Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library in July, 2009 from Nancy B. Tieken et al., American Art from The Currier Gallery of Art (New York: American Federation of Arts, 1995) by permission of the American Federation of Arts (AFA). If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the AFA directly through this phone number or Web address:


"Introduction" to American Art from the Currier Gallery of Art

by Nancy B. Tieken


The Currier Gallery of Art in Manchester, New Hampshire, has not always been a household word to people outside northern New England. As director of education from 1988 to 1991, I soon realized that an important part of my job was to introduce new audiences to the museum, and the results were rewarding. Visitors were delighted to find that the Currier is, in fact, a museum of masterpieces of European and American art -- Renaissance, baroque, colonial to contemporary. They were often surprised to learn that Moody Currier, the founder and primary benefactor, was not related to the Currier of Currier and Ives. And they were generous in sharing their enthusiasm with others near and far, dispelling the Currier's reputation as New England's best-kept secret.

Since this is the first traveling exhibition drawn from the Currier's important collection of American art, I have yet again the opportunity to introduce new audiences to Moody and Hannah Currier and to the museum they willed into existence -- knowing they would never see the results of their farsighted intention to establish a "benevolent and public institution."

At the dawn of the twentieth century, Manchester, New Hampshire, boasted the largest single textile-producing complex in the world. By 1810, the citizens of the town of Derryfield, New Hampshire, had seen the promise of the industrial revolution and the potential of the Merrimack River to drive the wheels of production, and they dared to change their town's name to Manchester, in hopes of emulating one of England's greatest manufacturing cities. Soon afterward, a group of wealthy investors calling themselves the Boston Associates determined to make Manchester a prosperous utopian industrial society. They bought up the land bordering the river and, in 1831, incorporated the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, borrowing the Indian word that had described the area as a fertile fishing ground.

In the ensuing years, the company oversaw the expansion of Manchester on a grand scale. The mill complex grew rapidly, as the production of machinery and other goods augmented the textile industry. A wide boulevard and city parks were built. Banks, department stores, and other businesses were created to fill the needs of the expanding population. One of the ambitious men who was drawn to this city of opportunity was Moody Currier (fig. 1) -- a nineteenth-century Renaissance man. Born on a New Hampshire farm in 1806, he was educated at Hopkinton Academy and Dartmouth College. He came to Manchester from Concord, New Hampshire, where he had been a school principal, a magazine editor, and a law student. Arriving in Manchester in 1841, he opened a law office and, in his spare time, purchased an interest in a Manchester newspaper and served as its part-time editor. In 1848, Currier became one of the founders of the Amoskeag Bank and the institution's first cashier, and his lucrative business interests continued to proliferate until his retirement at the age of eighty-six. Currier also had a political career at both the city and state levels, which was capped by his election as governor of New Hampshire in 1884.

In addition, Currier was a man of letters -- a philosopher, astronomer, theologian, and poet. His high regard for culture and history, and his devotion to his city and state, must have influenced his decision to provide Manchester with the one institution he believed it was lacking -- an art museum -- even though Currier himself did not collect art. Before his death in 1898, he laid plans to realize his vision of a museum for the people of New Hampshire on the grounds of his Manchester home. His intentions were honored by his third wife, Hannah Slade Currier (fig. 2), who died in 1915, leaving instructions and funds for the establishment of the Currier Gallery of Art and its collections.

According to the provisions of Hannah Currier's will, the Hillsborough County Probate Court appointed a board of trustees in 1917 and charged them with the task Currier had set them. It was not an easy assignment. Proposals by two eminent architects -- one for an elaborate medieval Italianate villa and chapel resembling the recently completed Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, the other for a baronial eighteenth-century-style mansion -- were rejected. Not until 1926 was the commission awarded, to Tilton and Githens, a firm from New York that submitted plans for a beaux-arts rendition of an Italian Renaissance palazzo with an airy, columned, glass-roofed court flanked by two stories of graciously proportioned galleries.

Even before the architect had been chosen, the ten Currier trustees made two invaluable appointments to their board: Penelope W. Snow, Hannah Currier's niece, and Maud Briggs Knowlton, a well-known Manchester artist and art educator. In May 1929, Knowlton was selected to become the museum's first director. The Currier opened to the public in October of that year, twenty days before the stock market crashed. Fortunately, thanks to ample financial resources and prudent management, not even this calamitous event could derail Moody Currier's legacy.

The history of the Currier's collection is, in large part, the story of the seven directors who shaped it and of the four curators with whom they have worked. Their initiatives have extended far beyond the field of American art, and their vision has enlarged the museum's educational mission and its role in the community.

