Editor's note: The following essay is rekeyed and reprinted with permission of the Boca Raton Museum of Art. The introductory essay is included in the catalogue titled "America The Beautiful: 19th & 20th Century Paintings From the Walter and Lucille Rubin Collection ," published by the Boca Raton Museum of Art in 2003, ISBN 0-936859-47-4. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay or if you would like to obtain a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Boca Raton Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Collecting American Art - The Rubin Collection

by William H. Gerdts


In contemplating the collection of Walter and Lucille Rubin, it may be useful to consider their affection for American paintings and passion for acquiring them by delving into the history of such art collecting by Americans.

The earliest artists arrived in Colonial America toward the beginning of the 18th century. They were Henrietta Johnston, a pastelist active in Charleston, S.C., and the more fully trained John Smibert, who worked in Newport and Boston. Both developed thriving enterprises out of painting portraits of persons who, pleased with the results, gladly became their patrons, making these painters the first professional artists in America. At the end of the 18th century, a group of English painters began to produce landscapes in Maryland. Their work, too, generated a degree of interest, as did the more ambitious landscapes painted by Thomas Cole a generation later. Robert Gilmor of Baltimore was a patron of Cole's, and added his work and that of other contemporary American artists to his collection of European art, which consisted primarily of old master paintings and sculptures.

Throughout the 19th century, American artists had to compete for American patronage not only with contemporary European artists, but also with European painters and sculptors of earlier eras. The new and vast American fortunes that developed in the post-Civil War period were used to raid the grand homes, auction galleries, and studios of European academic artists, much to the dismay of American painters. But the situation was not as dire as some of those artists reported. The great landscape paintings of Frederic Church and Albert Bicrstadt, for example, sold for considerable sums of money. Even regional artists from New England to Northern California enjoyed some measure of success among wealthy contemporary collectors. Toward the end of the century, the names of a good many patrons -- such as William T. Evans, Charles Freer and, especially, Thomas B. Clarke -- loom large in the careers of many American artists, including Winslow Homer and George Inness.

While this brief account provides an overview of patronage by Americans of their artist contemporaries during the nation's earlier centuries, it does not include a discussion of Americans collecting works by artists from the collectors' past. The Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 reminded Americans of this nation's rich history and accomplishments in the visual arts. In the wake of that landmark event, a number of exhibitions were held in Boston, New York, and other American cities. These exhibitions spurred collectors to assemble the art of America's first centuries as a colony and a nation. Special emphasis was placed on paintings from the decades before nationhood. However, those shows and collectors concentrated almost entirely upon portraiture. Clarke, who amassed and then sold a number of collections of contemporary American art, held his last sale in 1899. He then turned back to early-American portraiture.

Renewed appreciation of 19th-century American art -- a major part of the collection of Walter and Lucille Rubin -- was a long time developing and evolving. Some contemporary artists during the 1920s began to show an interest in early-American folk art. This interest led dealer Edith Halpert at New York's Downtown Gallery to add vernacular objects to her inventory of modern paintings and sculpture. By the end of the 1930s, Halpert was also handling the deceptively real-looking still life paintings of the 19th-century masters of trompe I'oeil (French for "fool the eye"), William Harnett and his followers. Otherwise, only a few galleries and museums held significant exhibitions of early-American painting during the 1930s.

The interest in historic American art began coming of age only in the 1940s. In 1945, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Whitney Museum of American Art held major exhibitions of Hudson River School landscapes, while in Boston, Russian émigré Maxim Karolik donated a vast collection of mid-19th-century American paintings to the Museum of Fine Arts. John I. H. Baur, curator of paintings at the Brooklyn Museum, wrote the impressive catalogue of the Karolik collection. Baur was one of this country's great advocates of native painting, and he eventually organized a number of exhibitions devoted to then-out-of-favor 19th-century American artists.

To explain the myriad reasons for the expanded interest in 18th- and 19th-century American painting during the last half of the 20th century is beyond the scope of this brief introduction. However, a few of the more obvious causes merit mention. Collectors' latent recognition of the high quality of the work produced by American artists is one obvious factor. Appreciation of the record of bygone mores and values that these artists left in their paintings is another. Then there is the "excitement of the hunt" -- of finding a picture that once was highly esteemed but has fallen into obscurity. Regardless of why American works of art have enjoyed such broad popularity, the art market has reacted with alacrity, both in the number of dealers specializing in American art and in the dramatic rise in prices. The competition for great American paintings has become more than fierce, making the Rubins' accomplishment in assembling their collection over the last three decades all the more commendable.

Art collectors generally find some organizing principle or an area of specialization that brings order to their collections, that reflects their interests and taste, and that makes their search for good pictures less random. Many build their holdings around artistic styles or periods of history, including such areas as academic art, Barbizon-inspired painting, Impressionist work or Tonalism. Increasingly, American collectors have begun to investigate and acquire the art of certain regions and states. The paintings and sculpture produced in the American South, the upper Midwest, New Mexico and California are now as avidly sought-after as the art that came out of the major Northeastern cities of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Still others collect by subject matter, seeking landscapes, seascapes, still life paintings or genre subjects. Finally, after some collectors acquire enough paintings and sculpture to fill their homes and perhaps their offices, they stop collecting. But the call -- one might say the obsession -- is ever there, the temptation to find room for just one more example, or to upgrade from a lesser effort to a more beautiful or significant work of art.

