Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on December 12, 2008 with permission of the author and the Spencer Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, directly at 1301 Mississippi Street, Lawrence, Kansas 66045-7500 or through this phone number or web address:


Sanford Gifford: A Discovery Joins a University Collection

by Andrea S. Norris


Like every museum curator, I fantasize discovering a major work of art in a second-hand store or an attic, or revealing that a painting previously considered unimportant is actually a masterpiece. It happens rarely. But as director of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, I had this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in 1992, when Kenneth Stoner, the director of student housing, asked me to review a list of paintings donated to the University in 1954 by Joseph R. Pearson to decorate residence halls. Ken wanted to be sure the paintings were not too valuable for this purpose; his concern proved to be appropriate.

Most of the paintings were by little-known artists featuring attractive genre and sporting scenes -- just the thing to enliven public spaces. However, one title, Mountain Landscape, signed "S.R. Gifford," struck my eye.

I asked to see several of the paintings; Ken showed the Gifford last. It is a large autumn mountain landscape depicted at sunrise. Ila Weiss, who has written extensively on Gifford, found reference to the painting in a list Gifford made of his chief works, and in a posthumous inventory of his paintings. Weiss also reported the existence of sketches relating to it.[1]

The painting, Morning in the Adirondacks, sold to an Englishman, Samuel Lord, the founder of New York's Lord and Taylor department store. Lord apparently had the painting sent to England; it is listed in the 1881 inventory of his collection. The work's whereabouts between Lord's death in 1889 and Pearson's purchase are unknown. Considering the painting had been stored nearly forty years at the University in a Harrods crate, it is possible Pearson purchased it at the London department store. American landscapes were neither costly nor particularly highly valued in the 1950s. Pearson must have been delighted to discover this decorative American work for KU's student housing.

Sanford Gifford (1823 - 1880) was one of the group of American artists in the third quarter of the nineteenth century called luminists, who focused on light as a means of expression. The luminists were inspired by the writings of British critic John Ruskin and American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, who saw moral values expressed in landscape paintings. Other luminist painters were Fitz Hugh Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, and Frederick Edwin Church.

Gifford was born in New York state, but traveled to Europe, the Middle East, and across the United States. He frequently painted the Catskill and the Adirondack mountain ranges of the eastern United States.

According to Ila Weiss, Morning in the Adirondacks was painted during the last of a series of trips Gifford made to this popular Eastern wilderness area during the 1860s.[2] Several landscapes resulted from these trips, and oil sketches relating to the KU painting have been exhibited in New York and elsewhere.[3] A mountain with clouds rising around it dominates the fifty by forty-two inch canvas. The foliage of an autumn forest surrounds a glassy lake; a lone rower moves across it. Another boat is ready to launch on the lake shore, where a cabin marks the edge of a clearing stretching into the foreground. Rough tree stumps in the prominent clearing suggest Gifford may have had mixed feelings about human forays into the wilderness that the painting seems to celebrate.

The Gifford was stored for many years at KU, displayed briefly in one of its residence halls in the early 1990s. During this time it was damaged, a narrow vertical cut six inches long on the lower canvas center. When Morning arrived at the Spencer, the painting was marred by the vertical tear, with unsightly draws at the corners, and a light layer of surface dirt.

Scott Heffley, a paintings conservator at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, flattened the corners, repaired and inpainted the tear, and cleaned the surface. Except for the repaired tear, the painting is in pristine condition, unlined and unvarnished, so the luminescent color and subtle brushstrokes remain manifest.

Morning in the Adirondacks has a place of honor at the Spencer Museum of Art, on long-term loan from the Department of Student Housing. Along with Winslow Homer's Cloud Shadows, it ranks as one of the university's most important American paintings.

The Gifford joins a number of significant American works in the Spencer collection. It hangs between Severin Roesen's Still Life with Strawberries and a European sunset by Thomas Cole, In the Simmental, Switzerland. Nearby are several landscapes by Jasper Cropsey and George Inness. The Gifford overshadows smaller, but related, luminist works by Martin Johnson Heade and Albert Bierstadt.

