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A Collector's Perspective: Western Art from the Museum's Collection Personally Selected by Bob Rockwell
To locals in Corning, New York, The Rockwell Museum of Western Art is known simply as "The Rockwell." There, folks know Bob and Hertha Rockwell, and there's never any confusion with another famous Rockwell -- Norman. Bob Rockwell, now age 91, has been one of the nation's premiere collectors of Western art. He donated much of his collection to form the museum back in 1975 and has continued to add works over the years since then. Now the museum, which underwent a major transformation in 2001, has asked Bob to choose his favorite works for a two-part exhibition. Part One of "A Collector's Perspective" will run through December 31, 2003. Part Two will be open to the public from January 12 through March 31, 2004.
Like most individual art collectors, Bob Rockwell bought what he liked. "What he liked" also happens to be works that are widely acknowledged to be among the finest in the world of Western art. This show reflects his passion for realistic art, primarily from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, that tells a story. Some stories portray a grand, romantic view of American history and geography, with landscapes, people, and animals that often seem larger than life. Others create colorful fictions from factual material. As Bob says, "No country has had a more interesting history than the American West from the early 1800s to the early 1900s. Western art is this history, painted on canvas and cast in bronze. I collected art that shows all this greatness - explorers, cowboys, Indians, cavalry, animals, rivers, mountains. I like it because it makes you feel like you're right there when you look at it!"
Choosing the pieces for this pair of shows has been among the most difficult tasks Bob Rockwell has undertaken in quite some time. The problem: although the museum has set aside two of its twelve galleries for "A Collector's Perspective," these have space for a total of 40 works of art. Thus, for the two-part exhibition, Bob has had to choose a total of just 80 works from the museum's huge collection, several hundred of which he personally collected. For Bob Rockwell, every piece has its own story. Sometimes the story resides solely in the subject of the painting or sculpture. Sometimes the narrative comes from the story it illustrated, quite literally, for authors whose works were serialized in the Saturday Evening Post, Collier's, Boys' Life, and other magazines. And sometimes the story is in the acquisition - the quest for a work, the negotiation, the win.
In all cases, the visitor is the winner. The list of works reads like a catalog of the masters. Of the 40 paintings and sculptures in Part One, there are ten Remingtons and three Russells; these two are among the best known of the nineteenth-century Western artists. The exhibition also includes works by other masters: Rungius, Miller, Clymer, Dye, Koerner, Hauser, Hill, Phippen, Couse, Bierstadt, Schreyvogel, Key, Whittredge, Paxson, and Ufer.
Some pieces, like Frederic Remingto''s "Arizona Cowboy," are world famous, having been reproduced countless times. "Take Off Your Boots" is also typical, showing a horse thief being forced to expose his tender feet. These works reflect Remington, the illustrator, who looked at the West through Easterner's eyes and brought back stories in the form of pictures. He rode with the cavalry, fought Indians, and sought adventure. His characters were full of the life he experienced, and his portrayals helped to shape Americans' and European's view of the Western frontier.
By contrast, Charles Russell lived in the West, sometimes with Native Americans. His view was quieter and his respectful attitude toward his subjects is reflected in the calm beauty of paintings like "Sun River War Party."
One of the few mid-twentieth century artists whose work Bob Rockwell collected is John Clymer. The painter became a friend, and Bob visited his studio on several occasions. His "Time of Hunger" and "Trouble on the River" appear in the first exhibition. As Bob Rockwell fondly remembers, "When I bought 'Time of Hunger,' John Clymer said, 'You can paint a landscape and it's nice, but put an animal in it, and it adds so much. It's like driving through Yellowstone. You see great scenery, but the cars stop when people want to look at an animal.'"
Other notable art about animals in the exhibition are works by Carl Rungius, who was both a painter and a sculptor. In Bob Rockwell's view, Rungius is "by far the best painter of animals in the world." The first exhibition features three paintings: "Mule Deer," "Elk Herd," and "The Challenge." The latter is a dramatic painting of a male elk, his huge rack echoing the peaks of the mountains in the background. Another notable animal in the exhibition is "The Buffalo," a bronze by Henry Shrady. Frederic Remington owned a copy of this 1899 sculpture and wrote to his fellow artist, "I always loved that buffalo - it's bye and away the best buffalo I ever saw modeled and it has become one of the things that I had to own."
Part Two of "A Collector's Perspective" carries through the themes begun in Part One: the grandeur of the Western landscape, the stories of the people, and the majesty of the animals. Again, Remington and Russell dominate the show, but are surrounded by some of the other finest artists of the West: Hansen, Farney, Hennings, Hauser, Seltzer, Sharp, Marchand, Couse, Borein, and more. Visitors can see several grand mountain landscapes side by side - views of Yosemite by Bierstadt and Hill, Mount McKinley by Laurence, the "Deer Hunter's Camp" by Dunton, and "La Cueva Canon, Sandias" by Hurley.
Stories, too, abound in Part Two. Borein's "Three Buckaroos" will be on exhibit at the Rockwell Museum of Western Art for the first time in the museum's history. Bob Rockwell donated the piece in 2002. Remington's "As the Smoke Lifted - Second Shot" and Russell's "Roping a Coyote" have their own drama. And among the animals represented are "Doe and Fawns" by Tait, "The Stranger" by Rungius, and "Roping a Bobcat" by Marchand.
BOB ROCKWELL, COLLECTOR
For Bob Rockwell, the West is a place of enormous beauty and big ideas. The romantic art that reflects these notions - largely created by artistic giants of late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries - has been Bob's passion for over six decades. For "A Collector's Perspective," he has hand-picked some of his favorites - not an easy task, for Bob feels a personal connection with virtually every piece of art he collected.
"Almost a Westerner," Bob Rockwell moved to his family's cattle ranch in Colorado one month after his birth in Bradford, Pennsylvania in 1911. He grew up riding with old-time cowboys and talking with men who had helped open the west. Prints by Charles M. Russell hung in his living room. The culture of the old west and its images surrounded him. Add to that the fact that Rockwell is "just naturally a collector" - as a youngster he accumulated arrowheads and butterflies - and the seeds of collecting Western art were sown.
After graduating from Stanford University, Bob Rockwell came to Corning to help his grandfather run the family department stores on Market Street and three other area cities. He thought that job would be temporary. But it was in Corning that he met his wife Hertha and here that they raised their son Bobby and daughter Sandra. More than 70 years later, Bob and Hertha still make their home in this community!
It was here in the East, in fact, that Bob Rockwell began collecting western art. His first purchase is now legendary: it was a fake! "I heard that a fellow in Elmira had a Remington. I went down and saw it, and I couldn't write a check fast enough!" On a trip west, he showed a photograph of it to Dr. Harold McCracken, then Director of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art in Cody, Wyoming and an expert in western art. McCracken gave him the bad news.
Undaunted, Bob Rockwell was determined to learn all he could about the art he loved, and he sought out experts nationwide. Hertha shared Bob's interest and participated in acquiring some works. The Rockwells' collection grew rapidly and steadily to include many of the masters of 19th century Western painting, sculpture, and illustration. As time went on, Bob discovered a few contemporary artists whose work he also greatly admired. He became friends with John Clymer, Charlie Dye, and others, visiting their studios and getting to know them and their art in a very personal way.
For years, Bob displayed some of his paintings, sculptures, and weavings in the Rockwell Department Store in Corning. But his collection was vast and precious, far larger than could be housed in the store. So in 1975, he and his family generously decided to donate much of their collection to the museum that bears their family name. With the core of its collection from Rockwell family, this museum today proudly shares "The Best of the West in the East" with visitors from around the world.
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