THE CORCORAN GALLERY OF ART:'THE AMERICAN COLLECTION'
Lecture at the Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, FL given at the time of the Corcoran exhibit: "Encouraging American Genius". Sunday, February 25, 2007
Director, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1972-77.
Let me begin by saying what my lecture is: a talk that I have never given before, as for the first time I am talking on the Corcoran, it's founder, his gallery and collection with my reminisces as director 35 years ago. I will mention works in the current exhibition as part of the presentation but the exhibition, wall texts and labels speak volumes, as do the paintings. Following my talk I will be available in the galleries of the Corcoran exhibit.
“Encouraging American Genius; Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art” is an exhibition that offers the opportunity to see the development of American painting and the growth of our nation. Last Sunday, in the St. Pete Times, the critic Lennie Bennett wrote an article titled “The Coming of Age of America”. She stated that “a heady exhibition in Sarasota documents how artists shed at European influences and declared their independence.” Wander through these galleries, read the texts and labels, look at the paintings and you will learn much about our culture and country. However, this opportunity did not exist 35 years ago, so I will start by reading from a letter that shows how times have changed.
Last year, my wife and I were staying for a long Memorial weekend at our cottage on Shelter Island, New York. My wife Agnes was reading the local paper and noticed an advertisement for a Corcoran exhibit, illustrated with a painting by Edward Hopper. This touring exhibition was entitled “Encouraging the American Genius. I was surprised as I knew the work well. The exhibit was opening later that week at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton. I phoned Trudy Kramer, the director and friend, arranging a visit while the final installation took place. Knowing how busy Trudy would be, I wrote the following letter.
Dear Trudy, In 1972, when appointed director of the Corcoran, I took a comprehensive tour of the entire gallery. In closed and boarded galleries, paintings were stacked haphazardly against the walls, abandoned and forgotten. Even worse more paintings were in the basement, damp and dank, with sculptures lying around, partially hidden by sacking. These neglected and forsaken works, many masterpieces, were of American Art of the 19th and early 20th century. At that time in 1972, there was neither interest in nor knowledge of that art. Nevertheless, I made the decision to reinstall the works in the reopened galleries where the paintings were hung chronologically and named ‘The American Collection’ in 1974.
The reasons that these works have been neglected are complex for as John Le Carre wrote in 1968, “That’s the trouble with Americans isn't it really? All that emphasis is on the future. So dangerous. It makes them destructive of the present.”
I took this letter with me to Trudy at the Parrish Art Museum when I saw the current exhibition last May. Naturally the Museum staff from the Parrish and Corcoran had no idea of what it happened in the early 70s. Institutional memory seems nonexistent or neglected with history constantly being revisited and rewritten. Nowadays, thankfully, these masterpieces are cherished and celebrated as national treasures of our history and culture.
Sarah Cash, curator of American painting at the Corcoran, wrote to me to say that Trudy had read from my letter on the opening night to the exhibition. Sarah went on to say that it “was enlightening to read your recollections of encountering our American paintings and sculpture in the 1970s and you will be happy to know that we plan to install extensive permanent collection galleries to once again feature these masterworks.”
Today, you have the opportunity to see these master paintings in an installation that is sparkling. The Ulla Searing Galleries are spacious and elegant showing off these works to perfection, enjoy.
William Wilson Corcoran was born in 1798 in Georgetown. His Irish father was the mayor. William Wilson became a businessman, financier, banker, philanthropist and patron. When he died in 1888, newspapers stated that “no other name except that which the capital bears, no other memory except that of the father of our republic, are so dear to the hearts of the people of this city.”