Maud Briggs Knowlton (director, 1929 - 46) faced a formidable challenge. With the exception of the Currier family portraits, a friend's bequest of unremarkable landscape and genre paintings, and Penelope Snow's gift of several panels of French wallpaper by the nineteenth-century French artist Felix Sauvenet, there was neither art to fill the galleries nor an acquisition policy to guide the development of the collections. Wisely, Knowlton arranged a series of notable loan exhibitions from private and commercial sources, including a presentation of Rodin's work in 1931, until she and the trustees determined how best to proceed.

It is essential that collections be brought together with the greatest care, and whatever is to form a part of a permanent collection should be of outstanding merit (Maud Briggs Knowlton, Annual Report, 1932)One good canvas is worth a whole gallery of undistinguished paintings (Maud Briggs Knowlton, Annual Report, 1933).

Knowlton's first purchase was Crest of the Wave, a bronze fountain sculpture by the American sculptor Harriet Frishmuth, a pupil of Rodin's. It was one of the featured works in the inaugural show of contemporary painting and sculpture assembled by the Grand Central Galleries in New York. A lithe bronze water nymph poised on a rock, the work is permanently installed at the Currier's south entrance.

In a few bold moves, Knowlton also set the tone for the museum's American decorative arts holdings. In 1932, she purchased important eighteenth-century works from the collection of Mrs. DeWitt Clinton Howe Palmer. In 1935, she launched the American painting collection with the acquisition of John Singleton Copley's superb 1769 portrait of John Greene (cat. no. 1). In 1936, she bought the last portrait John Singer Sargent ever painted, an elegant likeness of the melancholy Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston (cat. no. 29). The next year she purchased Childe Hassam's luminous oil The Goldfish Window (cat. no. 28), which delights Currier visitors today as much as it did fifty years ago.

The Currier bequest was prudently invested throughout the 1930s, and in addition to American pieces, Knowlton also bought significant European objects, including a rare fifteenth-century Franco-Flemish tapestry. Even during the war years, she kept the galleries filled with people and objects, and her legacy of careful collection-building endures.

Gordon M. Smith, the Currier's second director (1946 - 55), an art historian educated at Williams College and at Princeton and Harvard, recognized that the Currier had the potential to become a "great" small museum. His conviction, stated in 1952, became the museum's credo:

The idea we have had most often is that a small museum should make no attempt to collect important paintings...[It] should realize that it is the little sister of big institutions, and as such should he grateful for "cast-offs." The Currier Gallery of Art has formed an acquisition policy which is quite different from the above...Our long-range objective is a necessarily small, but very choice, collection of top-quality paintings, each making a distinct contribution toward an appreciation and understanding of the major movements and periods of art (Gordon M. Smith, "Little Gallery on Big Scale," Art News, vol. 50, no. 9, [January 1952], p. 22ff).

To accomplish his mission, Smith purchased some remarkable European paintings, including seminal works by John Constable, Claude Monet, and Jacob van Ruisdael. His attention to the American holdings was equally ambitious. In 1947, he acquired an early Albert Bierstadt landscape of a New Hampshire scene (cat. no. 15). To the American decorative arts collection he added two fine eighteenth-century pieces: a chest-on-chest (cat. no. 38) and a silver cream pot made by Paul Revere I (cat. no. 55). In 1948, Smith put Manchester on the American art-world map by inviting Charles Sheeler, the eminent Precisionist painter, and his family to New Hampshire for their summer vacation. He commissioned a starkly majestic painting of the city's mills, later titled Amoskeag Canal.

Charles E. Buckley (director, 1955 - 64), educated at the Art Institute of Chicago and Harvard University, arrived from the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford and brought a rare mixture of discrimination and courage to his collecting and exhibiting missions. With the museum's first curator, Melvin E. Watts, Buckley renewed the Currier's commitment to the early American decorative arts collection, with a particular emphasis on pieces originating in New Hampshire. The exuberant curly-maple chest-on-chest-on-frame (cat. no. 40) and desk attributed to the Dunlap family and a stately clock with works made by Levi Hutchins (cat. no. 43) are but three of his outstanding acquisitions. To make the collection visible to a broader public, Buckley oversaw two groundbreaking exhibitions, accompanied by thoroughly researched and illustrated catalogues: New Hampshire Silver, 1775 - 1825 and The Decorative Arts of New Hampshire, 1725 - 1825.

Buckley also encouraged the formation of the Friends of the Currier Gallery of Art in 1958, whose contributions greatly augmented Currier acquisition funds for the purchase of American art; to date, Friends' funds have added more than one hundred objects to the collection.

Buckley left the Currier in 1964 to continue his distinguished career at the Saint Louis Art Museum, but returned to New Hampshire upon his retirement in 1975 and maintains an active informal association with the Currier and its decorative arts collections.

William Hutton (director, 1965 - 68), from the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio, recognized the necessity of maintaining, as well as enlarging, the museum's furniture collection, and arranged a program for its physical evaluation and ongoing conservation. He also pursued an interest in researching and collecting nineteenth-century American painters who worked in Italy, a group he termed the "Travelers in Arcadia." To fill the gap in the museum's collection in this area, he purchased the Elihu Vedder painting Bordighera (cat. no. 17), a charming example of Vedder's passion for the Italian landscape and this small town in northern Italy.

