Thomas painting finds a new home

A portrait by a noted local artist that had been hanging unceremoniously near a set of bathrooms at La Cañada Elementary School has found a new home.

La Cañada Unified has placed the life-size painting of the community’s first school teacher, Helen Haskell, on permanent loan to the Lanterman House museum, where it will be restored and eventually displayed in the second-floor ballroom.

The piece dates to the early 1890s and is the work of the subject’s husband, Stephen Seymour Thomas, who made his living painting the rich and famous, including President Woodrow Wilson, and settled in La Crescenta shortly after World War I.

“La Cañada Elementary did not have a large enough space to properly display the portrait,” said Sharon Hancock, office manager at the school and the catalyst behind the loan. “After researching the history, we felt Lanterman House would offer an appropriate place to display a piece of local history.”

The Lanterman Foundation was thrilled to receive it, said executive director Melissa Patton.

“There aren’t that many Seymour Thomas paintings in the valley,” Patton said.

George Stern, owner of the George Stern Fine Arts gallery in West Hollywood and an expert on California painters, said that Thomas was a recognizable name on the art scene at the turn of the last century, but his work is modestly priced today.

“Sometimes his things are interesting and can bring some value,” Stern said. “I think you are looking at a high-end range of $20,000 for something really interesting, but in general they are just a few thousand dollars.”

The painting — which is 40 inches wide and 80 inches tall — has not be professionally priced and there are no plans to sell it, Patton said.

It was one of multiple paintings that Thomas gave away in the years before his death in 1956. At one point, the portrait hung in the principal’s office at La Cañada Elementary School, according to former principal and local resident Don Hingst. It is also believed to have spent time in storage before ending up in a hallway by some bathrooms.

Hancock showed the portrait to Patton when she was making a presentation at the school in October.

“They certainly kept it safe, but the secretaries all knew it wasn’t appreciated where it was,” Patton said. “It was actually hanging by some bathrooms just off of the playground, so not the optimum place for a beautiful portrait of a beautiful woman.”

She recognized it instantly, Patton said, and expressed interest in bringing it to Lanterman House. After several weeks of consultations with current La Cañada Elementary School Principal Elissa DeAngelo and district Supt. Wendy Sinnette, an agreement was reached and the painting was handed over on Dec. 15.

The artwork is the second Thomas painting to pop up at a local school in recent years. In 2006, members of the La Crescenta Elementary School community raised $1,600 to restore another portrait of Helen Haskell that had been displayed haphazardly for decades.

La Cañada Unified’s portrait will undergo a makeover, including the removal of a heavy wood backing and the restoration of the frame before being hung in the Lanterman House, Patton said.

“It will ultimately be displayed in the ballroom on the second floor,” Patton said. “It has sentimental and historic value.”

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