Call it the case of the accidental detective. It was pure coincidence that Desiree Whitney found herself unraveling a mystery and bringing back to light a treasured piece of art.
For years, she had often wondered about a large framed mural above the fireplace in her 1900s home in Minneapolis' Lowry Hill neighborhood. The abstract piece includes images of the Foshay Tower, a ladder, an assortment of fruit, a champagne glass and a shaggy terrier, its pink tongue peering out from brown and gray tufts of fur.
But besides noting a signature, Whitney had no leads as to who the artist was. She didn't actively try to learn more about the mystery muralist until she came across another piece of art and noticed that the signature matched the one on the mural at her home.
"I was at an art exhibition at the Hennepin History Museum, and I thought, 'Omigod, that's the artist,' " she said.
The discovery shocked Whitney, who contacted the museum. Local historians visited her home and examined the piece. They confirmed that her hunch was true — it was the work of the same prominent 1930s portraitist featured in the exhibit.
She was put in touch with the museum's curators, who told her more about Frances Cranmer Greenman, a South Dakota-born artist who made Minnesota her home base while traveling the country, painting portraits.
Considering the artist's body of work, the piece in Whitney's house is unusual, said Thomas Peterson, a historian and collector of Greenman's art. He believes she was at one of the estate's lavish parties thrown by Minnesota's wealthiest families when she painted the mural. Peterson estimates the piece is at least 80 years old, painted after the Foshay Tower was completed in 1929 and before the 1940s.
"She was known for portraits; she only did a dozen still-lifes. This is out of the ordinary because it's a mix," he said. "This is the bits and pieces of [what she saw at] a party, the family dog, a champagne glass, an ashtray. The ladder painted was likely the one she used to paint [the mural] above the fireplace."
Greenman traveled for much of her career to paint portraits of wealthy clients in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and cities across Europe. But she always came back to Minnesota, specifically to the Colfax Avenue house where the mural was painted. Because of all the traveling, Greenman's daughter lived with the family that owned the house when she was growing up. The artist would stay at the residence whenever she was in town, Peterson said.
A prolific painter of her time, Greenman is a forgotten artist of Minnesota's past. The extraordinary artist was almost lost in history, and Peterson believes her work has been historically underappreciated by collectors.
She didn't just survive off her art during the Great Depression when unemployment peaked at 25% across the nation — she thrived. "She was a socialite that painted," Peterson said. "A lot of people couldn't find work — but the people with money went to Frances."
Today, much of her work remains in private hands, but some are in the collections of the Smithsonian Museum and the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
An art house
After 20 years of living in the seven-bedroom, seven-bathroom home, Whitney is selling it to get away from Minnesota's bone-cold winters.
She said she'd take the mural with her if she could, but it's painted on the wall and removing it would "absolutely destroy it," she said.
For Whitney, the piece of art is one of many bonuses that will come with the home. There's also an antique piano in the basement, closet space that takes up a full wall in every bedroom and a bookshelf with a secret panel. There's even a small flat on the top floor of the mansion with its own kitchen and bathroom.
In the spirit of the scene captured in the mural, the home — with its elegant wide rotunda entryway, spacious kitchen and ample seating areas — was host to many parties during the time Whitney lived there.
"All major events were always at this house because it could accommodate so many people," she said. "Sleepovers. Parties. Baby showers. It's been a favorite — our house was the gathering place."
Sharon McWhite and John McWhite (firstname.lastname@example.org; 612-928-8612) of Coldwell Banker Homes have the $1.295 million listing.