Art Collectors' Council 2008 Acquisitions
From Gothic Revival to Modernism
Art Collectors’ Council approves five new acquisitions in 2008
The American and British art collections both expanded their breadth recently when five new works were acquired during the 2008 annual meeting of the Art Collectors’ Council. The council is a group of major donors who help direct the growth of the collections through active involvement in the acquisition process. This year’s selections represented a broad range of periods and media, including paintings, sculpture, and furniture.
The Blue Sea, 1897, by Joseph Edward Southall, was the winner in the first round of voting. An admirer of John Ruskin’s essays on art and architecture, Southall (1861– 1944) was determined to become an architect himself. But while traveling in Italy he was inspired to study the lost art of tempera painting. Widely used in Italy in the 14th and 15th centuries, the labor-intensive technique had subsequently been displaced by oil paints, which were easier to prepare and use. Believing that tempera demanded a higher degree of craftsmanship than oil painting, Southall became one of the founders of the tempera revival movement. The Blue Sea, worked in gouache and gum tempera and mounted in a gilded frame designed by the artist, is a superb example of his mastery of the complex painting technique. The intense colors appear to glow from within like stained glass, a result of numerous thin layers of dry, dense pigment. The Huntington owns only one other work by Southall: an intricate gold-point portrait of a young girl, yet another testament to his fascination with intricate techniques and unusual media.
Scraping a Deerskin, 1904, by John George Brown, was chosen next. This nostalgic image of rural New England reflected a cultural yearning in America for a pastoral way of life that was rapidly disappearing. The theme of rural labor echoes works by Brown’s contemporaries Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer, while the meticulous detail and rigorous geometry of the composition connect it to the work of antebellum genre painters such as George Caleb Bingham. Brown (1831–1913) was born in England but immigrated to America as a young man and worked in New York with such artists as Homer, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church. Although best known for his images of urban street children, Brown received critical acclaim for the realism of his rural scenes. At The Huntington, Scraping a Deerskin fills a significant gap in the collection of American art and provides a link between the 19th-century genre paintings by Bingham, Johnson, and David Gilmour Blythe and the early-20th-century paintings of urban American life by John Sloan, George Luks, and Alexander Kruse.
Bust of a Woman, 1869, by William Wetmore Story, won in the third round. The son of an associate justice of the Supreme Court, Story (1819–1895) initially followed his father into law but realized after a trip to Italy that art was his true calling. In Rome he joined a group of American and English expatriates, among them the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, poet Robert Browning, and sculptors Hiram Powers, Chauncey Ives, and Harriet Hosmer. During this period, Story produced sculptures of historic and mythological figures, including Libyan Sybil and Cleopatra, both of which were exhibited in 1862 at the International Exhibition in London. (Ives’ Pandora and Hosmer’s Zenobia in Chains, both now at The Huntington, also were displayed there.) Bust of a Woman dates from Story’s most creative and productive period, when he was considered one of America’s finest sculptors. At The Huntington, it will be an integral part of the collection of 19th-century American sculpture and will play an important role in the reinstallation of the Scott and Erburu galleries, currently in progress.
Bird’s Nest, 1944, by Charles Sheeler, was the fourth work selected. The large-scale painting demonstrates Sheeler’s interest in depicting domestic architecture from unusual vantage points. Sheeler (1883–1965) was associated with Precisionism, a style that emphasized the abstract patterns created by America’s urban landscape. He began his career studying with William Merritt Chase in Philadelphia, and embraced modernism after encountering the work of Cézanne, Picasso, and Braque while in Europe in 1908. Later he began working in a Cubist-influenced style. Sheeler developed his Precisionist techniques in the 1920s, when he reconciled his interests in both Realism and Cubism by concentrating on the design elements of architecture and machinery. In Bird’s Nest, he depicts his own home from an eccentric point of view, perpendicular to the picture plane. The more gestural treatment of the foliage may have been his response to the developing movement of Abstract Expressionism. The painting will be a pivotal addition to The Huntington’s representation of American modernism, joining works by Stuart Davis, Arthur B. Davies, Luigi Lucioni, and Edward Steichen.
Painted Bookcase, ca. 1867, was the last work chosen, made possible by additional contributions from Kelvin Davis and Barry and Marie Herlihy. This Gothic Revival cabinet, crafted of unvarnished oak, is decorated with six hand-painted side panels representing art, science, commerce, literature, music, and agriculture. Manufactured by the Art Furniture Co. in London, this bookcase relates to the furniture designs of Charles Locke Eastlake (1836–1906), whose 1868 manual of interior decoration, Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details, included an illustration of a library bookcase very close to this example. Like William Morris, Eastlake believed that the objects with which people decorated their homes should be handmade by skilled artist-craftsmen, rather than mass produced by machines. Eastlake’s influence on Design Reform in the late 19th century, in America as well as in Britain, was probably as great in the field of interior decoration as that of Morris. With its ability to demonstrate the transatlantic exchange of ideas, this painted bookcase represents a crucial moment in the development of modern design. Huntington visitors can see it on display in the 19th-century galleries on the second floor of the Huntington Art Gallery.