire objects that are meaningful to their mission and collections from items handed down through generations or donations from community resources. Occasionally, curators come across a diamond in the rough; a find that is both rare and significant to history. This is one of those stories.

Elmhurst History Museum’s Curator of Collections, Daniel Lund, got the feeling that something exciting was about to unfold when he randomly checked his work e-mail on a weekend afternoon in 2020. He received a note from a patron who shared a link to an auction item that might be of interest to the museum: a painting of Jennie “Jane” Byrd Bryan, the wife of Thomas Barbour Bryan, a distinguished figure in Chicago and Elmhurst history. The Bryans were early Elmhurst residents who built one of the town’s gracious estates, and Bryan was a widely respected community leader, businessman, and international statesman best known for his leadership role in bringing the 1893 Columbian Exposition to Chicago.

The historical significance caught the curator’s attention immediately, but the larger story was not so much the subject of the portrait but the artist who painted it:  George Peter Alexander (G.P.A.) Healy. Healy was one of the most prolific and popular portrait artists of his time, and he lived in Elmhurst (known then as Cottage Hill) during the Civil War years under the patronage of the Bryan family. Healy is best known for his portraits of several U.S. Presidents as well as other politicians and celebrities in America and Europe.

After a successful career in France in service to King Louis-Phillipe, Healy moved to Chicago in 1855 where he befriended Thomas Barbour Bryan and his family. Healy set up his studio and home in the Bryan’s original house known as Hill Cottage Tavern, one of the oldest residences in Elmhurst that still stands to this day. It was Bryan who made the connection for one of Healy’s most famous commissions: the last known portrait of President Abraham Lincoln without a beard (National Gallery of Art).

After learning more about the artist and the painting, Lund was certain that the portrait needed to be saved from obscurity and that it belonged in the Elmhurst History Museum’s collection. Unfortunately, there were two major obstacles in the way. First, the painting was in seriously poor condition with visible tears and damage from years of improper care, and Lund was unsure it could be salvaged. Secondly, the painting was costly and funds would need to be raised to procure it. The museum was not deterred, and a three-year journey began with the purchase of the painting through private donations and the support of the Elmhurst Heritage Foundation. Art experts were consulted to determine an appropriate restoration plan, and the painting was painstakingly repaired brought back to its original luster by Parma Conservation in Chicago. Additionally, a custom frame was created by MCM Fine Framing to match the era and importance of the painting.

“The confluence of events and resources that helped us to bring the Healy painting home to Elmhurst is a long story with a happy ending,” said Lund. “The addition of this painting to our collection provides a tangible connection to the story of 19th century American cultural heritage and local history. Now that it is restored and in its proper place in the museum, the painting will serve as a living link between past and present to educate future generations.”

The restored painting of Jane Byrd Bryan will now be on display in the museum’s core exhibit, By All Accounts: The Story of Elmhurst, accompanied by a short documentary and historical information.