We've been fortunate to track down photos of the interior of the Veblen House from when the Veblens were living there. Oswald took an interest in photography later in his life. Considering that the Veblens' will called for their pictures to become part of a museum at the house, this appears to have been a conscious effort on his part to document their life, the house, and garden.
The painting itself was most likely painted by Charles Oppenheimer, a British painter and contemporary of the Veblens. My curiosity about the painting for years had gone no further than that, but a graphic artist and friend of our Veblen House project was moved to track down the subject of the painting.
While in Italy Oppenheimer painted the architecture of Florence, Verona and Venice, capturing the atmosphere of these old Italian cities.
One internet source describes Oppenheimer's trip to northern Italy in 1912, which may have been when this painting was made.
like this one.
There are a couple echoes from Oswald Veblen's life in Oppenheimer's life and paintings. Veblen grew up overlooking the Iowa River, which meanders through Iowa City. And in WW II the army conducted some of its military exercises near Kirkcudbright. Veblen played important roles in both world wars, leading groups of mathematicians and physicists to improve the accuracy of artillery. Like Veblen, Oppenheimer was drawn to both the natural and the built environment.
Bob described the painting as a desert, with scrub rather than cacti, with a view from a rise out across a broad valley, with mountains in the distance. Bob would sit there in the evening and gaze at that painting and let his imagination go. He had always believed it to have been painted by Robert Oppenheimer of the IAS, during his time at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and was surprised by my suggestion that it was painted instead by Charles Oppenheimer. Bob mentioned a neighbor of his, two doors up, who is a very talented painter, and might be able to recreate the painting if we could find an image.
It seems unlikely that Charles Oppenheimer would have had occasion to paint a desert scene. Robert Oppenheimer's mother was a painter, and owned works by Picasso and van Gogh. It's possible Robert picked up some painting skills along the way.
Update: The mystery of the painting above the fireplace has been solved. It was painted by Kate Cory, of a landscape near Prescott, Arizona. We still have no image of the painting, however.