An art museum was founded at the University of Kansas in 1928. Sallie Casey Thayer, widow of a Kansas City department store magnate, William Bridges Thayer, bequeathed a collection of over 7,000 art works, in a wide variety of media, to the university. Mrs. Thayer was dedicated to educating Midwesterners to fine arts and good design. For years she actively lobbied for an art museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

Her hopes repeatedly dashed, Mrs. Thayer was enticed by William Griffith, chair of KU's art department, to donate her collection to the university for the enjoyment and benefit of the state's citizens. After much negotiation, she bequeathed the works, including Italian presepio fIgures, Asian and European textiles, Japanese prints, glass, silver, porcelain, and dolls, as well as painting and sculpture.[4]

Winslow Homer's painting, Cloud Shadows, and two of his watercolors, Live Oaks, 1886, and West India Divers, are treasured Spencer exhibits from the Thayer collection. Mrs. Thayer purchased Cloud Shadows at Young's Art Galleries in Chicago in 1911. It is one of the earlier works Homer painted during the years he spent in Prout's Neck, Maine.

The seated figures, a young woman and an older man, were friends of Homer's -- Maude Sanborn Googins Libby and her uncle, Benjamin Franklin Sanborn. Placing them in the painting's lower region, Homer juxtaposed their calm interaction with the dramatic activities of the weather.

West India Divers is one of about twenty-five watercolors Homer painted during the winter of 1898, when the artist returned to Nassau after a ten-year absence. Homer captures the qualities of sunlight and water within the tropical atmosphere, depicting divers working from small boats, gathering shells to sell in the markets.

The collection also includes an 1885 French landscape by Theodore Robinson, a Richard E. Miller, La Toilette, ca. 1911, and a striking Robert Henri portrait, Laughing Girl. Mrs. Thayer purchased Laughing Girl in New York in early 1913. Henri travelled frequently to Spain and Holland, painting many laughing children in response to the people and images he found. Laughing Girl suggests recollections of his Dutch experiences. The painting of an unknown girl is a tour-de-force of black, with touches of bright blue.

Mrs. Thayer's collection provided the university with a diverse base upon which to build. The collection serves teaching interests of university faculty throughout KU's departments. The collection now includes over 17,000 objects of European, Asian, and American art, with special strengths in late Medieval art, Renaissance and baroque painting and sculpture from the Kress Collection, German and Austrian baroque art, decorative arts, Japanese and western prints (including selections from the Max Kade collection), textiles (especially Asian textiles and American quilts), and photographs.

American art works were acquired from various sources after Mrs. Thayer's initial bequest. The collection is especially strong in regionalist painters. Thomas Hart Benton's Ballad of the Jealous Lover of Lone Green Valley is one of a series of folksong paintings inspired by Benton's cross-country journeys of the 1920s. It depicts a popular love ballad about a jealous lover who kills his innocent sweetheart.

Benton combined images from many sources. Most of his models were friends, including his sister-in-law Lucy Piacenza (the sweetheart), and Benton's student Jackson Pollock, playing the jaw harp in the foreground. Benton had sketched the fiddler in Jasper, Arkansas, and the the cow, fence, and house in western Virginia.

Grant Wood's Near Sundown is characteristic of his Iowa scenes celebrating the simple life of the American heartland in the throes of the Depression. The painting combines carefully observed natural detail with a composition seemingly organized by geometric principles. Near Sundown was donated to the Spencer in 1959 by film director George Cukor, who had obtained it from Katherine Hepburn.

The Kansan John Steuart Curry is represented by numerous drawings, prints and paintings, including a self portrait, some unusual drawings for stage sets, and sketches for his Kansas Statehouse murals. The sketch depicts the best-known section of the Topeka murals, a colossal John Brown with outstretched hands holding a Bible and a rifle (called a "Beecher's Bible" after abolitionists led by Henry Ward Beecher, who sent rifles from New England to Kansas in boxes marked "Bibles"), with a tornado behind him.

