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John Raphael Covert Papers

Identifier: JRC

Scope and Contents

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 abandonment of painting as his profession, and thus, document his professional life as a traveling 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.


  • 1919-1976, undated


Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

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.

Conditions Governing Use

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.

Biographical / Historical

The painter John Raphael Covert 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 traveled 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 day books 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.

Works Consulted

  1. Art in America 63 (Sept. 1975): 50-55. Davidson, Abraham A. "Two from the Second Decade: Manierre Dawson and John Covert."
  2. Avant-garde Painting and Sculpture in America, 1910-25: [exhibition] Delaware Art Museum, April 4-May 18, 1975 (Wilmington: Delaware Art Museum, [1975]). De Angelus, Michele D. "John Covert (1882-1960)."
  3. Art Journal 12.1 (Fall 1952): 37-42. Hamilton, George Heard "John Covert: Early American Modern."
  4. Arts 51.9 (May 1977): 113-15. Klein, Michael "John Covert and the Arensberg Circle: Symbolism, Cubism, and Protosurrealism."
  5. Art Journal 39.1 (Fall 1979): 22-29. Klein, Michael "John Covert's Studios in 1916 and 1923: Two Views into the Past."
  6. Art Journal 33.4 (Summer 1974): 314-320. Klein, Michael "John Covert's 'Time': Cubism, Duchamp, Einstein-A Quasi-Scientific Fantasy."


5 linear feet


The painter John Raphael Covert was an active participant in the American avant-garde art movement between 1915 and 1923. He later became a traveling salesman for his family's Vesuvius Crucible Company and pursued his intense interest in cryptography, word games and magic squares. The John Raphael Covert Papers consist of the artist's correspondence, word and number puzzles (such as anagrams, acrostics, and riddles), financial records, photographic portraits, and a few sketches. Approximately half of the papers are in code, and thus are cryptic in both intent and meaning.

Custodial History

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.


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 in 2002.

Existence and Location of Copies

Color digital images are available for all items in the "Financial records" series. Most of these items are bound financial ledgers or day books, 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.

Processing Information

These materials were arranged and described by Katherine Stefko and Adrianna Del Collo. Funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


Guide to the John Raphael Covert Papers
Finding aid prepared by Katherine Stefko and Adrianna Del Collo.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note
Funded by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Repository Details

Part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Library and Archives Repository

Philadelphia Museum of Art
PO Box 7646
Philadelphia PA 19101-7646 United States