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

In 2006 the museum saw its most ambitious purchase to date of a historical American work: John Singleton Copley’s engaging likeness of Dr. Silvester Gardiner,probably painted in 1772 (Fig. 9). Arguably the most significant work by the colonial painter still in private hands, the Gardiner portrait was acquired directly from the subject’s family. With his winsome expression, Gardiner is an appealing figure. One of the most learned men in Boston, he was a physician who made a fortune as a merchant and land developer. Copley knew him well and let the amusement in his friend’s eyes speak for the man’s character. Though not pictured, the portrait retains its original rococo style frame carved by John Welch (1711–1789).

A group of museum patrons—all significant American art collectors, who now comprise a very influential force in Seattle—made possible the establishment of an American art department at the museum in 2004, thus ensuring that the collection and the exhibitions and scholarly programs would continue to grow. Their support signaled that the city’s unsurpassed private collections would now play an important role in the presentation of American art. The culmination of the museum’s recent building program has been the overwhelming outpouring from collectors and donors who have given or pledged works to the permanent collection in honor of the museum’s seventy-fifth anniversary.

Among the highlights of the pledged and promised gifts are two works by Theodore Robinson, whose irrepressible inclinations toward experimentation led him to seek the experience of French impressionism firsthand through Claude Monet. Robinson befriended Monet during an extended stay in Giverny in the late 1880s, and his informal drawing of the older artist is a record of their friendship (Fig. 11). When Robinson returned home to New York in 1892, after another extended period in France, he faced his native land with a fervent desire to rediscover and celebrate it. The subject of On the Canal (Fig. 10) of 1893 might seem to be the French countryside, but in fact it is a view on the Delaware and Hudson Canal at Port Ben, near Napanoch, New York.

For John Twachtman the intense focus that attended the study of landscape and light in its ever-changing complexity led to bold and intuitive experiments in color and form, especially when he brought his meditative scrutiny to bear on a favorite corner of the natural world: the hemlock grove and pool that graced his Connecticut farm property. Twachtman painted aspects of the quiet wooded glade time and again, but never in such a cursory and wholly suggestive manner as in the small intimate canvas that has come to the museum (Fig. 15). This is possibly the work entitled Hemlock Pool (Autumn) that Twachtman submitted to the 1894 winter exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Though it was awarded the gold medal as the best painting in the show by a small jury of artists, the painting was largely considered an outrage—“A thing of shreds and patches,” one critic declared; “Hardly a picture,” was how another dismissed it.2

Willard Leroy Metcalf’s Cornish Hills (Fig. 13) arguably stands as the centerpiece of his career, a large painting made in an exceptional season of work, in 1911, at the artists’ enclave of Cornish, New Hampshire. In the snow-covered hills there he discovered the beauty of the winter landscape, a landscape reduced to a few solid forms, so different from the soft tapestries of spring and autumn. The stillness of winter engaged Metcalf’s spiritual side, bringing a deeply meditative presence to his work.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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