Then there are the collectors who just collect -- rare individuals and couples whose love for works of art is only matched by their love of the chase and the discovery. The Rubins are just such collectors. Rather than embrace one principle to organize their holdings, they have elected to embrace them all.

Although they have brought together an outstanding ensemble of works by painters who were connected with the tradition-oriented National Academy of Design in New York -- through training, membership or leadership -- the Rubins have shown equal aplomb in pursuing canvases by artists more in the vanguard, such as the American Impressionists. After all, the dialogue and debate between competing 19th-century styles is part of what attracted the Rubins to the art of that era. Two perfect examples are The Sailor's Return, by Lemuel Wilmarth, and Robert Vonnoh's Beside the River (Grez). The former is an extremely rare, gem-like genre subject painted by the longtime president of the National Academy, and the latter work is a tour de force of Impressionist landscape painting. Though painted within six years of each other, they couldn't be less similar. Yet the Rubins would never think of choosing one over the other.

Nor have the Rubins been limited by geographic allegiances, although they possess an intriguing knack for plucking just the right painting from any region that interests them. During the mid-19th century, a community of artists prospered in the area around Albany, N.Y. That group is represented in the Rubin collection by such significant works as Tompkins Matteson's Return from Fields, Thomas VanZandt's The Sleigh Ride--Albany, New York, and William M. Hart's An Autumn Effect--Morning -- all painted in the early 1860s. Similarly, the Rubins have located and acquired choice regional examples in Fishermen in Conversation, by Abbott Graves; Fresh Sunned Pillows Tonight, William A. Walker's record of rural Southern life; Albert Groll's Sun Showers, Arizona, and California Coast, Theodore Wores' view of the wildflower-covered Northern California coast. But it is perhaps the New Hope School of Bucks County, Pa., a group of Impressionist painters who flourished in the early 20th century, that is especially well-represented in the Rubin collection. Among the finer examples are Edward Redfield's archetypal winter scene, Drifted Snow, several paintings by Walter Elmer Schofield, Robert Spencer and John Follinsbee, and a large and detailed drawing by Daniel Garber for one of his most important paintings, The Quarry.

In their unrelenting quest for American paintings, the Rubins are constantly seeking the next perfect example to fill one or another subjective, chronological or aesthetic gap in their holdings. They most often identify subject matter as the underlying structure that unifies their collection and gives it order. And of the major subjects that make up representational painting, it is still life that fascinates them most. The Rubins have an acute passion for American still life paintings, and do not hesitate to purchase additional high-quality examples by artists already in their collection. Continually on the lookout, they have traveled great distances and devoted countless hours to the pursuit of some unusual still life painting that may have contained a rare piece of fruit or an especially lovely flower, or, of special interest to Lucille, virtually any vegetable.

The best efforts of many of the finest specialists in still life painting from the 19th and 20th centuries are represented in the Rubin collection. John F. Francis seldom surpassed his Still Life Basket of Apples and Chestnuts on a Table, while Martin Johnson Heade's Roses is a fine example of that master's work in floral subject matter. Victorian abundance is perfectly articulated in Severin Roesen's ambitious Still Life of 1854. George Hall, New York's greatest still life painter of the mid-19th century, is accounted for by two superb works of contrasting themes: Hall's The Pomegranate is as affectionate and tender as his 1864 flower painting, Victorian Arrangement, is lush and sensual. The comparison is evidence of both his virtuosity and versatility. William Mason Brown, a still life painter active in Brooklyn, is also represented by a variety of subjects -- paintings that illustrate his skill in rendering the color and texture of flowers, fruit and objects d'art. New York artist August Laux is a special favorite of the Rubins, and his various dew-covered berries are scattered across no less than four canvases in their collection. The beautiful Roses by Philadelphia's George Lambdin is an exquisite example of the subject which occupied that artist for the last three decades of his life. Two paintings by Edward Leavitt of Providence, R.I., reveal his ability to capture the distinct luster, texture and character of objects as disparate as a lobster and a rose. Levi Wells Prentice, another artist well-represented in the Rubin collection, painted both landscapes (many of the Adirondack Mountain areas) and sharp-edged fruit -- apples, peaches, and even bananas and pineapples. Andrew Way of Baltimore is represented by Grapes (1879), a painting of his signature fruit. The Rubins also possess an extraordinary concentration of paintings by William Harnett and his followers. Harnett's Still Life with Pipe and N.Y. Herald is a fine example of his best work in the trompe l'oeil genre. John F. Peto's Board with Lincoln Photograph, Charles Meurer's Money, Money, Money, and N.A. Brooks' Ten Dollar Bill are among those artists' most laudable trompe l'oeil works. Perhaps the prize of the entire trompe l'oeil group is John Haberle's The Japanese Doll.

