John Raphael Covert Papers
Held at: Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives [Contact Us]Philadelphia Museum of Art, PO Box 7646, Philadelphia, PA 19101-7646
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
The painter John Raphael Covert (1882-1960) was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1882. He entered the Pittsburgh School of Design in 1902 where he studied with the realist painter Martin Leisser and developed a conservative, academic style. At the age of twenty-six, Covert won a German government scholarship and travelled to Munich where he studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste from 1909 to 1912. From Munich, he moved to Paris where he remained for three years, continuing to paint realistic nudes and portraits ignoring the modernist influences around him.
Covert's style changed dramatically shortly after his return to the United States in February 1915. Covert settled in New York City where he became a regularly participant in the frequent gatherings of American and European artists, intellectuals, and writers at the W. 67th Street apartment of Covert's cousin, Walter Arensberg, and his wife, Louise, between 1915 and 1921. The Arensbergs' were avid patrons of modern art. Covert responded to these many modernist influences by abandoning his academic style. He first produced Cubist paintings, and later integrated unusual materials such as string and upholstery tacks into his works. Between 1915 and 1918, Covert was particularly close with Marcel Duchamp. Together with a group of like-minded individuals, Covert helped to form the Society of Independent Artists in 1916. He served as the Society's first secretary and helped to organize its 1917 inaugural exhibition.
Despite representation by the de Zayas Gallery, Covert's paintings received little recognition and he was not able to sustain himself financially. Covert abandoned his professional life as a painter in 1923 and became a traveling salesman for the Vesuvius Crucible Company, his family's Pittsburgh based company which provided parts for the steel industry. Despite his removal from the avant-garde art world, Covert continued to pursue interests he shared with Walter Arensberg and others in his New York circle of friends, namely cryptography, mathematics and puns. Like his cousin, Covert believed that cryptography could be used to solve the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy, the principal theory pursued by Walter and his research institute, The Francis Bacon Foundation. Covert spent years experimenting with complex number and word puzzles, including magic squares, anagrams and acrostics, in an attempt to show Sir Francis Bacon was the true author of William Shakespeare's plays. Following the Arensbergs' move to Hollywood, California in 1921, he visited the couple at least once to collaborate with Walter on his studies. Covert also used code to record many of the entries in the financial daybooks and ledgers he kept while a salesman.
Covert never seemed to adjust fully to his new professional life. He made a point of visiting galleries whenever in New York and continually implied that he wanted to paint but was unable. He suffered from many health problems, underwent two major operations in 1945, and died in 1960. His works are in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery, the Seattle Museum of Art, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as a number of private collections.
- Art in America 63 (Sept. 1975): 50-55. Davidson, Abraham A. "Two from the Second Decade: Manierre Dawson and John Covert."
- Avant-garde Painting and Sculpture in America, 1910-25: [exhibition] Delaware Art Museum, April 4-May 18, 1975 (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, ). De Angelus, Michele D. "John Covert (1882-1960)."
- Art Journal 12.1 (Fall 1952): 37-42. Hamilton, George Heard "John Covert: Early American Modern."
- Arts 51.9 (May 1977): 113-15. Klein, Michael "John Covert and the Arensberg Circle: Symbolism, Cubism, and Protosurrealism."
- Art Journal 39.1 (Fall 1979): 22-29. Klein, Michael "John Covert's Studios in 1916 and 1923: Two Views into the Past."
- Art Journal 33.4 (Summer 1974): 314-320. Klein, Michael "John Covert's 'Time': Cubism, Duchamp, Einstein-A Quasi-Scientific Fantasy."
The John Raphael Covert Papers consist of the artist's correspondence, word and number puzzles (such as anagrams, acrostics, and riddles), financial records, photographs, and a few of his sketches. In addition, the collection includes a small amount of clippings, writings, and third-party correspondence. The majority of the papers postdate Covert's abadonment of painting as his profession, and thus, document his professional life as a travelling salesman for his family's Vesuvius Crucible Company. Approximately half of these papers are in code, and thus are cryptic in both intent and meaning. A large series of photographs, while undated, appear to document Covert's life in New York City in the late 1910's and early 1920's.
Color digital images are available for all items in the "Financial records" series. Most of these items are bound financial ledgers or daybooks, maintained by John Covert and written primarily in code. This code has not yet been deciphered. All pages in the volumes have been digitized with the exception of those left blank by Covert. Note that sketches and doodles made by Covert illustrate some of the entries.
2002: Two photographs and copies of letters between Charles C. Arensberg and Jennifer Gough-Cooper, Francis Naumann, Diana Strazdes, and The Washington Post were given by Conrad C. M. Arensberg.
