A Sense of Place: American art and the Seattle Art Museum

On rare occasions during Fuller’s extraordinary forty-year tenure, from 1933 to 1973, works by historical American artists crept into the collection without fanfare, generally as gifts. These comprised a fairly lackluster group until 1965, when Frederic Edwin Church’s early masterwork, A Country Home (Fig. 3), came to the museum as a surprise gift of Mrs. Paul C. Carmichael of Seattle, a woman who was then, and remains still, unknown to anyone in the circle of art patrons in the city. This magnificent canvas had been in her family since it was acquired, probably directly from Church, sometime after it was the centerpiece of the annual spring exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1854.1 A Country Home was widely acclaimed by critics in Church’s day as the artist’s first great success, and it represented the consummation of his early efforts to establish himself as the rightful successor to Thomas Cole (1801–1848) as this country’s greatest painter of American scenery. Fuller expressed some uncertainty about adding the painting to the collection—Church was hardly the household name in 1965 that he is now. He nevertheless made the decision to retain it for the collection, and with it openly expressed a desire to consider building the museum’s holdings in nineteenth-century American landscape painting.

Fuller’s mild enthusiasm for nineteenth-century American landscape painting notwithstanding, another twenty years would pass before the museum actively began to pursue acquisitions in this area. It was only in 1987, through the fund-raising efforts of a small group of enthusiasts and museum supporters spurred on by the American art collectors Tom and Ann Barwick, that the Seattle Art Museum began in earnest to collect historical American art reflective of the arts outside the Pacific Northwest. Yet, that first important purchase in this area—a Japanese inspired window by John La Farge (Fig. 5)—fit perfectly, programmatically speaking, into the museum’s core collection of Asian arts, even if there was little else in Seattle to which it related. That would soon change.

After 1987 new patrons rallied to make important acquisitions of American art possible for the museum. Significantly, the interest in American art built outside the museum first, and that in turn led to institutional collecting, when in many other places the dynamic has been quite the opposite, with museum holdings inspiring individual collectors. Seattle’s initial, all-important purchases of nineteenth-century American paintings were all public-sponsored, and, perhaps not surprisingly, they were all of regional interest and reflective of civic pride. In 1989 the museum acquired the romantic Smoky Sunrise, Astoria Harbor (Fig. 2) by the nineteenth-century Oregon artist Cleveland Rockwell, a figure still little known and rarely seen outside the Pacific Northwest. A year later the Barwicks helped make possible the purchase of Sanford Robinson Gifford’s magnificent late work Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma—Puget Sound (Fig. 8), a product of his summer travels to the region in 1874. In 2000 the museum made another major purchase of a great American painting depicting a local subject—Albert Bierstadt’s monumental 1870 canvas Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast (Fig. 1), certainly not a fully truthful depiction of the topography, but the artist’s earnest tribute to the ancient indigenous mariners who plied these waters and inhabited these lands.

With these acquisitions the need for an American art collection that could represent more than just the region’s surpassing physical beauty became apparent, and major works of American art entered the museum with ever greater frequency. The Barwicks donated the luminous Narragansett Bay of 1861 by John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872) in 2001, and that same year, to honor the scholarship of then deputy director Trevor Fairbrother, the museum acquired John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Léon Delafosse(Fig. 6), the artist’s tribute to a young pianist friend. Purchases made since 2004 have included an early cast of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s elegiac bronze, Amor Caritas (Fig. 7), this example created as a memorial to the Bostonian Nancy Legge Wood Hooper, who died in 1898. Paul Manship—a leading figure of the art deco period who was not represented in the modern American sculpture collection that Fuller and his sister built in the 1930s—entered the collection just this year with the 1921 bronze Spear Thrower (Fig. 12).

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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