A National Image: The American Painting And Sculpture Collection in the San Antonio Museum of Art

by Lisa Reitzes, Stephanie Street, and Gerry D.Scott, III with the assistance of Shelby Wells



After these important gifts of the 1940s and 1950s, the 1960s saw little of significance added to San Antonio's American art collection. With the acquisition of the old Lone Star Brewery in the early 1970s, however, and with the concentrated efforts to transform this former industrial space into a vibrant new art museum, the situation changed. Since the original plan was for the San Antonio Museum of Art to be a museum primarily dedicated to the art of the New World, with a special emphasis on the art of the United States from Colonial times to the present (reflecting the strengths of the overall collection at that time), an intensified drive seems to have been made to enhance the scope of the collection. As might be expected, certain of the organization's Trustees played a key role in obtaining funds for the acquisitions. For example, Trustee Elizabeth Coates, through the Elizabeth and George Coates Fund, provided the means necessary to acquire three masterworks of American painting. These were: Alfred Bricher's Low Tide, Hetherington's Cove, Grand Manan; Robert Henri's El Tango; and Ernest Lawson's High Bridge, Harlem River (Cat. Nos. 27, 52, 59). The Henri is an especially appropriate work for San Antonio, with its notable Spanish theme and lively execution. It was painted by Henri during a trip to Spain in 1908. His model was the celebrated Spanish dancer Manoleta Mareques, who posed in a jaunty hat and brightly colored shawl. Her pose is indeed a provocative one that both beckons and challenges the viewer. It comes as no surprise, then, that the artist also considered the alternate titles of Come Here! and Begin the Dance! before settling on EI Tango for the work.[5]

Two other Trustees who helped increase San Antonio's American holdings at this time were Nancy B. Negley and Gilbert M. Denman, Jr. The two joined in presenting the collection with an important painting by Texas regional artist Robert Julian Onderdonk that was executed while he was studying art in New York City, East Loyal Field, New York (Cat. No. 86). Ms. Negley further helped to acquire the trompe l'oeil painting Sportsman's Trophy by Alexander Pope (Cat. No. 44) with funds provided by The Brown Foundation of Houston.

Mr. Denman was particularly helpful with the acquisition of several American works, including Joseph Blackburn's Portrait of Anne Saltonstall (1762), John Singleton Copley's Portrait of a Man in a Blue Coat (1770), and Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Carrying Banners (1830-1835; Cat. Nos. 2, 3, 18), each purchased with funds provided by the Ewing Halsell Foundation of San Antonio. The Copley, painted while the artist still lived in America, is an especially refined example of the artist's work. It has been suggested that the sitter may have been a member of Copley's family or even represent the artist himself. In this light, it is interesting to compare the work with a miniature self-portrait now in the Yale University Art Gallery.[6] In addition to these three works, Mr. Denman also assisted with the acquisition of Benjamin West's unfinished, but superb, Noah Sacrificing after the Deluge (Cat. No.6), a work purchased with funds provided by the Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation of Houston.

Significant growth continued during the 1980s, spurred on by generous funding from two additional Texas foundations. To assist the newly opened San Antonio Museum of Art increase its collection of significant works, the Cullen Foundation of Houston established the Lillie and Roy Cullen Endowment Fund at the Museum. One of the first uses of the fund was in 1984 to purchase John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Mrs. Elliot Fitch Shepard (Cat. No. 37). This magisterial female portrait, painted by Sargent in 1888, displays the artist's interest in largely monochromatic compositions, in this case a striking red-on-red that is also to be found in an earlier male portrait, also full-length, Dr. Pozzi at Home, painted in 1881. One wonders if Sargent's possible interest in a female red-on-red, full-length portrait might have been behind his choice of Mrs. Shepard's gown color.[7]


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