Art for the Great Estates: The Bruce Museum's First Decade
"Art for the Great Estates: The Bruce Museum's First Decade" illuminates the early history of the Bruce Museum, the marketing of contemporary art at the time, and the genteel taste of wealthy patrons in the years surrounding World War I. On view from March 3, 2001, through May 27, 2001, this exhibition brings back to the Bruce some of the outstanding paintings and sculptures first shown there between 1912 and about 1922. Working with the checklists of the Greenwich Society of Artists' exhibitions, guest curator Susan Larkin has selected 27 paintings and 10 sculptures that were either shown at the Bruce Museum more than three-quarters of a century ago or are close to them in subject matter and date. Bruce Museum Curatorial Assistant Cynthia Drayton assisted Dr. Larkin with the show.
When textile merchant Robert Bruce left his home to the Town of Greenwich for use as a museum in 1909, he provided neither a collection nor the funds to acquire one. The building stood empty for three years. At about the same time, however, the Cos Cob art colony decided to reach out for local patronage. The art colony, which had thrived since 7890, initially held aloof from the wealthy newcomers who built great estates along the shore and on backcountry farms. Eventually, however, they recognized the new residents as potential patrons, and they organized in 1912 as the Greenwich Society of Artists. The organization changed its name in 1958 to the Greenwich Art Society, which survives to this day.
The artists converted a wing of the Bruce mansion into a gallery for the first exhibition of the Greenwich Society of Artists (GSA) in the autumn of 1912. That exhibition marked the first time the Bruce Museum opened its doors to the public. From that year until 1926, all of the art exhibitions at the Bruce were organized by the GSA. Beginning in 1914, the GSA invited nationally prominent artists who were not members of the Society to exhibit with them. As a result, they mounted impressive surveys of American Impressionist and realist painting and Beaux-Arts sculpture. (left: Henry Bill Selden, Landscape with Trees and Clouds, 1912, oil on canvas, 24 x 30 inches, The Fine Arts Collection of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspections and Insurance Company)
The works the artists selected to send to the Bruce reveal that they were targeting a genteel taste. Nudes were generally scarce; instead, images of beautiful women in comfortable homes or lush gardens were popular. The Violet Kimono by Robert Lewis Reid, depicting a woman arranging flowers in her boudoir, was first seen at the Bruce in 1919. It is on loan to this exhibition from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Frederick Carl Frieseke and Richard Emil (Edward) Miller, who were members of the second-generation art colony in Giverny, France, also sent paintings of lovely women, examples of which will be shown in Art for the Great Estates. Childe Hassam's painting, Spanish Ledges, also returns; it was originally shown at the Bruce in 1919 and depicts a view of the sea from the Isles of Shoals. The early exhibitions reflected Americans' growing confidence in their cultural heritage. Eanger Irving Couse's Hunting Wild Turkeys, depicting an Indian stalking the iconic American bird, returns to the Bruce for the first time in seventy-five years. (left: Eanger Irving Couse, Hunting Wild Turkeys, 1925, oil on canvas, 30 x 35 inches, Collection of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Indianapolis, IN)
Hermon Atkins MacNeil's sculptures of Native Americans, such as A Chief of the Multnomah Tribe, convey a nobility formerly reserved for figures from ancient Greece and Rome. Other sculptors implicitly invited commissions with the works they exhibited at the Bruce. Evelyn Beatrice Longman's lively portrait bust of a young woman demonstrated her ability to capture personality in a domestic-scale bronze. Many of the sculptures were well-suited to display in the gardens of a great estate; among those in this exhibition are Harriet Whitney Frishmuth's exuberant fountain figure, Joy of the Waters, Herbert Adams's graceful Nymph of Fynmere, and Edward McCartan's elegant Pan. (left: Harriet Whitney Frishmuth, Joy of the Waters, 1920, bronze, 42 inches high, The Fine Arts Collection of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspections and Insurance Company)
The Arts and Crafts movement was strong in the early twentieth century, and the GSA responded by adding a Crafts section to their annual exhibitions. In Art for the Great Estates, a pair of carved and painted wooden panels by Elmer Livingston MacRae, on loan from the Connecticut Historical Society, reflects the enduring taste for Japanese themes in the bold design of irises and cherry blossoms. In addition to mounting impressive temporary exhibitions, the local artists strove to establish a permanent collection for the then fledgling Bruce Museum. Landscape painter Leonard Ochtman, who settled in Greenwich in 1891, became the Museum's first art advisor.
Ochtman steadily reminded the public that any of the paintings in the GSA exhibitions could be purchased for the Museum as well as for themselves. Under his guidance, the Museum purchased eight American Impressionist paintings from the 1919 GSA exhibition. Those canvases, which include Emil Carlsen's Peonies, form the core of the Museum's art collection.
Art for the Great Estates complements related exhibitions and programs at the National Academy of Design in New York and the Bush-Holley Historic Site in Cos Cob. The Cos Cob Art Colony: Impressionists on the Connecticut Shore, also curated by Dr. Larkin, is on view at the National Academy of Design, on Fifth Avenue between 89fh and 90th Streets, until May 13, 2001. Most of the over sixty paintings, pastels, watercolors, and etchings in that exhibition were created in Greenwich and Cos Cob by artists including Childe Hassam, John Henry Twachtman, Theodore Robinson, and J. Alden Weir. The richly illustrated companion book of the same title, published by Yale University Press, is available in the Bruce Museum gift shop. At the Bush-Holley House, the favorite gathering place of the art colony during this time, several rooms have been reinstalled and reinterpreted to capture the atmosphere of that period. The historic site has a concurrent exhibition, The Cos Cob Art Colony at Bush Holley Historic Site, on view from March 14 through September 3, 2001. (left: Robert Spencer, Five O'Clock June, 1913, oil on canvas, 36 x 30 inches, Courtesy Richard and Mary Radcliffe)
This three-part, two-state collaboration is unprecedented for the participating institutions and related programs are being organized by the three institutions. An April 22 seminar entitled "Turn of the Century Tastes" will be held at the Bruce Museum and is co-sponsored with the Bush-Holley House Historic Site to complement the exhibitions Art for the Great Estates: The Bruce Museum's First Decade and The Cos Cob Art Colony at Bush-Holley House Historic Site.
The seminar presents three short talks by scholars, who will discuss various aspects of suburban life at the turn of the twentieth century. Kate Johnson speaks on "Turn of the Century Interiors," Eleanor Weller addresses "The Golden Age of American Gardens," and Prof. Kevin Murphy talks about "American Country Estates." Exhibition Curator Dr. Susan Larkin provides the introduction and moderates the discussion.
Underwriters of the exhibition are Connecticut Commission on the Arts, The Wrightson-Ramsing Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. David P. Agnew, Mr. and Mrs. John C. Armstrong, Mr. and Mrs. Edward H. Bragg, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. William W. Campbell, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. George Case, Mr. and Mrs. Richard P. Case, Mrs. Dorothy Cholnoky, Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel B. Day, Mr. and Mrs. Allan S. Kaplan, Mr. and Mrs. Bruce McLanahan, Mr. and Mrs. Stanford N. Phelps, Ms. Shelia Plaisance and Mr. Ted Graves, Mrs. Greta Pofcher, Dr. and Mrs. James S. Reibel, Mr. and Mrs. John A. Seel, Mr. and Mrs. Roy B. Simpson, Mr. and Mrs. Carl G. Sontheimer, Mr. and Mrs. John W. Watling III, Mr. and Mrs. John L. Weinberg, and Mr. and Mrs. Charles L. Zoubek.
Read more about the Bruce Museum in Resource Library Magazine.
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For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 5/23/11
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