Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Houston, TX

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Exceptional Paintings by William Merritt Chase, John Singer Sargent, and Georgia O'Keeffe; Furniture by Pottier and Stymus, and Herter Brothers; and Silver by Tiffany & Co. on View in American Art on Display at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

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American Art on Display, opening March 28, 1999, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, offers a glimpse of the museum's permanent collection of American painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the mid-19th century through the early 20th century.

The exhibition is organized into five major themes: "The American Eden," "American Classicism," "The American Aesthetic Movement," "American Impressionism" and "Early 20th Century American Art." The influences of other cultures on American art, and the contributions of immigrant artists in American design are also reflected in the exhibition, which continues through May 23, 1999, at the Caroline Wiess Law Building of the MFAH, located at 1001 Bissonnet. Romantic landscape paintings, including Indian Pass (1847) by Thomas Cole, who is recognized as a founder of what became known as the Hudson River School of landscape painting, are featured, as well as American portraiture, exemplified by paintings by John Singer Sargent and William Merritt Chase. Also included are examples of gilded-age cabinetmaking in New York with pieces attributed to Pottier and Stymus, and the Herter Brothers; and examples of early 20th-century American abstraction, including paintings by Marsden Hartley and Georgia O'Keeffe.

American Art on Display offers a preview of the pre-1945 American art collection that will be installed in the permanent American art galleries of the Audrey Jones Beck Building when it opens in March 2000. American Art on Display is organized by Emily Ballew Neff, curator of American painting and sculpture, and Cindi Strauss, assistant curator of decorative arts and Rienzi.

The exhibition opens with a group of 19th-century paintings and decorative arts that depict the American landscape in diverse ways. For many artists of the early 19th century, the American wilderness symbolized the infinite possibilities of the nation's future. In this section of the exhibition titled "The American Eden, " examples of painting demonstrate a romantic reverence for the beauty and vastness of nature. Included are paintings from the permanent collection which have not been on extended view in years, including Indian Pass (1847) by Cole; A View of Mansfield Mountain (1849) by John Frederick Kensett; and (see right) Frederic Edwin Church's Catopaxi (1855), oil on canvas, 30 x 46 7/16 inches, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum purchase with funds provided by Hogg Brothers Collection, gift of Miss Ima Hogg by exchange 74.58. Also on view is Douglas's Squirrel (c. 1841-43), a watercolor by John James Audubon created for one of his books on the animal life of North America.

Complementing the Hudson River School paintings is a (see left) dramatic Sideboard (c. 1855), American, Middle Atlantic, probably New York, American tulip wood, northeast white pine, black walnut and marble, 106 x 69 x 28 inches, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum purchase with funds provided by Anaruth and Aron S. Gordon, 83.46.1 through .16, by an unknown cabinetmaker from the Middle Atlantic region. This opulent, elaborately carved sideboard features life-like depictions of game, hounds, and lobsters, as well as plant forms and items from the hunt including gun, powder horn, and pouch. It reinforces the focus on natural images while also addressing man's conquest of nature.

Since before its founding as a republic, American artists and architects looked to ancient Greece and Rome for inspiration, motivated in part by the excavations at Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 1750s. In the third quarter of the 19th century, this grand tradition of referencing ancient styles once again came to the forefront of artistic influences. A new class of skilled craftsmen, many of whom had immigrated to America, influenced this revived interest in classicism. A Parlor Cabinet (c. 1862) attributed (see right) to Pottier and Stymus, New York, with marquetry attributed to Joseph Cremer of France, Rosewood, burled ash, maple, eastern white pine, other woods, gilt and bronze, 55 x 54 x 22 7/8 inches, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Agnes Cullen Arnoild Endowment fund, 91.1306.A, B, is included in this section of the exhibition titled "American Classicism." The marquetry panel depicts Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. Silver by both Tiffany & Co. and the Gorham Manufacturing Company also demonstrates the influence of the ancient world on American decorative arts during this period.

Many American painters and sculptors of this time visited or lived in Italy where they studied the work of the Old Masters. Julius Montalant spent much of his life in Italy painting historic sites and ancient ruins, and his painting A View of Rome (1873) capsulizes the interest in classical subjects among his wealthy patrons. Also featured in this section are many pieces of sculpture, including (see left) William Henry Rinehart's marble nude Thetis (c. 1861), 45 3/4 x 17 x 12 1/2 inches, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum purchase with funds provided by "One Great Night in November, 1996" .96.1702, a mythological figure whose elegance and grace defines the classical style.

From the mid-1870s through the 1880s, America became fascinated with foreign cultures, especially Japan's, whose doors opened to foreign markets at mid-century. The 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition launched this interest on the American stage, sparking what became known as the Aesthetic Movement in America. It was at this world's fair that the American public, as well as artists and craftsmen, were able to see firsthand the art of Japan and other "exotic" cultures. In response, they began incorporating Japanese and Near Eastern ornamentation and patterns in their work. This section of the exhibition titled "The American Aesthetic Movement," includes such objects as the Plaque (1889) by Union Porcelain Works, Greenpoint, New York, which is decorated with tendrils, flowers, and birds, referencing the influence of Near Eastern cultures, and a set of (see right) 8 Butterfly Napkin Clips created by Tiffany & Co. in 1878, (from the John Mackay silver service), silver, gilt, and enamel, 3/4 x 2 7/16 x 3 3/8 inches each, The Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum purchase with funds provided by the Alice Pratt Brown Museum Fund, 91.1328.1 through 8. These silver, gilt, and enamel clips were made for Mr. and Mrs. John W. Mackay, part owners of the Comstock Lode, a vast silver deposit in Nevada. The napkin clips were part of a service for twenty-four persons that took two years to make and required nearly one ton of silver.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, a new generation of American artists received their artistic inspiration from abroad, especially from the work of French Impressionists, who came on the Paris art scene in the 1870s. Examples of paintings and sketches by such American Impressionists as Willard Metcalf, Childe Hassam, and William Merritt Chase illuminate the late 19th-century American artist's interest in capturing the light and atmosphere of the outdoors. William Merritt Chase's (see right) Sunlight and Shadow, Shinnecock Hills (c. 1895), oil on canvas, Museum of Fine arts Houston, Partial gift of Mrs. James W. Glanville, 98.247, an important recent acquisition of the MFAH, which is still housed in its original Stanford White frame, is included in this section titled "American Impressionism." Evening in New York (1890s) by Childe Hassam is also on view. Hassam brought the techniques he learned and admired in Paris home to New York where he created captivating paintings of ordinary scenes, such as New York City in the rain.

The strength of the collection of American portraits at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston is demonstrated by four distinctive paintings in this exhibition. Included are John Singer Sargent's Mrs. Joshua Montgomery Sears (Sarah Choate Sears), 1899; and Mother and Child (The First Portrait), c. 1888, by William Merritt Chase, featuring his wife--dressed in a kimono, reflecting the interest in all things Japanese--and his eldest daughter, Alice. The penetrating Portrait of John B. Gest (1905) by Thomas Eakins and George Bellows' Portrait of Florence Pierce (1914) are also included.

The last section of the exhibition spotlights American art in the early decades of the 20th century. Included in this section (see left) is a sculpture by Elie Nadelman, The Tango, c. 1918-24 in cherry wood and gesso, Museum of Fine arts Houston, Gift of Meredith J. and Cornelia Long, 96.1751.A, B.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 9/20/10


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