A new exhibition showcases the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s extensive, but not often exhibited, collection of American paintings. American Stories 1800-1950 is a sweeping exploration of portraits, landscapes, and narrative paintings.
American Stories was curated by James Mundy, the Anne Hendricks Bass Director of the Art Center. The show includes works by Milton Bellin, John Singleton Copley, Minna Citron, Andrew Michael Dasburg, and Charles Loring Elliott. Notably, it also features paintings by lesser-known Hudson River School painters Samuel W. Griggs, Louis Remy Mignot, Aaron Draper Shattuck, and Henry A. Ferguson. Four works by C.K. Chatterton, the second professor of painting at Vassar, are also included. The show will be on view January 29-April 17, 2016.
Vassar’s American art collection starts right at the beginning of the college’s history when Elias Lyman Magoon sold his personal art collection and library to Matthew Vassar in 1864. The vast majority of Magoon’s collection of more than three hundred paintings were American contemporary landscapes and genre scenes. These works, some of which are on display in the museum’s permanent galleries, formed what is known as the Founding Collection for the Art Center.
Over the century and a half that followed the Magoon transaction, more American paintings were added to the Art Center collection. “A few were deaccessioned at times before 1960 when our own artistic heritage was held in far lower esteem than that of Europe,” Mundy points out. “Gifts to the collection have made up the lion’s share of the American works acquired to this date, although some purchases have also strengthened the collection.”
Comprised of fifty-nine works, the exhibition is divided into three sections: People, Places, and Moments. (A full checklist is available here.)
Early American artists, working without the patronage of royalty, an official art academy or the Church, could only support themselves by providing a practical and desirable consumer product such as portraits. The “People” section of the exhibition focuses on this. Many of the paintings featured followed a successful formula of sorts: half or bust-length portraits of a size that could inhabit the parlor or dining room of a modestly proportioned Federal-period house before improvements in central heating permitted the grander proportions of homes later in the nineteenth century. All of these paintings stem from the first third of the century.
As times changed, portraits did as well. Later nineteenth and early twentieth century portraits of individuals would expand the context of portrayal with literary references as in Charles Loring Elliott’s Falstaff or Samuel Isham’s Song of the Lark, a depiction of a single lovely young woman romantically posed half-length in profile looking skyward, though no lark is in sight and the song can only be imagined. Similar literary or historical conceits continue into the twentieth century as illustrated by Charles Webster Hawthorne’s grim Madonna of the Harbor of 1925 or Stefan Hirsch’s Italian Renaissance-inspired portrait of the sculptor Concetta Scaravaglione of 1927. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the rich vein of Social Realism that it spawned also created new vocabularies of portrayal such as Milton Bellin’s brooding self-portrait at his easel or Minna Citron’s poignant portrait of a blind newspaper vendor in the New York City subway entitled She Earns an Honest Living of 1934.
As the century evolved, places became their own subject and serve also as keys to the backgrounds of many American stories. A number of American painters followed the lead of Washington Allston in examining landscape, especially that native to North America. The story of the land, its sublimity, as well as its many moods would aggregate in the group of artists that Magoon himself patronized, the so-called Hudson River School. A few of the more notable artists from this group—Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, for instance—are represented in the Art Center’s permanent galleries, but the scope of American Stories allows for exhibition of a wider pool of painters from this group. Additionally, twentieth-century practitioners of traditional landscape depictions rooted in the Hudson River School are also included in the exhibition. “Their work tends to reflect an American interpretation of French Impressionism,” says Mundy. “The work of Ernest Lawson entitled The Blue Hill from 1917 or that of Daniel Garber, The Bridge at New Hope from 1952 suggests the Impressionist palette but clearly is tied to the structural and compositional solidity evidenced in much American painting.”
The third section of the exhibition emphasizes moments where depictions of people and places carry narrative content beyond the sheer depiction. “Such works that imply a moral or social message are good examples of this and span both nineteenth and twentieth centuries,” Mundy notes.
