Museum of Fine Arts

St. Petersburg, FL



An American Palette: Works from the Collection of John and Dolores Beck


More than fifty works from one of Florida's most important collections of American art will be on view at the Museum of Fine Arts from November 12, 2000 - January 14, 2001. Primarily paintings, the works range from the mid-nineteenth century to the 1950s and encompass traditional and modernist landscapes and still lifes, portraits, and urban realism.

The artists represented in "An American Palette: Works from the Collection of John and Dolores Beck" read like a "who's who" in American art. They include: Albert Bierstadt, George Inness, George Bellows, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn Thomas Hart Benton, Charles Ehpraim Burchfield, Arthur G. Dove, John Marin Reginald Marsh, Max Weber, Stuart Davis, Oscar Bluemner, and Charles Sheeler. Never before has such a large number of works from this collection been shown to the public. The show will also be presented at the Orlando Museum of Art in 2002.

"To show a collection that has never been seen by the general public is one of the most exciting and rewarding museum projects," said Museum Director Michael Milkovich. "We have this privilege in presenting An American Palette. We are deeply grateful to the Becks for emptying the walls of their beautiful home and sharing their treasures with us. We also greatly appreciate the donation of advertising space from the St. Petersburg Times, which allows us to make this exhibition more visible in the area."

Dr. Valerie A. Leeds, the guest curator of the show, will present a Gallery Talk -- "An American Palette: A Personal View into the Beck Collection" -- at 3 p.m. November 12, the opening day of the exhibition. And Dr. William A. Gerdts, one of the leading scholars of American art, will lecture at 3 p.m. December 10. His topic will be: " 'We Are Beginning to Paint Like Other People Paint': Changing Concepts of Modernity in American Painting." Both programs are set for Sunday, a free day at the Museum.


About the Art

The Beck Collection covers a wide expanse of time and some of the most fertile periods in the history of American art. Among the earliest works is a traditional still life by Robert Spear Dunning - Still Life with Oranges, 1861 - and the most recent is Charles Sheeler's spare, precisionist painting On a Shaker Theme #2, 1956. Many are from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s.

The vast and incredibly diverse American landscape has played a central role in the creation of this country's nationalistic images and myths, as well as its art. In this exhibition, there is a luminous marine painting by Francis Augustus Silva, October on the Hudson, c. 1873, with graceful sailboats dotting the harbor; George Inness's rural scene, Medfield, 1877; and Willard Metcalf's Thawing Brook, 1921, completed near the end of his life.

Albert Bierstadt is one of the foremost nineteenth-century American landscape artists. The Bierstadt in the Beck Collection, After the Shower, is a European scene, but is characteristic of his American work. The natural world encloses and towers above the little village, with the rainbow providing an optimistic touch, as well as a wonderful display of color.

The exhibition includes a remarkable group of American still lifes created from the mid-nineteenth to the turn of the twentieth century. Martin Johnson Heade's Cherokee Roses in an Opalescent Vase is not only beautiful, but also reveals the artist's attention to botanical detail. This is the perfect painting for a Florida collection and museum, as the Cherokee rose is the state flower. William Michael Harnett's Solace, 1878, is evocative as it presents objects that bring comfort like a large mug and pipe, while suggesting the evanescence of time through the yellowing newspaper. And John Frederick Peto's Farmer's Hat, Umbrella, and Basket, 1900, is wonderfully engaging. The hat defies gravity and balances independently on the very edge of the basket.

Nineteenth-century genre painting is also impressively represented. These scenes from everyday life reveal people charting out their lives in the countryside. Enoch Wood Perry's The Helping Hand, 1877, shows a couple working together to churn butter, but the implication is much greater. They are clearly united, perhaps the prototypical American couple building a household-and a country. Among the other examples of genre painting are works by Edward Lamson Henry and John George Brown.

Thomas Hart Benton, in the pantheon of art history, and Charles Burchfield, one of the most innovative American watercolorists, are usually placed under the banner of the American regionalists, who turned to rural life for inspiration. The Lonely Horse of Thomas Hart Benton could just as easily be one of his isolated people, and Burchfield's July Evening, 1917, is quite dramatic. The larger trees and grass seem to be on the verge of overrunning the houses or squeezing them out of the landscape. The scene is not threatening, like so much of Burchfield's later works, but nature's dominance is clear. And the vigorous brush strokes and the movement within the trees generate energy and a sense of expectation.

The Becks have also been astute collectors of American figurative paintings, Charles Webster Hawthorne's impressionistic Sun Bath more than matches its title. The colors coming through and reflecting in the window behind the woman, the light and color in the drapery, the flowing dress, and delicate blue shawl, make for an elegant scene, enhanced by the subject's pensive expression.

The portraits by Irving Ramsey Wiles are more traditional; Young Woman Wearing a Rose, 1908, is especially striking, with its contrast between her skin radiating light and her dark dress and background. The portraits by Robert Henri, George Bellows, and Everett Shinn are starker and reflect the urban influence of New York. The woman in Shinn's The Blue Girdle brings to mind a vaudeville or cabaret performer caught in an intimate moment in her dressing room.

Recently, the Becks have turned to more modernist works and have once again made superlative choices. Among the still lifes are Max Weber's Bowl of Fruit, 1907, Alfred Henry Maurer's Cubist Still Life with Pears and Bananas, c. 1928-1932, and George Ault's Mantelpiece Composition, 1929. Arthur Dove's watercolor Landscape 11, 1941, is boldly abstract, indicating how the American landscape also greatly influenced modern artists, John Marin's Taos Canyon, New Mexico, 1929, is more representational, but it, too, is moving towards abstraction.

Oscar Bluemner and Charles Sheeler are represented by works that combine both realism and abstraction. The crisp, geometric planes and the emphasis on architecture in both works make them decidedly modernist in conception. It is interesting to note that so many of these twentieth-century artists - not only Bluemner and Sheeler, but also Dove, Marin, and Weber - were championed by Alfred Stieglitz, the great photographer and advocate of modern art and Georgia O'Keeffe's husband.

A catalogue, featuring color reproductions of all the works in the exhibition, will be available in the Museum Shop. Dr. Leeds has written an essay on the development of the Beck Collection, and there are entries on each work. This is the first catalogue produced on the Becks' holdings.


About the Curator

Currently an independent curatorial consultant, Dr. Valerie A. Leeds has served as the Curator of Nineteenth and Early Twentieth-Century American Art at the Orlando Museum of Art and as the Curator of Exhibitions at the Tampa Museum of Art . Early in her career, she was a curatorial assistant at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.

Dr. Leeds has organized shows and written on a variety of topics in American art, including at the Museum of Fine Arts. In 1999, she was co-curator along with Dr. Jennifer Hardin, the Museum's Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, of In the American Spirit, Realism and Impressionism from the Lawrence Collection. Also in 1999, she wrote a catalogue essay for the exhibition Leon Kroll Revisited at the Gerald Peters Gallery in New York City and is currently writing the exhibition catalogue on Ernest Lawson for that gallery.

Among the other shows she has organized are: "My People": The Portraits of Robert Henri, The Independents: The Ashcan School and Their Circle, and Stephen Scott Young: In the American Tradition. In addition to writing essays for numerous exhibition catalogues, Dr. Leeds has published articles in Southwest Art and the American Art Review, for which she is currently preparing a piece on the Becks' approach to collecting. She holds her B.A. from the University of Rochester, her M.A. from Syracuse University, and her Ph.D. from the Graduate School of the City University of New York, all in art history.

Read more about the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg in Resource Library Magazine.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 4/6/11

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