Another distinctive Kansas artist, Birger Sandzén, arrived from Sweden to teach in Lindsborg, Kansas on September 4, 1894. Fascinated with the idea of America, Sandzén had written to Dr. Carl Aaron Swensson, president of Bethany College in the largely Swedish community of Lindsborg, asking for employment. Sandzén spent the rest of his life, sixty years, in Lindsborg, teaching and painting landscapes of Kansas, Colorado, and the Southwest. Landscape with Four Trees is one such striking work. Sandzén tirelessly promoted the arts, organizing the Smoky Hill Art Club, the Prairie Water Color Painters, and, with others, the Prairie Printmakers.

The Spencer houses a selection of Albert Bloch's works. Bloch moved to Europe in 1908 and settled in Munich, where he joined "Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider) group of avant-garde painters. Winter, painted in Europe, still reflects "Der Blaue Reiter" style. The members, including Franz Marc and Vassily Kandinsky, aimed to emphasize higher moral and spiritual values, rather than espouse representation or abstraction. In 1921, Bloch returned to the United States, and soon after he joined the KU faculty, where he taught until 1947.

The Spencer's collection also includes western artists like Frederic Remington and W.R. Leigh, and artists who worked in New Mexico, such as Ward Lockwood, Andrew Dasburg, and Peter Hurd.

When the Samuel H. Kress Foundation donated sixteen European Renaissance and baroque pieces to the university in 1960, it included a subtly insightful portrait of Mrs. Daniel Sargent Curtis, 1882, by John Singer Sargent. The portrait was made in Mrs. Curtis's home in the Palazzo Barbaro of Venice.

Mrs. Curtis (Ariana Randolf Wormeley) was related to Sargent, and her son was his close friend. The Curtises moved to Europe from Boston when Daniel Curtis was involved in some legal difficulty and in 1878 they acquired the fifteenth-century Palazzo Barbaro. The Curtis family were leaders in Venice's American colony and frequent hosts to English-speaking society, including Sargent and Henry James, who set The Wings of the Dove in Palazzo Barbaro.[5] Sargent stayed with the Curtises from about August 1882 to the late autumn. The portrait of Mrs. Curtis suggests charm, sensitivity, and the uncompromising opinions which led to her nickname "la dogaressa." It is a handsome character study in simple black and white drapery.

In 1977 the museum purchased an early watercolor by Georgia O'Keeffe, Pink and Green Mountains No.1, 1917. In 1994, the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation generously donated two extraordinary and enigmatic O'Keeffe paintings, Portrait of a Day, Day One, and Day Two, 1924. Day Three is in a private collection in California.

In 1978, the collections at the University of Kansas found a new home, the newly completed Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, a building modeled after Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Mr and Mrs. R. Crosby Kemper donated several paintings including portraits by Jeremiah Theus and John Singleton Copley and later Paul Manship's sculpture Salome.

More recent works usher the collection into the contemporary realm, by artists such as Robert Motherwell, Larry Rivers, Wayne Thiebaud, Donald Judd, Dale Chihuly, Robert Arneson, William Wiley, Elizabeth Murray, Luis Jimenez, and Lesley Dill. The Motherwell, acquired with assistance from the Dedalus Foundation, adds a major abstract expressionist painting to the Spencer's collection. Painted in 1960, Figure Before Blackness reveals, through rapidly applied, and sometimes thin paint, the many stages and composition changes Motherwell explored before completion.

The Spencer houses substantial print, drawing, and photograph collections. The prints include an extensive archive of the Prairie Printmakers, the print club founded by Birger Sandzén and a group of enthusiasts in Wichita and McPherson. The archive includes all of the group's gift prints, as well as works by each artist in membership.

