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

The late Gwendolyn Knight and her husband Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) settled in Seattle in 1971, but their respective painting careers were forged in Harlem. Though Seattle has long focused on and celebrated the years when the two lived and worked there, the museum now has a work that makes reference to their formative years—Augusta Savage’s plaster bust of the young Knight (Fig. 16). Although her training had been solidly in the classical tradition, Savage invested her work with a particular feeling for individualization. Knight was a stunning beauty, tall and graceful. But it was her reserve, thoughtfulness, and introspection—qualities made manifest in this bust—that truly impressed her friends.

The developing American art collection at the Seattle Art Museum is truly a reflection of place. For much of its long history, the museum accepted that historical American art might be better understood in the context of the cities where that art was created, the cities that were the country’s major early art centers—New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Seattle’s art history was different and separate from the historical narrative that was centered on the country’s eastern seaboard, at least as far as Richard Fuller was concerned. But the new enthusiasm for American art that has been building in Seattle over the past twenty years underscores how much the city itself has changed very recently. The unprecedented influx of new residents from all over the country has altered the way the museum’s visitors think about their cultural touchstones. Bostonian Copley and New Yorker Hopper are as resonant in Seattle now as are the works of Tobey and Graves. Where one man’s vision—Fuller’s—once shaped the museum’s presentation of artistic achievement, now a large population of collectors and supporters has spurred the growth of diverse collections, American art included. Today the strength of that collection is not measured wholly by the extraordinary works of art that have entered the building thus far—the number of accessioned works of American art is still quite small. The strength of Seattle’s American art program is more accurately seen in the opportunities that this museum has to bring to the public major works from collections that are still building in this city among those who see American art, not as an expression of any one part of the country or any one people but as a worthy representation of our broad cultural diversity.

1 According to the donor, in whose family the painting descended, it was probably acquired by her great-grandfather General Joseph Gardner Swift (1783–1865); by 1862, when it was shown at the Third Annual Exhibition of the Artist’s Fund Society of New York, it was owned by Swift’s son-in-law Peter Richards Jr.

2 December 1894 reviews quoted in Lisa N. Peters, John Twachtman (1853–1902): A Painter’s Painter (Spanierman Gallery, New York, 2006), p. 67.

3 Marsden Hartley, Adventures in the Arts: Informal Chapters on Painters, Vaudeville, and Poets (Boni and Liveright, New York, 1921), p. 116.

4 See Barbara Buhler Lynes with Russell Bowman, O’Keeffe’s O’Keeffes: The Artist’s Collection (Milwaukee Art Museum, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and Thames and Hudson, New York, 2001), pp. 58, 60.

PATRICIA JUNKER is the Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum.

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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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