Till our recent baseball trip to the south, neither business nor pleasure had taken us to Atlanta. So between visits to Turner Field to see the Pirates play the Braves, we spent a pleasant, leisurely afternoon at the High Museum of Art. What we found was a marvelous facility, a worthy though unspectacular collection of American art, and surprisingly appealing galleries of contemporary art.
In gathering up treasures of European art, Atlanta seems to have come late to the party. Museums in the northeast are mostly built around large collections donated by rich folk like Andrew Mellon, Robert Lehman, the Havemeyers, John J. Johnson, and the Clark brothers, but Atlanta apparently had no such major donors. So the galleries of European art at the High Museum are fairly modest, even compared to what can be seen in northern cities like Hartford, Detroit, and Toledo that are now a lot smaller than Atlanta.
But while those northern cities were depopulating (and their art institutions were having trouble keeping afloat), the people of Atlanta built a fine, bright, new art museum for the art it did have (and presumably hoped to get). We liked it.
In collecting old masters, the High Museum, to its credit, went for quality rather than big names — although there is a Bellini “Madonna and Child.”. We liked a pair of paintings by Il Baciccio from 1700 illustrating the Genesis accounts of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac and Noah’s sacrifice after the flood. From the nineteenth century, we doted on a pair of smaller Corots and thought a Pissarro landscape, Road to Marly, was the pick of a small group of French impressionist paintings.
At any rate, the High Museum’s collection of American art is very good, even without pieces by Homer or Eakins. We were struck by a John Singleton Copley portrait and by three remarkable early 19th-century portraits of native Americans by Henry Inman. And we found a few American artists that we consider particular friends. In our spare bedroom is a print of John George Brown’s best-known painting, The Berry Boy; the High Museum has a pair of delightful genre paintings that are surely also among his finest, Neighbors and The Deacon’s Visit. Another of our oldest friends in art (dating from our boyhood days as a stamp collector) is Samuel F. B. Morse (also known as the inventor of the telegraph) — and here was a portrait by Morse of his wife and children!
Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery has a spectacular rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge and its surroundings by the American impressionist Jonas Lie. But the High Museum has one too, a different view of the bridge titled Path of Gold. We don’t often see Jonas Lie; this was a rare and unexpected pleasure.
We are not always respectful of contemporary art. We’ve even been known to roll our eyes as we pass by galleries where plain black squares pose as paintings on the walls, and piles of cut-up tires masquerade as sculptures in the middle of the floor. But we must confess that we really enjoyed the contemporary art galleries at the High Museum, which are on the top floor and whose lighting benefits greatly from skylight windows. Many of the works are artfully hung so as to be seen from adjacent galleries. (The painting with the white and light blue stripes is by the Canadian artist Agnes Martin and is cleverly entitled Unitled #3. We kept wandering back and forth through these galleries and were sorry to leave them.
Condescending Yankee that we are, we initially assumed that the people of Atlanta called their museum the “High” to let the world know that it held nothing but the finest art, as distinguished, say, from sidewalk art. We were wrong; the museum was named after a Mrs. Joseph M. High who donated the museum’s original home on Atlanta’s Peachtree Street in 1926.