Editor's note: The following 1976 article was published on August 23, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of Thomas Daives, New Canaan, CT. If you have questions or comments regarding the article please contact Mr. Daives by writing to the author at 58 Beacon Hill Lane, New Canaan, CT, 06480.
An American Art Collection in Hong Kong
by Thomas Davies
An interesting aspect of writing a catalogue for this type of show, as a nonprofessional, is that it forces you to think as a curator, to consider broad periods of art and history and how they relate to each other. I suppose the failing of a collector like myself is a tendency to research specific artists or periods in detail rather than a more generalized approach. In any event, I thought after all the years of reading and attending museum and gallery shows that I was fairly knowledgeable. On the contrary, I found, while preparing the catalogue, a need to fill in a lot of gaps with substantially more research. Also, for my specialized audience, everything had to be simplified. I needed to express myself in generalizations which communicated the feeling of the times without filling the narrative with biographical information that, I believed, would be of little interest to the audience.
Like most private collections, the pictures my wife and I own reflect our personal tastes. As a city dweller during most of the years I have been buying pictures, the unspoiled landscape and seascape held the greatest. emotional appeal for me. As a result, the Hudson River School is well represented in our collection, and was the logical beginning for the exhibition and the catalogue. Some of the major artists of this group were represented: Jasper Cropsey, Homer Dodge Martin, William Sonntag, James Hope and Samuel Colman, to name a few. I think the most important example of the period is Sanford Gifford's Kauterskill Falls painted in 1862. (This was undoubtedly part of the series which resulted in the major example of the same title and year owned by the Metropolitan Museum.)
I have also had a: fascination for marines of all periods, and exhibited a number of the earlier marine painters, including pieces by William Bradford, Edward Moran, William T. Richards and Alfred T. Bricher. Two exhibited pictures, for which I have always had a strong attachment, are quite atypical of my collection. Passing Storm Clouds, 1867, by the predominantly landscapist William Hart, has a remarkable luminist quality about it. The second is by an artist who produced work of mixed results, M.F. de Haas. In Sailing Ships Close to Reefs, there is everything I could want in a coastal marine. It is full of sailing vessels, dories with figures, a paddle wheel steamer in the distance and plenty of coastal detail suggesting a harbor entrance, all set in a salty, grey and very turbulent sea. It's not often that a collector can say to himself that he has the best piece of a given artist's work he has ever seen, but that's the way I feel about these two pictures, in spite of their modest size.
As the concept of the catalogue developed, I chose to include very short descriptions of each picture and a brief comment on some interesting or relevant facts about the artist. However, preceding each of the sections there was a narrative essay describing the period, something about its art and how it reflected or contributed to the times. After landscape, the second section concentrated on genre paintings. Unfortunately, my own interest in genre subject matter developed slowly. I regret this now, for over the years I missed many opportunities to acquire pieces that I felt were a little sweet in theme but in retrospect were a significant part of our heritage. I feel the most important picture in this group is a very moving and dramatic painting by J.G. Brown entitled Hard Times, 1879. This picture created a great deal of excitement among the Chinese during the exhibition. They were entranced by the life-like quality of the man's face and even the sense of tears in the corners of his eyes. This is also my wife's favorite painting in our collection. Other genre artists represented were Thomas Waterman Wood, Charles Blauvelt and Platt Powell Ryder.
During the months that the research and catalogue preparation were under way, I discovered another benefit resulting from the exhibition. As a result of my effort to represent such a broad sweep in time and subject matter, I realized more vividly than ever before that certain areas within our collection were inadequately represented. This was very evident regarding still life paintings prior to 1900. In any event, I found myself engaged in a new activity for me, buying paintings from photographs. In an effort to supplement some of the weaker areas of the collection, I began corresponding with numbers of galleries throughout the U.S., many of which I had known and others new to me. No doubt a lot of dealers scratched their heads in disbelief at receiving a letter from a collector in Hong Kong asking for photographs of American paintings. On the whole, most were quite cooperative. I did buy seven or eight pictures during the months prior to the exhibition, which was from October 24 to November 2, 1975. I also learned the obvious truth that photographs can be deceiving, and even a little deception can be too much to a collector. Prior to the exhibition we owned only two still life paintings, both executed by landscape artists; a rather large and complex flower and fruit piece by Frederick Rondel painted in 1878, and a simple but rare still life study of grapes by Jasper Cropsey. These two were later supplemented by a typical George Lambdin outdoor painting of roses and a hanging grape piece by C. P. Ream.
If any single part of the exhibition provided the most interest for me, it was the Western art portion; both in preparation and in watching the reaction of the Chinese audience. As an American living in a very different culture, you realize quickly that "The West" is probably exported abroad via movies and T.V. more than any other aspect of our history or culture. Even in writing the narrative section on Western art, I found it difficult to resist romanticizing a bit. There is probably nothing more American in American art than paintings of the West -- of the Rockies, and the plains country, of Indians and frontiersmen, mountain men, and cowboys. Although these paintings are landscapes and genre pictures of a sort, they are still unique, and different from those previously seen. They are different in subject matter, but perhaps more importantly they are different in mood or spirit. There is no doubt that the West -- both in fact and in myth -- had a deeply profound influence on American life.
Western work has always had a strong appeal for me. My wife, who is Danish and was born in Elsinore, still finds Western paintings the most fascinating and perhaps authentic form of American art. Although the Western landscape was represented in the exhibition by such artists as Albert Bierstadt and Herman Herzog, the Chinese viewers' enthusiasm and interest were far more visible before the pictures of Indians and cowboys. The Indian paintings covered portraits as well as representations of daily life. Various artists were represented, among them Charles Craig and Irving Couse. However, there are two pieces that I feel stand out for very different reasons. The large oil by Gilbert Gaul is very boldly and colorfully painted but depicts a rather personal or pensive attitude of a young Indian brave at Archery Practice. The second piece is historically significant and is a very sensitive watercolor portrait of Chief Wolf Robe painted in 1899 by John Hauser. This group of Indian paintings received particular attention from the Chinese, who were fascinated by detail and extremely interested in the dress and ornamentation of Indian garb. This probably reflects the historical Chinese dress, which was highly decorative and signified rank and position within the society. Of course, the other half of the Western saga was represented with glimpses of the cowboy's life depicted by artists like Frank Tenney Johnson and William R. Leigh. However, the most interesting and different example in this group is an extremely rare Western piece by Maxfield Parrish entitled Rawhide, 1904. I believe this is one of the finest and certainly most unique paintings in the collection.
I progressed through each of the first four sections relatively easily, since these paintings really classify themselves. Approaching the remainder of American art history was more difficult for me as periods and influences overlapped each other, and were therefore open to conflicting interpretations. The era which was neither pure Hudson River landscape nor easily accepted as Impressionism has, until recently I feel, been neglected and open to differing interpretations. I found this period very interesting because it added to the catalogue a section on Barbizon influence; examples of which were exhibited by Alexander Wyant and J. Francis Murphy. Besides these established and well-known artists, a little gem was exhibited by Henry Pember Smith, painted on wood in 1885. This painting was one of those great surprises collectors relish. It didn't look like much when I bought it; then it was cleaned and presto, magnificent. Smith is an artist about which little biographical information is available, but I believe is highly underrated. On a recent trip to New York, I found a number of galleries with examples of his work, so I guess there is a growing. interest in him.
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