Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Houston, TX



American Spectrum: Paintings and Sculpture from the Smith College Museum of Art

March 4 - May 27, 2001

A rare opportunity to trace the development of American art across more than 200 years is offered in American Spectrum: Paintings and Sculpture from the Smith College Museum of Art, on view March 4-May 27 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The collection of 62 works dating from 1733 to 1948 will be shown in the Lovett Gallery of the Caroline Wiess Law Building, 1001 Bissonnet. The exhibition is traveling to eight venues in the United States while the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts is closed for renovation and expansion. America's leading masters are represented in this show, including the painters Thomas Cole, John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, and Childe Hassam, and the sculptors Alexander Calder, Daniel Chester French, Elie Nadelman, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. (left: Winslow Homer, Shipyard at Gloucester, 1871, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Art, Purchased 1950.99)

"The Smith College Museum of Art is world-renowned for its impressive holdings, particularly in American art," said Peter C. Marzio, director of the MFAH. "This collection is a visual treat not often experienced outside of New England. The MFAH is pleased to bring it to Houston."

The Smith collection began to take shape in 1879 when the college's first president L. Clarke Seelye decided he wanted students to have an art gallery where they could "be made directly familiar with the famous masterpieces." His early strategy was to acquire reproductive prints and casts of historic pieces, and to buy original contemporary art. Works in this exhibition that he bought directly from the artists include Thomas Eakins's In Grandmother's Time and Albert Pinkham Ryder's Perrette, and possibly William Merritt Chase's Woman in Black. The collection grew in succeeding years through the astute purchases of museum directors and their curators, and through the generosity of Smith alumnae. After 1905, the collection was expanded to include the work of past and present European and American artists. (left: Thomas Eakins, Edith Mahon, 1904, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Art, Purchased, Drayton Hillyer Fund 1931.2)

"This show is important on several levels," said Emily Ballew Neff, curator of American art and sculpture at the MFAH. "It tells us much about the development of American art and culture from the 18th to the 20th centuries. By its very presence, this collection also shows us the extraordinary commitment and vision of the people associated with Smith College. On a purely visual level, it is enticing and enchanting." (left: Albert Bierstadt, Echo Lake, Franconia Mountains, New Hampshire, 1861, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Art, Purchased with the assistance of funds given by Mrs. John Stewart Dalrymple (Bernice Barber, class of 1910), 1960.37)

One of the highlights of the exhibition is Copley's portrait of the Boston merchant, The Honorable John Erving (c. 1772), given to the museum by his descendant, Alice Erving (Smith class of 1929). Copley's dignified, carefully rendered likeness captures Erving's stern features even as the subject strikes a relaxed pose. By the early 1760s, Copley was Boston's leading artist and his portraits of prominent Bostonians, including Erving, were a high point of his American career. (left: John Singleton Copley, The Honorable John Erving, c. 1772, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Art, Bequest of Alice Rutherford Erving, class of 1929, 1975.52-1)

Stories behind some of the works make them all the more intriguing. Edward Hopper's Pretty Penny (1939) is a joyous, light-filled portrait of the house of the actress Helen Hayes. Hopper was commissioned to do the painting, but was reluctant to accept at first because he considered it tradesman's work. He eventually relented, creating a work without the darkness and alienation so common in his paintings of American houses. Hayes, who received an honorary doctorate from Smith in 1940, gave the painting to the museum in 1964. (left: Edward Hopper, Pretty Penny, 1939, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Art, Gift of Charles MacArthur (Helen Hayes L.H.D., class of 1949), 1965.4)

Edwin Romanzo Elmer, a painter who died unknown, is represented by two paintings in the exhibition, Mourning Picture (1890) and A Lady of Baptist Corner, Ashfield, Massachusetts (the Artist's Wife), (1892). Mourning Picture is a family portrait of the artist, his wife, and their daughter, who had died not long before, and a pet sheep against the backdrop of a Victorian house. It was first shown in a post office in 1890 and then was not seen again until 1950 when the artist's niece showed it to Henry-Russell Hitchcock, then director of the Smith Museum. Hitchcock recognized its value at once. It became one of the most popular and most frequently reproduced paintings in the collection. In the portrait of his wife operating a machine he invented to make whip snaps (the braided end of horsewhips), Elmer shows his love of detail - from the design of the carpet to the play of light and shadow in the scene. (left: Edwin Romanzo Elmer, Mourning Picture, 1890, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Art, Purchased 1953.129)

Other paintings in the exhibition gloriously document man's achievements in transportation and industry. Winslow Homer's Shipyard at Gloucester (1871) captures a crew building a schooner so accurately that a historian has been able to determine the hull type and the details of the ship under construction. Charles Sheeler's Rolling Power (1939) is one of a series of paintings he made focusing on sources of power. Sheeler's interest in photography paralleled his interest in painting, and is particularly evident in this beautiful detail of a New York Central locomotive. (left: Charles Sheeler's Rolling Power, 1939, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Art, Purchased, Drayton Hillyer Fund 1940.18)

Among the dozen sculptures in the exhibition are Elie Nadelman's elegantly designed Resting Stag (c. 1915) and Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Diana of the Tower (1899). Nadelman's deer, in gold-leafed veneer and a wood-veneered base, was created at the height of his career. Saint-Gaudens's bronze sculpture is one of a number of reductions the artist made of Diana, an 18-foot figure that sat atop a 330-foot-high tower at Madison Square Garden in New York at the turn of the century. The sculpture was created as weathervane. The Smith Museum's variant is 36 inches high and the only known kinetic version.

A 307-page catalogue, Masterworks of American Painting and Sculpture from the Smith College Museum of Art, accompanies the exhibition. In the book, 79 of the museum's most important American works are illustrated in full color and discussed in comprehensive essays. An illustrated checklist with 85 additional works from the museum is included. Linda Muehling, associate curator of painting and sculpture at Smith Museum, is the editor and principal author. (left: Childe Hassam, White Island Light, Isles of Shaoals, at Sundown, 1899, oil on canvas, Smith College Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harold D. Hodgkinson (Laura White Cabot, class of 1922), 1965.4)

American Spectrum: Paintings and Sculpture from the Smith College Museum of Art was organized by the Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Funding in Houston was generously provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., Charles Butt, and Isabel and Wallace Wilson.

The eight venues for this exhibition are: Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa, February 5-April 23, 2000; National Academy of Design Museum, New York, June 21-September 10, 2000; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida, October 28, 2000-January 7, 2001; the MFAH, March 4-May 28, 2001; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, June 29-September 30, 2001; Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, New York, October 28, 2001-January 13, 2002; Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, Arizona, February 16-April 28, 2002; and Katonah Museum of Art, Katonah, New York, June 23-September 15, 2002.

Also see American Spectrum: Paintings and Culture from the Smith College Museum of Art (5/30/00) which covers the exhibition at The National Academy of Design Museum, New York, June 21-September 10, 2000

rev. 2/21/01

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

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