William H. Beard’s A Lesson for the Lazy from 1859 in representing a snoozing hunter and his dog in the woods spied upon by their quarry, an alert fox, carries the simple moral message of the dangers of sloth. A similar teaching moment was encoded in another mid-nineteenth-century genre painting, Caught in the Act by Tompkins Matteson, a work collected by Magoon that formed, as did Beard’s painting, part of Vassar’s Founding Collection. Here a kitchen maid catches a young scamp trying to sample from a jar of preserves stored on a high shelf. In reaching for the jar while on a stool, he loses his balance and stool and jar crash to the floor, breaking the jar and spreading the preserves on the ground. Punishment is summarily meted out by the maid who twists the ear of the barefoot boy, whose face is in obvious pain while his jammy, sticky fingers streak the pantry wall.
The twentieth century approach to American moments would convey more modern and socially relevant events also intended to instruct the viewer. Ben Shahn’s Puddler’s Sunday of 1937 portrays a group of sturdy Ohio ironworkers (or puddlers) on their day off, dressed mostly in white shirts and summer hats enjoying a summer’s day free from their toil in the industrial inferno of the forge. Social Realist Milton Bellin gives us another narrative in Two Women (undated but likely from the late 1930s) which depicts two women promenading down an urban street, turning a blind eye to the legless vendor of pencils at their feet as they chatter away. Bellin’s harsh social critique, while based on the more benign genre painting of the preceding century, has clearly a much sharper edge to it based on the severe social dichotomies that emerged during the Great Depression.
A full list of events associated with American Stories is below.
Exhibition opening lecture and reception
Friday, February 12
Taylor Hall, room 203
Anna O. Marley ’96, “Exhibiting America: Art Institutions and National Identity 1805-1913”
Marley is the curator of historical American art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. She is a scholar of American art and material culture from the colonial era to 1945 and holds a BA in art history from Vassar College, an MA in museum studies from the University of Southern California and a Ph.D. from the University of Delaware, where she completed a dissertation on 18th- and early 19th-century landscape paintings. Her recent exhibitions at PAFA include Spiritual Strivings: A Celebration of African American Works on Paper (2014) and the touring exhibition, The Artist's Garden: American Impressionism and the Garden Movement, 1887-1920 (2015).
Curator’s Gallery Talk
Thursday, March 3
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
American Stories curator and Art Center director James Mundy will lead an informal discussion of the exhibition. Participants will enjoy a unique curatorial perspective on the show as a whole and have the chance to explore some of the works in detail.
Sunday, April 10
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
Children and their families can enjoy a range of ongoing hands-on art activities inspired by the works on view in the exhibition, and child-friendly interactive “mini-tours” of the galleries will be offered throughout the afternoon as well. Activities will reflect the themes of People, Places, and Moments from the American Stories exhibition and will make use of several different art mediums. Best suited for ages 5–10, the program is free and no reservations are required; participants can drop in at any time.
About the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center
The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center was founded in 1864 as the Vassar College Art Gallery. The current 36,400-square-foot facility, designed by Cesar Pelli and named in honor of the new building's primary donor, opened in 1993. Vassar was the first U.S. college founded with a permanent art collection and gallery, and at any given time, the Permanent Collection Galleries of the Art Center feature approximately 350 works from Vassar's extensive collections. The Art Center's collections chart the history of art from antiquity to the present and comprise over 20,000 works, including paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and glass and ceramic wares. Notable holdings include the Warburg Collection of Old Master prints, an important group of Hudson River School paintings given by Matthew Vassar at the college's inception, and a wide range of works by major European and American 20th-century painters.
Admission to the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is free and all galleries are wheelchair accessible. The Art Center is open to the public Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, 10:00am–5:00pm; Thursday, 10:00am–9:00pm; and Sunday, 1:00–5:00pm. Located at the entrance to the historic Vassar College campus, the Art Center can be reached within minutes from other Mid-Hudson cultural attractions, such as Dia:Beacon, the Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt national historic sites and homes, and the Vanderbilt mansion. For additional information, the public may call (845) 437-5632 or visit fllac.vassar.edu.
Vassar College strives to make its events, performances, and facilities accessible to all. Individuals with disabilities requiring special accommodations must contact the Office of Campus Activities at least 48 hours in advance of an event, Mondays-Fridays, at (845) 437-5370. Without sufficient notice, appropriate space/and or assistance may not be available. For detailed information about accessibility to specific campus facilities, search for “campus accessibility information” on the Vassar homepage (http://www.vassar.edu).
Directions to the Vassar campus, located at 124 Raymond Avenue in Poughkeepsie, NY, are available at www.vassar.edu/directions.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.