American Art at SBMA

The post-van Gogh rehang of the permanent galleries at SBMA features a selection of largely 19th-century American painting (perhaps in fulfillment of the 1958 commitment to Preston Morton in consideration of her gift of 50 paintings). While maybe a third were seen in the 2012 exhibition, “Scenery, Story, Spirit,” most of the others are new to me and probably have been in storage for decades. Perhaps to advance the purported theme of Women Collectors (some, nevertheless, were donated by men), or to assuage donors who feel their contributions have been neglected, a number of the best examples of 19th-century American art have not been included, while works of questionable merit have been hung instead. (Even most of the weaker works in this show, however, are not the bottom of the barrel. I have opined elsewhere and often on the need for SBMA to cull inferior paintings that were accepted into the collection uncritically in the 1980s and ’90s from well-intentioned donors.)

First, on a positive note, let me recognize the handful of works that, if not masterpieces, are worthy of a representative collection of 19th-century American art and deserve to be at least in regular rotation. Martin Johnson Heade’s “Sprig of Apple Flowers”(1874) and, more surprisingly, Annie Snyder’s “Basket of Grapes” (1890s) are both jaw-droppingly beautiful. Heade, of course, is part of the canon and his still lifes are well known and deservedly appreciated. Snyder, on the other hand, is one of those under-recognized women artists who are currently surfacing, often, for reasons of gender, in the field of still life. This painting is exquisite and pure and reminds me of other recently discovered still life masters now featured at the Met, especially Sebastian Stoskopff. This work is a treasure.

Most of the paintings are landscapes, the preeminent genre in American 19th-century art. My favorites are a small, quiet Worthington Whittredge of Peconic Bay that was new to me, and Albert Bierstadt’s “Mirror Lake” (1864) and William Haseltine’s “Indian Rocks” (1868), both archetypal works that were in the 2012 show. Childe Hassam’s “Manhattan Club” (c. 1890) is one of the museum’s most important (i.e., valuable) works and is always a delight to see. We are lucky to have anything by the great Frederic Church, and this show included two paintings with a great provenance: donated by the family of Lockwood De Forest, Church’s relative and student.

On the negative side of the ledger are several paintings that are so dark I couldn’t make out their subject until I photographed them with my miraculous iPhone. There are two paintings by William Keith, who painted the West for the railroads, but these are undistinguished and in one case illegible. Paul Cornoyer painted charming urban cityscapes, but the SBMA’s is so dark as to be unreadable. DeScott Evans is represented with the most treacly picture in the show, and there is a large canvas by someone named Ernest Narjot, whose large California genre picture would be more suitable for the History Museum. And given the lovely Whittredge mentioned above, there is no need to hold onto, let alone display, his bland view of the Upper Delaware.

Without fanfare or direction, the show continues up the stairs into the entryway of the Ridley-Tree gallery, where, in addition to the important Church “Moonrise in Greece” (1889), there are a number of small images, led by a typical Jasper Francis Cropsey and a charming “Square Rigger at Sea” (1900) by Thomas Anshutz. Before I go, I should mention that there is a more modern portrait of an Indigenous woman in Taos by a woman artist named Della Shull, on loan from a woman collector. I hope to goodness that one of curator Eik Kahng’s reasons for mounting this show with this theme was not to attract this very mediocre painting as a gift to the already overstuffed permanent collection.


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