While the Rubins concentrate on 19th-century still life painting, they have also assembled fine examples by some of America's most admired Impressionist painters, including William Merritt Chase, William Glackens and Edmund Tarbell, all represented by vigorously handled, and very beautiful, flower paintings. The trompe l'oeil tradition continues into the 20th century via Aaron Bohrod's beautifully painted and clever Speaking of Money, Stevan Dohanos' startlingly deceptive Americana, and Robert Brackman's superrealistic Still Life in White.

After still-life painting, the Rubins perhaps hold the deepest affection and affinity for genre subjects -- pithy visual narratives that spoke plainly and directly to the concerns, values and aspirations of a nation. American artists produced genre pictures that examined lives of almost every social strata, age group, demographic and racial makeup, gender, and even species. Genre paintings such as James Cafferty's Newsboy Selling the New-York Herald of 1857, Charles Blauvelt's No News of 1860, J. Wells Champney's The Letter of 1881, the aforementioned The Sailor's Return of 1884 by Wilmarth, and Thomas Waterman Wood's Neglecting Trade of 1883 all suggest America's hunger for news and information, either official or personal, in an era when communication was measured in days, weeks and months, rather than seconds. The tremendous thematic variety of American genre scenes can be traced in the Rubin collection. There are rural subjects by Tompkins Matteson and E. L. Henry, cozy domestic interiors by Louis Moeller and Harry Roseland, and scenes of working men, women, and children by artists such as Charles Curran, James Cafferty, William Rickabey Miller, J. G. Brown, G. H. Story and William Snyder. In addition, there are even animal "genre" paintings by A. E Tait and J. H. Dolph. Almost all of the genre paintings in the Rubin collection are identifiable American scenes, the exception being Frederick Bridgman's exotic harem subject The Story, painted to satisfy the Victorian American fascination with Middle Eastern culture.

The human element in American painting continues into the 20th century. The Rubin collection features a diverse group of figure subjects, including illustrative works by Stevan Dohanos and John Falter that were reproduced on 1950s magazine covers. Several hauntingly surreal paintings are in the collection, including Julian Levi's The Widow, Ernest Fiene's Lincoln Monument, Union Square, and John Atherton's Destroyed Building. Bernard Karfiol's Odalisque, the collection's only nude, appears alongside William Gropper's satirical Senator, one of a series of paintings that comment on American politics of the 1930s.

For all of their pursuit of still life paintings and genre scenes, the Rubins have come away with more landscapes, cityscapes and seascapes than any other subject. Paintings that fall under the broad rubric of landscape are more common than other subjects, but the Rubins' many scenic views, whether rustic countryside, city streets or the open sea, are anything but ordinary. Among the earlier vistas are such outstanding examples as Edward Moran's impressive A Foggy Evening at Gowanus (1860), John Williamson's quintessential view The Hudson at the Catskill Mountain House (1878), James Hamilton's luminous and mysterious The Convict Ship T.K. Hervey (1864), Alfred T. Bricher's spectacular Morning at Narragansett, the Turn of the Tide (1871), and Charles H. Miller's monumental Highbridge from Harlem Lane (1875). The last two paintings appeared in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Other scenic views include John F. Kensett's Evening on Contentment Island (1872), Andrew Melrose's masterpiece Castle Garden (1875), and Albert Bierstadt's Old Faithful, which he painted on his first
trip to the Yellowstone area in 1881. Landscapes and similar subjects in the Impressionistic style are also well-represented in the Rubin collection by such significant paintings as J. Alden Weir's Rhododendrons, Arthur Wesley Dow's Snowy Landscape, Walter Griffin's French Poplars, Gardiner Symons' handsome winter scene Evening in the Berkshires, and, as mentioned earlier, the paintings of the New Hope School and the early masterpiece by Vonnoh, Beside the River (Grez). The Rubins also possess a fine ensemble of atmospheric and chromatically harmonic landscapes by the artists who worked in either or both the idioms of Luminism and, later, Tonalism. Included in these two camps are paintings by Francis Silva, Charles H. Davis, Bruce Crane, Emil Carlsen and Leon Dabo. And the Rubins have not neglected landscape painting of the 20th century, having assembled a fine group of native views by John Whorf, Jonas Lie, John Marin, Dale Nichols, Ernest Albert and Eric Sloane, to name only a few.

Always seeking, always considering the next addition to their collection, Walter and Lucille Rubin have spent much of their adult lives in the quest for great American paintings. Theirs is not a "postage stamp" collection -- one work by each artist. Instead, they shown a willingness to acquire an additional work by an artist if it is in another context or of a different subject. Their collecting is a project that continues to this day. Recent acquisitions include several still-lifes and one of their most important paintings, a beautiful Luminist landscape by Francis A. Silva, an artist just now recognized as one of the leaders of that mid-19th-century movement in American painting. The work is only the latest tribute to the collectors' discerning taste and continual enjoyment of American painting.


About the author

William H. Gerdts is Professor Emeritus of Art History at the Graduate School of the City University of New York.


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