Gene Swenson donated important prints from the 1960s, and in 1980, Esquire magazine donated its archives to the University of Kansas. These contain extensive graphic material, notably, a large collection of original Alberto Vargas drawings and Diane Arbus photographs.

There are also WPA prints and a large group of drawings of barns and coal mines around Gerard, Kansas by Abraham Walkowitz. Most of the American drawings are included in the catalogue produced by the Nelson-Atkins Museum in 1992.[6]

A remarkably strong photographic collection spans works from photography's beginnings to the present day, with a focus on American documentary and photo-journalism of the 1930s through 1960s. Particularly rich are the holdings of Ansel Adams, Harold Edgerton, Aaron Siskind, and Marion Palfi, with excellent works by Joseph Pennell, Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine, and Gordon Parks. An archive of photographs by nineteenth-century photographer Alexander Gardner documents life in Kansas.

Mrs. Thayer's collection of silver, glass, ceramics, furniture, and textiles enhances the painting and sculpture collection. In 1971, Mary Kretsinger donated a major collection of quilts by her mother, Kansas quiltmaker Rose Kretsinger. This assemblage established KU as an important center for the art.[7] An archive of quilt blocks by Carrie Hall also enhances the collection.

Sanford Gifford's Morning in the Adirondacks filled a longstanding gap in the Spencer's nineteenth-century luminist landscape collection which had concerned us for years. It is intriguing and rewarding to realize that the painting was here at the University all the time.

1 Ila Weiss, "Sanford Gifford's Morning in the Adirondacks, 1867" Register of the Spencer Museum of Art (forthcoming); for the list of Gifford's chief works, see Ila Weiss, Poetic Landscape: The Art and Experience of Sanford R. Gifford (Newark: University of Delaware press, 1987), 327 - 30; for the inventory, see Metropolitan Museum of Art, Memorial Catalogue of the Paintings of Sanford Robinson Gifford, N.A., with a Biography and Critical Essay by Prof. John F. Weir of the Yale School of Fine Arts (1881; reprint, New York: Olana Gallery, 1974), p. 33.

2 Ila Weiss, "Sanford R. Gifford's Morning in the Adirondacks, 1867.

3 Ibid.

4 For an excellent introduction to Sallie Casey Thayer, see Carol Shankel, Sallie Casey Thayer and Her Collection (Lawrence: The University of Kansas Museum of Art, 1976).

5 Isabella Stewart Gardener began to rent their home in 1890 and it inspired her home in Boston, Fenway Court.

6 Henry Adams, Margaret Stenz et al., American Drawings and Watercolors from the Kansas City Region (Kansas City: Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, 1992).

7 The Spencer's quilts, including the Kretsinger quilts, are published in Spencer Museum of Art, American Patchwork Quilt (Tokyo: Kokusai Art, 1987).


About the author

Andrea Norris was born in Madison, Wisconsin, grew up in New Jersey, graduated from Wellesley College, and has a Ph.D. in Italian Renaissance Art and a Certificate in Museum Training from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She has taught art history in New York, New Haven, Austin, Texas and Lawrence, Kansas. She has worked in museums as assistant to the director of the Yale University Art Gallery (1977 - 80), chief curator at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas (1980 - 88), and director of the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas (1988 - 2004).

Dr. Norris is currently an independent art historian/museum consultant. In that context she has published regularly for Review magazine in Kansas City, organized exhibitions for the Epsten Gallery at Village Shalom, served as a regular reviewer for federal arts grants, and served on American Association of Museums art museum accreditation visiting teams. Currently, she is also organizing tours to Mexico and India, actively involved in Rotary International Service and Fellowship projects (chair of the District 5710 Grants Subcommittee and team leader for a Group Study Exchange visit to South Korea in May 2008), and participating in her husband's trial consulting and apple farming businesses.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 12, 2008, with permission of the author and the Spencer Museum of Art, which permissions were granted to TFAO on February 26, 2008, and March 21, 2008, respectively.

This article appeared in the February - March 1996 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Bill Woodward of the Spencer Museum of Art and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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