American Art at the National Academy Museum

Abraham Leon Kroll - The Conversation (Natl Academy NYC 1920)

Abraham Leon Kroll's 1920 painting "The Conversation" reminded us of portraits George Bellows was painting about the same time and restaurant scenes Edward Hopper would be painting in another 10-20 years

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” Garber - By Addingham (Natl Acad NYC 1911)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.

Kensett - The Bash-Bish (Natl Acad NYC 1855)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 Junius Brutus Stearns - The Millennium (Am Acad NYC 1849)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; Thomas Waterman Wood - The Rag Picker (Natl Acad NYC 1859)(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.

Eakins -- Self-Portrait (Natl Acad NYC 1902)

Thomas Eakins, by Thomas Eakins

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.

Sargent -- Portrait of Monet (National Academy NYC)

Claude Monet, by John Singer Sargent

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 Marsh Reginald -- Barrel of FunReginald 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 Alphaeus Philemon Cole - The Blank Canvason 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.

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American art in New Britain, Connecticut

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The old museum building is on the right, the new one on the left.

(April 11, 2009) Till a couple weeks ago, we hadn’t been back to the New Britain Museum of American Art (New Britain, Connecticut) since before its new building was built three years ago. We were a little nervous; part of the charm of visiting this museum had been muddling about in the old Victorian mansion (on a quiet city street) that housed its collection. The truth was, though, that the place was cramped and inadequate.

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The fine old houses on the other side of the street from the museum. We were able to park our car on the street right in front of the museum steps.

We now give our belated review of the new facility: it’s excellent. They’ve put up a 43,000 square-foot building with two floors of nicely designed exhibition space (including a Dale Chihuly glass sculpture hanging over the staircase). The pleasant neighborhood is the same. The old building, next door, is connected by a walkway; it’s just not used for exhibiting art anymore.

Of all the museums that exhibit only American art, the one in New Britain is still our favorite. Its collection certainly isn’t the largest or finest (that would be the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.), and much can be said for other museums of its ilk (the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia; the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City; the Butler Institute of American Art, in Youngstown, Ohio; and the Terra Foundation for American Art (not currently located anywhere at all). Still, this collection, benton-boomtown-magespecially in its new digs, touches us at all the right points, and it includes a number of our very favorite American paintings.

For anyone who might go out of his way to see the works of Thomas Hart Benton, the New Britain Museum of American Art must be visited. Here in Rochester, the Memorial Art Gallery has one of Benton’s very best, Boom Town, from 1928 (above) — but if Boom Town is the only Benton painting you know, you absolutely must see the Bentons in New Britain, benton-arts-of-the-west-new-britainespecially Benton’s large, lively, mildly racy mural, The Arts of Life in America. The various parts of the mural occupy all four walls of a gallery on the museum’s second floor. (This is the ten-foot section of the mural entitled “Arts of the West.”)

100_7872-croppedAnother reason we’re high on the New Britain Museum of American Art is its superb gallery of American impressionists. There are first-rate pieces by Frederick Carl Frieseke, Childe Hassam, Richard E. Miller, J. Alden Weir, and Willard Metcalf, among others. (We put images of a couple of these in this earlier post.) We said earlier that Colin Campbell Cooper’s Main Street Bridge, Rochester (also at the Memorial Art Gallery) is the best Cooper we’d ever seen. But the New Britain museum also has a wonderful Cooper, entitled On the Rhine, which is also a painting of a bridge. We were fascinated to see how differently Cooper approached painting the European bridge in the New Britain painting.

koch-interlude-magOne of the most “hmm”-provoking paintings at the Memorial Art Gallery is John Koch’s 1963 painting Interlude. The painter (presumably Koch himself) takes a break and sits back to think about his canvas; an older woman in an orange morning robe (presumably the artist’s wife) placidly serves coffee to a nude model. In the New Britain museum, we were delighted to see a John Koch painting that depicts his wife in earlier years. From the museum’s exhibition label for Koch’s The Florist, we learned that in 1943 Koch was newly married and had just 100_7933been drafted into the armed forces when he painted this picture. “He thought he might never return to his bride and his career as a painter. Consequently, he worked feverishly to complete The Florist, which he hoped would establish his fame and also serve as a looming tribute to his wife, whom he portrayed surrounded by beautiful flowers.” Fortunately, The Florist was neither Koch’s last picture nor his last portrayal of his wife.

We devoted an entire post several months ago to George Grosz’s 1943 painting, The Wanderer, another of the Memorial Art Gallery’s prizes, which portrays a weary man 100_7913fleeing a burned-out city. So far as we know, the New Britain museum does not have any works by Grosz, but a 1946 painting by Carl Frederick Gaertner (a new artist for us) reminded us immediately of The Wanderer. The scene of devastation in Gaertner’s The Search Begins looks a lot like the product of aerial fire-bombing, and in this picture Gaertner used a palette similar to Grosz’s in The Wanderer. But The Search Begins is not a war scene at all, except possibly figuratively; it shows an area of northeastern Cleveland where in 1944 an explosion of gas tanks devastated a large neighborhood, with a large death toll.

This is the same tragedy described in a novel that we liked when we were young. Don Robertson’s The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread tells the story of a nine-year-old Cleveland boy who was caught up in the chaos of that very explosion and fire. We re-read the book (still in print) with great pleasure just a couple of years ago.

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The MAG's "Chinese Restaurant", by John Sloan

The Memorial Art Gallery’s pieces by the Ashcan painters and the later American impressionists, including Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, and especially John Sloan (the MAG’s two Sloan paintings are among his very best) are good, but so are the ones at the New Britain museum, which are all part of a very satisfying exhibition of “The Eight” at the New Britain museum for the next several weeks. The show includes works from the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Terra Foundation for American Art. We wish we had a chance to go back and spend more time with “The Eight.”

One thing we do think the New Britain museum could use is a better copy writer. Go back four paragraphs to the museum’s discussion of its John Koch painting; did you gulp at the phrase “a looming tribute”? In what way, exactly, might a tribute “loom”? Then consider this sentence from the gateway page of its website:

The NBMAA is thought to be one of the nation’s most dynamic art museums by exhibiting the permanent collection and special exhibitions on widely diverse subjects in ways that combine the highest aesthetic standards with engaging and intellectually accessible presentations.

What a dreadful, ungrammatical, jargon-full sentence! Ouch.