In a post last year, we were righteously indignant about the failure of the National Academy Museum to exhibit its large fine permanent collection of American art. But in 2009 the National Academy has been mending its ways. Twice already this year the National Academy has filled its modest galleries with nothing but art from its own collection. We happened to catch both shows.
This facade of the National Academy Museum looks just like another narrow Fifth Avenue townhouse (it’s half a block up from the Guggenheim). You have to go through the gift shop to get to the ticketseller (clearly a volunteer), who doesn’t have much to do because the National Academy Museum unfortunately doesn’t get much traffic.
Last winter the National Academy was offering an exhibition of landscape paintings called “American Waters.” This exhibition was not, frankly, very focused, since 200 years of art were represented and the subject of “waters” takes in a lot. But we were still delighted to see so much first-rate American art (about 50 paintings out of a collection of over 5,000 works of art) come out of storage. The one that pleased us most was a painting by Daniel Garber, one of our favorite American impressionists (see this post), titled By Addington (just above), a gentle scene of farm life along a Pennsylvania river.
We saw a number of Hudson River school paintings, including what is surely one of John Frederick Kensett’s finest, The Bish-Bash, which portrays a dramatic waterfall in western Massachusetts. We’ve added the Bish-Bash Falls to our list of places we want to see when we visit New England.
Currently the National Academy has another exhibit of pieces from its collection whose common feature is the portrayal of the human face and figure; it runs till November 2009. Once again, the theme of the show seems to be fairly loose, but no matter, because they’ve uncarted plenty of gems: some very recent pieces as well as 200-year-old paintings like Junius Brutus Stearns’s old-fashioned utopian scene,The Millennium, based on the passage from Isaiah: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” Isaiah 11:6 (NIV). We are always drawn to 19th-century American genre paintings; here we saw for the first time Thomas Waterman Wood’s cheerful portrait of a Parisian urchin, The Rag Picker.
The overall quality of these pieces is astonishingly high, given the relative obscurity of the National Academy Museum. Even after seeing only a modest sampling of its permanent collection, we feel sure that its holdings are superior to the American art collections in all but perhaps a half dozen museums in the United States.
One of the unique features of a visit to the National Academy is that museum volunteers are likely to come up to you and strike up a conversation about a work you’re looking at. It’s happened to us several times now; during our recent visit we had a very pleasant exchange with a highly knowledgeable elderly lady about a self-portrait by Andrew Wyeth and the Wyeth family generally. And, indeed, two of the best works on display were the Wyeth self-portrait and a very rare self-portrait by Thomas Eakins.
It is our sense that the National Academy Museum is especially rich in portraits because, when artists have been nominated (over the last 150 years) to membership in the National Academy, they are expected to contribute an example of their work to the museum, and not infrequently they give paintings of themselves. Omitted from this exhibit is a portrait by John Singer Sargent of the French impressionist Claude Monet; we know it’s somewhere in the National Academy’s vaults.
The twentieth-century is well-represented in this exhibit. We were pleased to see a 1930s-era painting by one of our favorite American artists, the regionalist Reginald Marsh, that was new to us, entitled Barrel of Fun. It shows people in a large tube in an amusement park in which people fall all over each other as the “barrel” slowly turns. We haven’t seen such a thing lately; the likelihood of a fellow’s being kicked in the teeth by accident, or a lady’s being groped on purpose, would seem to be fairly high, and no doubt the liability insurance carriers have balked. We were also struck by a self-portrait of a painter at his craft of figure painting, Alphaeus Philemon Cole’s, The Blank Canvas, which reminded us of a painting on a similar theme by John Koch right here in Rochester at the Memorial Art Gallery. We noted the Koch painting in an earlier post.