A spirited conversation: The European and American Galleries at the Harvard Art Museums

Ethan W. Lasser

Ethan W. Lasser Art, Magazine

When visitors enter the renovated and reinstalled Harvard Art Museums on the north side of Harvard Yard, they will find a series of galleries that invite a new way to approach the history of American art. The first and second floors of the Fogg Museum galleries in the 205,000-square-foot facility designed by the Renzo Piano Building Workshop bring together the European and American collections, integrating works from Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, and the United States into the same spaces and onto the same walls.

Fig. 1. The restored Calderwood Courtyard with the marble arcades of the 1927 Fogg Museum facility of the Harvard Art Museums. All images are courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum.

Organized by theme and period rather than culture, and inclusive of works in all mediums, from paintings and decorative arts to prints and photography, these galleries reflect the Harvard Art Museums’ teaching and research mission. They are grounded in scholarly argument and filled with fresh and unexpected juxtapositions that encourage close and careful looking and analysis.

Eighteenth-century European and American paintings, works on paper, and decorative arts are on view in the Arts of the Atlantic World gallery. Iconic portraits by John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, and the French painter Joseph-Siffred Duplessis are displayed alongside Grand Tour souvenirs and Native American artifacts to consider the links between the arts and the era’s merchant economy. The ships that crisscrossed the Atlantic Ocean and enriched entrepreneurs in cities like Boston, London, and Paris circulated such commodities as tea and sugar as well as people, ideas, materials, and even paintings. Peale’s full-length portrait of George Washington at the surrender of York-town stands in this last category. Harvard’s version of this famous work (see Fig. 4), which Peale painted some seventeen times, is tied to a larger story of government patronage, artistic exchange, and transatlantic miscommunication. Upon completion in 1784, the portrait was immediately dispatched to Paris by Benjamin Harrison, the governor of Virginia. Harrison sent the work to the studio of the sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, who was carving a statue of Washington and required a model. But the portrait never performed this intended function: unbeknownst to Harrison and the Virginia legislators, Houdon traveled to Mount Vernon in 1785 to work from life.

Fig. 2. This view of the Painting and Photography in an Era of Social Change gallery shows John Singer Sargent’s Breakfast Table  with works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and Claude Monet hanging nearby.

Other artists crossed the ocean in the opposite direction. Peale’s Washington hangs next to two lively studies of German soldiers by John Singleton Copley, who famously left colonial Boston for London in 1774. On an adjacent wall, Duplessis’s 1778 portrait of the modestly dressed statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin captures a transatlantic persona that is still part of our culture today: the international celebrity.

The galleries of nineteenth-century art consider artistic styles and ideas that cut across national boundaries. Among the most beloved works in the Harvard Art Museums’ collection is John Singer Sargent’s Breakfast Table (Fig. 5), a lively portrait of the artist’s sister Violet peeling an orange in a well-appointed Victorian interior. Sargent painted this work in Paris, and with its loose brushwork, cropped and compressed foreground, and muted palette punctuated by dabs of white,The Breakfast Table is clearly indebted to the French impressionists, whom Sargent admired. Adjacent paintings by Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir illuminate this connection (see Fig. 2). Next door, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ masterpiece Odalisque with a Slave hangs in the center of a small gallery focused on the lure of the East (see Fig. 3). Two late nineteenth-century American paintings, William Michael Harnett’s Still Life with Bric-a-Brac of 1878 and Winslow Homer’s Pitching Quoits of 1865, a view of a Union encampment at the close of the Civil War, are installed near the Ingres. Though these three paintings differ in genre and subject, they are linked stylistically. Ingres’ overtly exotic fantasy brings forward the Orientalist qualities of the Homer and Harnett. In Pitching Quoits, the soldiers are dressed in the elaborate red tasseled caps, blue filigreed jackets, and baggy scarlet trousers of the Fifth New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, known as “Duryee’s Zouaves” or the “Red Devils.” This corps was one of several whose uniforms were modeled on those of the Algerian missionaries who fought with the French in the Crimean War. The objects in the Harnett still life also possess an exotic aura. A towering Persian torch stand and a metalwork bowl inscribed in Arabic stand behind a sword that echoes the sinuous curve of the reclining woman in the Odalisque.

Fig. 3. The Lure of the East gallery includes Odalisque with a Slave by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), 1839-1840 (bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop), hanging alongside Still Life with Bric-a-Brac by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892), 1878 (Winthrop bequest). Pitching Quoits by Winslow Homer (1836-1910), 1865 (gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frederic Haines Curtis), hangs on the adjacent wall. The sculpture is Eternal Idol by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), 1893 (Winthrop bequest).

The introduction of the daguerreotype in 1839 was the first in a series of technical revolutions that changed the course of the arts in Europe and America. A large gallery brings together works in many mediums to consider the impact of this new image-making technology. Paintings and photographs are juxtaposed to show that while some artists used the lens to break free from the traditions of art history, others, like the American Mathew B. Brady borrowed from the conventions of painting. In his studio portraiture, Brady drew on lighting and compositional devices from earlier traditions, as the close resemblance between his hand-colored 1858 photograph Mr. Braithewaite and Ingres’ 1815 painting Joseph-Antoine de Nogent makes clear (see Fig. 8).

The provocative combinations that animate the installation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art extend into the galleries of twentieth-century painting. In a display of early modernism, Charles Sheeler’s Upper Deck of 1929 (Fig. 9) hangs between a surrealist still life by Pablo Picasso, Plaster Head and Bowl of Fruit of 1933 (see Fig. 7), and a cubist accumulation of spheres, cones, and cylinders by Fernand Léger, The Wounded Man of 1917 (on loan from the Isabelle and Scott Black Collection). At first glance, Sheeler’s quintessentially precisionist composition would seem to share little with the two French paintings. But as with the Harnett, Homer, and Ingres discussed above, a closer look reveals unexpected connections. Devoid of any human presence, Sheeler’s machine age view has a slightly surrealist quality, and with its crisply delineated, simplified forms it evokes Léger’s cubist vision.

Fig. 4. George Washington by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), 1784 (Winthrop bequest), welcomes visitors to the Arts of the Atlantic World gallery.

Critics and scholars often describe the museum gallery as a space that brings works of art into conversation. In the new Harvard Art Museums, this conversation is filled with spirited turns and animated by a range of accents. Now that the paint is dry and the galleries are open, it is up to the community of collectors, scholars, students, and lovers of American art to assess the merits of the museums’ integrated, transnational approach and to tease out the new arguments, ideas, and ways of seeing that this approach has the potential to open.

ETHAN W. LASSER is the Margaret S. Winthrop Associate Curator of American Art at the Harvard Art Museums.