Collection of paintings at Frick spans the 19th century
“An American Odyssey: The Warner Collection of American Painting,” opening March 1 at the Frick Art Museum, offers visitors an opportunity to step back into a century's worth of American art.
The 50 paintings, which span the entire 19th century and then some, have been selected from the collection of Alabama businessman and philanthropist Jonathan “Jack” Warner, former CEO of Gulf States Paper Corp. and the founder of the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art.
“It's not really fair to call it a survey of 100 years of American painting because it's a private collection, and as a private collection, it reflects the tastes of the collector more than trying to teach art history through a linear progression of paintings,” says Sarah Hall, director of curatorial affairs at the Frick Art Museum. “But it does work very nicely as a 100-year span of (American) art history.”
That span begins with an undated early landscape by Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), one of the first American artists to concentrate exclusively on landscape painting; a miniature watercolor on ivory portrait of George Washington, from around 1820, by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), who famously painted our nation's first president numerous times throughout his career; and a portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Charles Peale Polk (1767-1822) from 1799, the earliest dated work in the exhibit.
“Stuart made Washington his career, he was his official portrait artist,” Hall says. “He took the grand tradition of portraiture he studied in Britain and applied it to Washington, even in this small scale.”
The Polk portrait, with its sharp lines and stiff representation of Jefferson, is a “quintessential example of early American portraiture,” Hall says.
The Peale family, led by Polk's uncle, Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827), was the royal family of American portrait painting in the 18th and 19th centuries, and a lot of the children were artists, entrepreneurs and inventors.
There are several Peale family connections throughout the show, including the still-life “Arrangement of Grapes” (1829) by James Peale (1749-1831), who was Charles Willson Peale's brother.
Hall says visitors may be surprised to learn that there's a really strong Hudson River School component to this exhibit.
“This was part of the entire Romantic movement that was also going on in Europe at the time,” she says. “So, you have the grand wilderness presented in this monumental way.”
The exhibition features 18 canvases by artists associated with the Hudson River School, including three by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), widely considered the father of the genre.
“Coming from this Romantic tradition, he really uses landscape in a metaphorical way, this whole idea that one can have a connection to God through nature,” Hall says, pointing to Cole's “Catskill Mountain House” (c. 1845-47), which depicts a mountainside in a blaze of autumnal colors beneath the iconic Catskill Mountain House hotel perched on its summit.
Next to that painting hangs a small but grand landscape by Frederic Church, and beyond them, works by Thomas Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910), Jasper Cropsey (1823-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), among other notable members of the Hudson River School.
Hall is quick to point a painting by Daniel Huntington (1816-1906) that should be of local interest to many. Titled “George Washington and Christopher Gist Crossing the Allegheny River,” it was painted around 1840 to commemorate Washington's crossing of the Allegheny River in December 1753, “around where the 40th Street Bridge is now,” Hall says.
In the picture, Washington is on a makeshift raft with Gist (1705-1759), an accomplished explorer, surveyor and frontiersman who served as a guide for the young colonel during the French and Indian War.
As legend goes, Gist and Washington hit ice while attempting to cross, and Washington fell into the water. Gist managed to pull Washington back onto the raft, and the two made it to Herr's Island (renamed Washington's Landing in 1987), where they spent the night huddled by a fire. The next morning, the river had frozen over, so the pair could cross the rest on foot.
“The father of our country almost drowned, and Gist saved him,” Hall says. “It's a great picture for Pittsburghers to see.”
The mid-19th century is represented in two sumptuous, not to mention massive, still-life paintings by Severin Roesen (c. 1815-1872) from the 1860s, as well as more sentimental works like “The Sewing Party” (1857) by Louis Lang (1814-1893), which captures the golden, optimistic spirit of the antebellum years, with women, children and a few men gathered around a shaded veranda to engage in conversation, sewing and games.
From there, the exhibit takes on a more exploratory tone, with the works of artists like William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910). The latter is famous for chronicling the Civil War years for Harper's Weekly. However, here, five works by Homer from the 1880s are a real treat, showcasing his adeptness in a variety of media, including charcoal, watercolor and oil, and illustrating this artist's remarkable range and considerable talent.
The show culminates with works by several American Impressionists, including Childe Hassam (1859-1935), Maurice Brazil Prendergast (1858-1924), Theodore Robinson (1852-1896) and John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902). Another treat for locals are four delightful drypoint and aquatint etchings of mothers and children by North Side-born Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), who famously left Pittsburgh for Paris and never looked back.
“The Mary Cassatt prints are so sweet and intimate,” Hall says. “And the fact that she was born in Pittsburgh is something I think many visitors will appreciate.”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.