The directorship of David Brooke (1968 - 77), a Harvard-educated Englishman from the Art Gallery of Ontario, coincided with a revitalization of the visual and performing arts in Manchester. Brooke took a leadership role in the community and masterminded a diverse program of acquisitions and exhibitions. In addition to acquiring important collections of glass and pewter, he was responsible for purchasing a captivating folk-art portrait that has become a pilgrimage piece for Currier visitors, Emily Moulton by Samuel Miller (cat. no. 10).

The exhibitions and catalogues from Brooke's tenure were equally noteworthy and remain essential references for scholars in the field. Melvin Watts organized Pewter in America, 1650 - 1900, followed by British Pewter, 1600 - 1850. Charles S. Parsons organized The Dunlaps and Their Furniture, documenting for the first time the outstanding contributions of this hitherto obscure "provincial" workshop.

Brooke also persuaded trustee Henry Melville Fuller to exhibit sixty works from his collection of nineteenth-century American paintings, marking the beginning of Fuller's ongoing contributions to the museum. In addition to establishing a fund for the purchase of nineteenth-century American art, which enabled the museum to buy Randolph Rogers's life-size marble statue Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii (too massive to travel) and Thomas Eakins's portrait of Florence Einstein (cat. no. 24), Fuller has given paintings by Asher R. Durand (see cat. no. 14) and Frederic Edwin Church (see cat. no. 11). Equally important, Fuller was among the first collectors to seek out unusual, lesser-known artists such as Lily Martin Spencer (see cat. no. 13) and William Holbrook Beard (see cat. no. 16), whose charming genre scenes add special character to the collection.

Robert M. Doty (director, 1977 - 87), who was educated at Harvard University and served as curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art and director of the Akron Art Museum, combined an interest in contemporary art and photography with a passion for folk art. In addition to organizing several exhibitions and symposia on New England folk life and Shaker furniture, he and curator Marilyn F. Hoffman presented the exhibition Heirlooms, Historical Art, and Decorative Arts from New Hampshire Collections. Most of the folk art in the Currier's collection was acquired by the museum during Doty's tenure.

The Doty years also reinforced the Currier's dedication to American decorative arts. The capstone of curator Melvin Watts's career was a 1979 exhibition and catalogue titled Eagles, Urns, and Columns: Decorative Arts of the Federal Period. His successor for five years, Philip Zimmerman, is a highly regarded specialist in the field who is now senior curator at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

The Currier's present director, Marilyn F. Hoffman, who assumed her position in 1988, and former curator Michael Komanecky continued to augment the American art holdings with the purchase of fine objects, such as the intricately inlaid Herter Brothers cabinet (cat. no. 48), and the acquisition of an entire house and furnishings by Frank Lloyd Wright from the estate of Isadore and Lucille Zimmerman. It is rare to find a museum of any size that can include a completely furnished and landscaped Wright house in its inventory of American art.

Hoffman's contributions to the future of the Currier extend beyond the collections to the institution itself. She and the present board of trustees were well aware that the 1929 building and a 1982 addition, consisting of two pavilions designed by Hugh Hardy, were not adequately climate-controlled. The icy winters and humid summers of New Hampshire presented an increasing threat to maintaining the collections and made it difficult to borrow objects from individuals and institutions accustomed to state-of-the-art conservation standards.

Despite the recent economic downturn in New England, Hoffman and the trustees have overseen a successful capital campaign designed to ensure the future of the collections and the exhibition program. Turning the necessity of closing the galleries during renovation into an opportunity, she and her curatorial team have selected the finest examples of work by artists and artisans from the seventeenth through the early twentieth century to create American Art from The Currier Gallery of Art and this handsome catalogue, which provides a long-overdue guide to the collection. By bringing the museum's treasures to new audiences, we are assured that the Currier Gallery of Art will become more widely known as one of New England's finest museums.


About the Author

Nancy B. Tieken is the former associate curator of modern and contemporary art and publications editor at the Denver Art Museum. She has been director of education at The Currier Gallery of Art and has also worked at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and at the Art Institute of Chicago. She holds an M.A. in art history from Boston University and an undergraduate degree in fine arts from Harvard University.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library in July, 2009 with permission of American Federation of Arts, which was granted to TFAO on June 23, 2009.

An adaptation of this essay appeared in the April - May 1996 issue of American Art Review. It is the introduction to the catalogue American Art from the Currier Gallery of Art.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Nancy B. Tieken; Barabara Jaus and Cindy Mackey of The Currier Gallery of Art; Amy Mazzariello and Michaelyn Mitchell of American Federation of Arts; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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