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Cassatt and Duncanson Paintings Acquired by MFAH

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston recently announced the late 2001 acquisitions of paintings by Mary Cassatt and Robert Scott Duncanson.

Robert Scott Duncanson Acquisition

MFAH has acquired a beautifully composed oil painting by Robert Scott Duncanson, one of the most important 19-century landscape artists and the first African-American artist to gain international recognition. Duncanson's painting, A View of Asheville, North Carolina (1850), is an excellent example of the Hudson River School tradition of American landscape painting. The work was purchased with funds provided by the Susan Vaughan Foundation in memory of Susan Clayton McAshan. It is on view (as of early 2002) in the American galleries of the Audrey Jones Beck Building. (left: Robert Scott Duncanson, A View of Asheville, North Carolina, 1850, oil on academy board, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Sarah Vaughn Foundation in memory of Susan Clayton McAshan, 2001.85)

Duncanson painted A View of Asheville, North Carolina (13 x 18 3/4 inches, oval format) just as he began his career as a specialist in landscape painting. He spent the summers of 1850-52 painting the Ohio River Valley between Pennsylvania and North Carolina. In this view, he framed the developing town of Asheville with gnarled and blasted trees, clearly a nod to Thomas Cole, whose work inspired him. In the immediate foreground, a guide touches the shoulder of a gentleman and gestures toward the scenic view of the town. In one especially deftly painted passage, the golden glow of the sky at right gives way to blue at center. Like the work of Cole, this painting carries deeper meaning. By juxtaposing the developing city with the unspoiled mountains in the background, Duncanson offers a warning of man's encroachment on nature.

"Duncanson's central role in the story of African-American art in the United States makes him an essential artist for any serious institutional collection of American art," said Emily Ballew Neff, curator of American painting and sculpture. "His extraordinary achievement is all the more remarkable given his success during the height of slavery in antebellum America."

Duncanson was born in 1823 in Seneca County, upstate New York. As a youth, he apprenticed as a house painter and carpenter, trades his family had practiced for two generations. When he decided to become a painter, he moved to Mount Healthy near Cincinnati, where his mother had grown up. Cincinnati was known for its cultural aspirations, large free black population, and strong abolitionist sympathies. In the 1840s, Duncanson painted portraits and copied prints of old Master paintings. Later in that decade, he began to pursue landscape painting, traveling often to North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New England, and Scotland. He took the Grand Tour of Europe in 1853, and returned to Cincinnati to paint romantic landscapes of Italian subjects. In 1861, he painted the largest easel painting of his career, The Land of the Lotus Eaters, inspired by Alfred Tennyson's poem of the same title and Frederic Church's Heart of the Andes. The painting, now in the collection of the King of Sweden, led the Cincinnati Gazette to declare Duncanson "the best landscape painter in the West." His fame grew as he sent the painting on a tour of American and Canadian cities. Duncanson's health began to decline in the late 1860s and he died in I872.

A View of Asheville, North Carolina joins two other works by African-American artists acquired by the MFAH within the last year: William H. Johnson's oil painting Cagnes-sur-Mer (1928) and Richmond Barthé's bronze sculpture Feral Benga (Benga: Dance Figure) (1935). They are also the first works by those artists to enter the permanent collection. Johnson's painting was purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor in honor of Dr. Frank Hadlock at "One Great Night in November, 2000" and Barthé's sculpture was purchased with funds provided by the museum's African American Art Advisory Association.

Cagnes-sur-Mer, 29 x 25 3/8 inches, is a slightly cubist, surreal landscape painting of four people walking away from the viewer between a row of buildings that are curving in on them. Feral Benga, 19 inches tall, is an elongated dancing figure and one of Barthé's most famous sculptures.

"Barthé is recognized as the most important sculptor to emerge out of the Harlem Renaissance, the most significant African-American cultural movement of the early 20th-century," said Alvia Wardlaw, curator of modern and contemporary art at the MFAH. "Johnson was among the group of artists known as the 'children of the Harlem Renaissance,' those whose work attracted attention after World War II. Having them both represented at the MFAH brings a new dimension to the collection."

Johnson, 1901-1970, was born in Florence, South Carolina. His artistic training included professional studies in New York and Europe, followed by travel and study in Denmark and North Africa. When he returned home after 13 years abroad, he decided that his work should reflect the African-American experience. Johnson had worked as a painter and printmaker for only 20 years when illness cut his artistic activities tragically short. Still, in just two decades, he created more than 1,000 paintings and prints. Johnson's early work was exhibited at the MFAH in 1930 in a show organized by the Harmon Foundation, which promoted African-American artistic talents and offered awards in the fine arts from 1925-1932.

Barthé, 1901-1989, was born in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, where his interest shifted from painting to sculpture, and received the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship to continue his studies in New York. He began exhibiting at the Harmon Foundation's juried exhibitions in 1929, and participated in the Whitney Museum's annuals on a regular basis beginning in 1933. He was awarded the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1940, and in 1949, was elected to the National Academy of Arts and Letters. Barthé's work ranges from portrait busts to studies of everyday life.

Mary Cassatt Acquisition

From Cassatt's early mature period, the 1878 painting called The Nurse, and also known as Children in the Garden, was a gift of Meredith J. and Cornelia Long from their private collection. Mrs. Long is life trustee of the MFAH. The painting joins a number of other significant works acquired by the MFAH for the new Audrey Jones Beck Building, including Elie Nadelman's Tango, donated by the Longs in 1996. Cassatt exhibited The Nurse in the eighth Impressionist Exhibition in 1886, nearly 10 years after painting it, suggesting that she thought the work stood the test of time. Today, it is considered one of the artist's masterpieces. It is on view in the Long and Sarofim Gallery of American art in the Audrey Jones Beck Building. (left: Mary Cassatt, The Nurse, 1878, oil on canvas, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Gift of Meredith J. and Cornelia Long, 2001.471)

In The Nurse (oil on canvas, 28 7/8 x 36 1/4 inches), Cassatt revisits the familiar theme of women and children in domestic settings. The painting depicts a nursemaid knitting on a bench in a private garden. One of the children in her care sleeps in a nearby carriage and the other plays at her feet. As with much of Cassatt's work that was based on studying family, friends, and servants, this scene offers an intimate glimpse into the private lives of her figures.

"Cassatt was working with the Impressionists at the time she created this painting," said Emily Ballew Neff curator of American painting and sculpture. "While the painting reiterates themes in Cassatt's oeuvre and in the work of her Impressionist colleagues, it is exceptional in its looser application of paint and in its emphasis on the landscape. In most of her paintings, Cassatt tends to allot the greater portion of the canvas space to the figures, not the spaces they occupy. This painting is distinguished for the rare balance it strikes between figures and landscape."

Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) was born in Philadelphia and trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She later studied collections in important European art capitals and was, for a time, a student of the renowned French painter, Jean-Leon Gérôme. After settling permanently in Paris in 1875, she met Edgar Degas, who invited her to exhibit in the Impressionist exhibitions, which she did in 1879, 1880, 1881, and 1886. In Paris, she became an active member of the avant-garde and an influential intermediary between French Impressionists and American collectors. She supported the Impressionists by buying their paintings for herself and her family, and encouraged other Americans to do the same. Cassatt's career was remarkable, too, because she became successful at a time when women artists faced considerable obstacles in establishing professional careers and achieving equal footing with male colleagues.

rev. 4/8/02

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