Gift of the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery (2001), which had received the material as part of a larger gift from the Francis Bacon Foundation in 1995.
These materials were arranged and described by Katherine Stefko and Adrianna Del Collo. Funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
- Covert, John Raphael
- Lawler, Kathleen
- Mackie, Nona
- White, D.J.
- Arensberg, Charles C.
- Gough-Cooper, Jennifer
- Naumann, Francis M.
- Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616
- Bacon, Francis, 1561-1626
- Tice, Clara, 1888-1973
- Wood, Beatrice
- Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Katherine Stefko and Adrianna Del Collo.
- Finding Aid Date
- Funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
- Access Restrictions
The collection is open for research. The "Fragile restricted papers" may only be consulted with permission of the Archivist. Preservation photocopies and copy prints for reference use have been substituted in the main files.
- Use Restrictions
The John Raphael Covert Papers are the physical property of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Archives. The Museum holds literary rights only for material created by Museum personnel or given to the Museum with such rights specifically assigned. For all other material, literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. Researchers are responsible for obtaining permission from rights holders for publication and for other purposes as stated.
Letters between John Covert and Kathleen Lawler, Nona Lawler Mackie, and D. J. White, primarily in regards to personal issues. Also includes copies of letters between Charles Covert Arensberg and various correspondents, including Marcel Duchamp, Jennifer Gough-Cooper, and Francis Naumann, written after Covert's death and pertaining to his works of art.
Letters between Covert and Kathleen Lawler, Nona Lawler Mackie, and D. J. White. Most letters are in regards to personal issues, such as the health of Covert and his family and friends. Some letters mention art exhibitions and Covert's paintings.
Alphabetical by correspondent.
Copies of letters between Charles Covert Arensberg and various correspondents, including Marcel Duchamp, Jennifer Gough-Cooper, and Francis Naumann, written after Covert's death and pertaining to his works of art.
Alphabetical by correspondent.
Francis Bacon Foundation Records / V. Library records / A. Correspondence / f. Arensberg, Charles C.
Comprised of magic squares, acrostics, anagrams, mathematical calculations and riddles. The vast majority of these word and number puzzles relate directly to the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy that both Covert and his cousin, Walter Arensberg, felt could be solved through the use of acrostics and other word puzzles. Also includes a cipher key for a code Covert developed based on his Social Security number.
Because of the highly specialized format of this material, researchers interested in the topic are encouraged to review all items in the Series because not all titles and subjects are obvious.
By type of material, and then by either title or subject.
Daybooks and ledgers documenting Covert's finances and possibly his work as a travelling salesman for the Vesuvius Crucible Company. One ledger relates to the estate of Mary I. Covert, his mother. These financial records are comprised primarily of cryptographic entries seemingly recorded in a code based on Covert's Social Security number, the key to which is available in the "Word and number puzzles" Series. The daybooks also contain scattered original watercolors, ink sketches, and other artwork.
Digital images are available for all items in this series.
By type of material, and then chronologically.
Clippings related primarily to William Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and word games such as anagrams and acrostics. Clippings regarding Bacon also include an extensive amount of Covert's notations.
Alphabetical by title.
Includes a few sketches and doodles by Covert, such as an undated pastoral landscape gouache. Also includes a genealogical sketch of the Covert family.
Alphabetical by author, and then by type of material.
Prints (primarily copy, but two vintage) and negatives of photgraphs taken by John Covert. The photographs are primarily of female models posed either in the artist's studio or outside in a park. Includes several detail shots of shoes and feet, as well as a handful of nudes. Covert's models include Kathleen Lawler, and perhaps Clara Tice and Beatrice Wood.
This subseries is comprised of copy prints of Covert's original negatives now housed in the "Negatives" subseries. Covert's photographs are primarily of female models posed either in the artist's studio or outside in a park. There are also several detail shots of shoes and feet, as well as a handful of nudes. Covert's models include Kathleen Lawler, and perhaps Clara Tice and Beatrice Wood.
Alphabetical by subject. Note that the folder number of each copy print in Box 8 coincides with the folder number of its matching negative in Box 9.
Includes two images of nude models posed in presumably Covert's studio, as well as a snapshot of an unidentified woman at the beach. These prints do not have corresponding negatives in the "Negatives" Subseries.
Alphabetical by subject.
This subseries is comprised of Covert's original photographic negatives depicting primarily female models posed either in the artist's studio or outside in a park. There are also several detail shots of shoes and feet, as well as a handful of nudes. Covert's models include Kathleen Lawler, and perhaps Clara Tice and Beatrice Wood.
Alphabetical by subject. Note that the folder number of each negative in Box 9 coincides with the folder number of its matching copy print in Box 8.