Subscribe for 99¢

How does the Missouri History Museum tell a love story about a groundbreaking St. Louis aviator and his eventual wife?

By conserving a massive painting by a renowned Mexican artist, given to the couple by the president of Mexico. And by dusting off related objects from the museum collection — a carved walrus tusk, an Aztec incense burner, the groom’s wedding suit, the bride’s going-away coat.

“Flores Mexicanas: A Lindbergh Love Story,” on view Saturday through Sept. 2, chronicles the romance of Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

While most St. Louisans know Charles Lindbergh completed the first solo, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, they probably don’t know the story behind the massive painting that sat in storage for nearly 90 years at the Missouri Historical Society.

“It’s an important story, it’s culturally significant, it tells a story from this area,” says Adam Kloppe, public historian for the museum.

The 9-by-12-foot painting, titled “Flores Mexicanas” and depicting four women who are believed to represent cultural traditions in Mexico during the 1920s, is the largest in the museum’s collection.

Artist Alfredo Ramos Martinez moved to Los Angeles shortly after finishing the piece in Mexico. Scholars didn’t know the painting’s whereabouts until students from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, working on the Missouri History Museum exhibit, contacted them.

The artwork was a wedding gift from Mexican president Emilio Portes Gil to the Lindberghs in 1929.

The famous couple knew the historical significance of their personal belongings, which included gifts from around the world, so they gave many such items, including the painting, to the museum.

“It’s a little too big to hang above the mantel,” Kloppe says.

The idea for the exhibition came when Missouri Historical Society president Frances Levine noticed the painting during a tour of the collections. She wondered whether it would qualify for the Bank of America Art Conservation Project. It did, and a grant from the program funded restoration of the painting and its elaborate wood frame.

The process revealed a few surprises. An X-ray indicated that the likeness of another woman had been painted over at the upper-right portion of the canvas.

“We have really had so much fun watching this piece transform and just understanding and enjoying the story,” says Katie Fischer, the St. Louis liaison for the Bank of America program.

Since 2010, the project has helped with the conservation of more than 150 artworks around the world. This is the first piece it has helped conserve in St. Louis.

Young love

So why did the president of Mexico give “Flores Mexicanas” to the newlywed Lindberghs?

Charles Lindbergh became a celebrity the moment he completed his historic flight and landed in Paris on May 21, 1927. The U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Dwight Morrow, had asked Lindbergh if he would consider flying the Spirit of St. Louis to Mexico as part of a goodwill tour. Relations between America and Mexico had been strained.

Lindbergh agreed, and swarms of people greeted him as he landed Dec. 14, 1927, in Mexico City after a 27-hour flight.

Morrow’s daughter Anne wasn’t thrilled about the holiday visit, complaining in her diary about “all this public-hero stuff breaking into our family party.” But she eventually warmed up to Lindbergh, who took Anne and her two sisters flying. She was thrilled and asked if she could learn to fly someday. “I don’t see why not,” he responded.

Lindbergh continued on his tour around Latin America, and Anne Morrow returned to Smith College. They didn’t forget about each other, and the next year, Lindbergh took her flying. They tried to hide their courtship from the press, and after only two official dates, he asked her to marry him.

And yes, Lindbergh’s goodwill tour did help U.S. relations with Mexico.

“It gave people a sense that someone in America is listening,” Kloppe says, pointing to a newspaper clipping reporting that the “feverishly excited” people of Mexico City hoped the wedding would take place there.

The couple got married in a small ceremony at Morrow’s parents’ home in New Jersey.

The Missouri History Museum exhibition, which also is interpreted in Spanish, tells more of the Lindberghs’ story through 20 artifacts: the incense burner found by a Mexican anthropologist and given as a wedding present; a tortoiseshell necklace and pendant given to Anne Morrow Lindbergh by the Mother’s Club of Mexico; a globe, given to them by the makers of the Spirit of St. Louis, that the couple used to record their trips.

They flew as a team, with one as pilot and the other as navigator. Anne Morrow Lindbergh became an author and distinguished pilot in her own right.

The globe sits on the floor of the exhibit, black lines marking flight paths winding around the world.

“At night he was sitting here with this globe, tracing these routes with his pen,” Kloppe says. “That’s an incredible connection to have.”