A rare 17th-century painting that spent the last six decades with the Northampton School District has been reunited with other Old Master works at the Allentown Art Museum.

AAM’s Elaine Mehalakes gestures to a detail on the Iriarte

“We’re really excited to be able to celebrate this coming into our collection, coming back to join the other works from the Kress Collection,” says AAM’s vice president of curatorial affairs, Elaine Mehalakes, about the oil on canvas titled Landscape with Tobias that dates back to the 1660s.

“Very few paintings by Ignacio de Iriarte are still in existence. It’s the very first painting of this period by a Spanish artist to come into our collection, so that is very exciting for us. It’s part of very distinct tradition of Spanish paintings in which the landscape outshines the typically central Biblical subject of the work.”

To celebrate the unveiling of the painting in the Museum, administrators from the Northampton School District joined Mehalakes and AAM president Max Weintraub in Kress Gallery on Thursday, June 17, for a first look at the newly conserved work. 

Samuel H. Kress, ca. 1946, Allentown Art Museum archives

The story of how the painting came to be in Northampton and now on display in Allentown begins more than 150 years ago. On July 23, 1863, businessman and philanthropist Samuel H. Kress was born in Cherryville, PA, a small community in Northampton County about a dozen miles north of Allentown. Kress went on to build a fortune by founding a chain of five-and-ten-cent stores, S. H. Kress & Co. Believing that art was uplifting to the soul, he collected Italian Renaissance and European artwork and, late in life, sought to increase access to great works of art by donating pieces from his substantial collection to ninety institutions across the country. Remembering his roots in the area, he gave one of the largest gifts to the Allentown Art Museum–more than fifty objects, which have formed the core of the Museum’s collection since the early 1960s.

Also, in recognition of his connection to Northampton County, in December 1961 the Samuel H. Kress Foundation made a gift to the Northampton Area School District of Iriarte’s Landscape with Tobias. After displaying and then storing the painting in various school administration offices over the years, in 2018 district officials contacted Kress Foundation president Max Marmor to formulate a new plan for displaying Iriarte’s Landscape. Marmor suggested that the painting first be shipped to the Conservation Center of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, with the Art Museum coordinating its delivery. At the time, the AAM’s Portrait of a Young Woman (1632) was at the Conservation Center being restored and identified by experts as an authentic work by Rembrandt van Rijn. During the two years the Iriarte painting was at the Conservation Center, district officials continued to discuss the future of the painting with the Kress Foundation.

In Kress Gallery: Joseph S. Kovalchik, Superintendent, Northampton Area School District; Lydia Hanner, Director of Curriculum and Instruction; Robert Mentzell, School Board Director

“After many discussions and much deliberation, the Northampton Area School District felt that the true intent of the Kress Foundation gift could not be truly fulfilled within the school district itself,” says Joseph S. Kovalchik, Northampton School District superintendent. “For that reason, the Northampton administration worked with Max Marmor to find an appropriate location for the painting, one that would be within close proximity to the district so that the students and community members could have easy access to viewing the painting, and one that would also provide an appropriate physical environment for the painting.”

The Allentown Art Museum was the perfect place.

“Having this painting here at the Museum is like having it come home,” says Mehalakes.

At the unveiling in June, Mehalakes thanked Northampton school administrators. “We’re so grateful for the sixty years of stewardship that you gave the painting at the school district, and we’re really excited to be able to welcome the students and teachers and residents of Northampton to see the work. We think of it as a symbol of our connection between the district and our institution.”

Looking upon the restored painting hanging in the AAM’s Kress Gallery that evening, with the discolored layers of varnish removed and the original, bright colors that the artist intended once again made evident, Lydia Hanner, Northampton School District’s director of curriculum and instruction, remarked, “The painting is truly gorgeous.”

The painting is viewable in AAM’s Kress Gallery during the Museum’s new hours: Thursday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Third Thursdays from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m.

Ignacio de Iriarte (Spanish, 1621–1670), Landscape with Tobias, 1660s, oil on canvas. Allentown Art Museum: Samuel H. Kress Collection, 2021. (2021.1)