Best Kept Secret (Bar Division) St. Louis 2009 - The History of the Naked Lady Painting
The first thing you notice when you walk into Bossanova is the naked lady behind the bar. It's traditional for saloons to adorn the premises with an ornately framed nude, but this one transcends both tradition and easy interpretation: the huge painting, titled Dawn, lights up the long, cool space with a mysterious glow. At first glance it's of the Maxfield Parrish "Girls on Rocks" school, but after a few "Dr. No" martini sips sharpen your senses, you notice more about the work than the mountains and the woman's golden flesh. What's that thick brown pillar in the background to the left? A telephone pole? "Christ!" you realize, downing the rest of your drink in a gulp, "It's a crucifixion!" Here's where patrons — lapsed Catholics, active Protestants, atheists — get creative with their critiques: It's Jesus Resurrected as Woman, Eve Absolved of Original Sin or Nietzsche's Überdame. But where did it come from? Bossanova owner Russ Smith has had it in his loft since the late '80s, when it was given to him by his friend Tom Flynn, a late owner of the legendary Balaban's. (Partiers of a certain age might remember Dawn from that Central West End venue, where it hung in the '70s.) Here's what Smith knows about it: He built his bar around it. Herb Balaban's wife, Adelaide, bought it in Chicago. It's signed William DeJewett, dated 1912 and has shipping labels on the back from Paris, London and Berlin. He heard a rumor that the painter, whose identity can't be Googled, was an art teacher at Washington University, though the institution has no record of this. The massive frame is probably worth more than the painting itself. Or is it?