As part of Mia’s Living Rooms initiative, a reanimating of its period rooms, the Queen Anne space has been transformed into a Jane Austen Reading Room. There are chairs, tables, and shelves full of books by Austen and her contemporaries for visitors to sit and read, like Austen famously did in her brother’s Chawton House library.
The adjacent Georgian drawing room has been re-imagined as a kind of mise-en-scène, Emma interrupted, full of references to Jane Austen’s beloved novel. There are shawls, word games, and, atop an easel, an unfinished watercolor.
In the book, Emma paints a portrait of a friend as part of her ceaseless matchmaking/meddling. Of course, this is fiction—no such portrait exists. So to complete the illusion of a room recently vacated by Emma and company, a portrait had to be made, if not completed.
On a recent weekday, as visitors file through the room, Bill Skodje reaches into the scene and plucks the painting from the easel for a closer look. Skodje is the senior art preparator at the museum, though that only begins to describe his job, if it describes it at all. His handiwork can be seen in everything from the design of exhibitions to the drawing of the Minneapolis skyline displayed in front of the second-floor windows to the sculpture of Nils on the Goose in the museum’s Purcell-Cutts House— the original was accidentally destroyed; Skodje, a trained sculptor, fashioned another. When Mia decorated its period rooms for the holidays, Skodje cast the fake food centerpieces.
Skodje paints watercolors whenever he’s sent on courier trips for the museum and even in art storage, of objects otherwise unseen. He was the natural choice to create an ersatz painting of a fictional painting. He researched paper and pigment and discovered some historical peculiarities. For instance, landscape oil paintings that glowed, golden-hued, were popular in Austen’s day and, to compete, watercolorists used plenty of blue, yellow, and red. “The pedestrian green of nature,” as Skodje puts it, despite its abundance in actual landscapes, was avoided.
Skodje’s subject is anonymous, but he mimicked the outdoor backdrop—down to the foliage—of an actual painting of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra. He made several versions of the portrait until he was satisfied—perhaps too satisfied.
“I tried not to finish it!” he insists. But to casual visitors, aware only of a lovely image on an easel, the portrait might seem ready for framing.