William Wilson Corcoran made significant contributions to the capital city as he founded the first Art Gallery and also gave money to the Smithsonian and funds to complete the Washington Monument. The original plan that was to have a portico with a statue of George Washington in a Roman chariot but as Corcoran said “the friends of the chimney prevailed” and the obelisk was built.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is the third art gallery in our nation and the first in its capita. The present building was inaugurated in 1897 and was designed by Earnest Flagg. The frieze surrounding the top of the building has carved names of distinguished and famous artists a “who's who of art”. However, amongst these many distinguished names from Leonardo to Michelangelo is the name Washington Allston. He was an American painter but hardly worthy of being in such distinguished company? The frieze became known as "The who's who of art and who is Allston?!"
The life of the founder is full of interest: his early days in Georgetown, his elopement, banking success, the founding of his gallery and his many civic activities. From paintings and photographs, he appears to have been a handsome man; even in old age with white hair and mustache, he had an upright stance and striking appearance. His love of women is well-known with numerous beauties visiting the gallery in his company. In his time, Corcoran knew that the gallery would need federal financial assistance, but to this day, no regular funds have been forthcoming.
The original Corcoran building of 1859 was designed by James Renwick. Due to the Civil War, the building did not open until 1871 and the gallery was inaugurated in 1874. Over the doors is the phrase “Dedicated to Art” carved along with the initials of the founder “WWC”. Now the Renwick Gallery is part of the Smithsonian institution. When the gallery opened hundreds of invited guests visited the fine collections of paintings and statuary. In the main salon, European paintings were hung with those of American artists including a magnificent portrait of the founder.
Corcoran considered his prize acquisition to be Hiram Powers’ “The Greek Slave” a marble carved in 1846. The original sculpture had won instant acclaim at the Great Exposition of 1851 in London's Crystal Palace. Corcoran acquired the first of five replicas executed by Powers, but was concerned over the value of his acquisition for which he paid $5,000. Reassured by friends and experts, he never again expressed doubts and “The Greek Slave” became evidence of his great appreciation and love of art. Placed on view in his house for the first time in December 1851 the nude figure shocked many of the guests at his annual Christmas party. This dismay with soon overcome when all the partygoers agreed with one gentleman's comment that Mr. Corcoran was a righteous man and a true critic of art, who would never purchase a work of art that was an inferior quality or in poor taste.
At a time when American patrons were purchasing German and French art, Corcoran was one of the few collectors who extensively supported living American artists. When Corcoran died in 1888 at the age of 89 he was recognized throughout the country as a great benefactor. In the fine arts, William Wilson Corcoran was among the first to promote and encourage “the American Genius”.
In 1891, after his death, trustees decided to acquire land for a new gallery and the original plans were of classical grandeur resplendent with statuary, as was the eventual building designed by Flagg. With ample facilities for gallery and schools, the building located across from the White House, was inaugurated in 1897.
The Corcoran Gallery and School are is located in the center on the nation's capital. Mr. Corcoran had three buildings surrounding the White House. He helped to found the Riggs National Bank on one corner and across Lafayette Park was built the first Corcoran Gallery, now the Renwick Gallery. The present building of 1897 is located on the third corner at New York Avenue and 17thStreet across from the White House. Of course this central location now poses many problems for parking, access and security. From the beginning William Wilson Corcoran had a profound and obvious influence on the nation's capital.
I was born in Wales in 1933. From an early age, I played as a cowboy and had fantasies of coming to America. Growing up as a Blitz Kid, I had seen the colored images from American comics brought over by GI soldiers. After graduating from Cardiff College of Art and the University of Wales, with degrees in painting and are teaching, I served for two years in the British army during the Malaysia campaign. After teaching in Wales and England, I was appointed, in 1964, to the staff at Leeds College of Art, becoming director of postgraduate studies.
In 1967 I came to the Corcoran School of Art as an exchange professor and Fulbright Hayes scholar. The experiences I had the first year in America are another story which is was included in a published article in ‘Studio International’ April 1968, entitled “Up the American vanishing point”. At that time, studio art education in this country’s school was academic and abysmal. As a result I was asked to lecture from the coast-to-coast giving 50 lectures in 35 weeks on British art education and British art.
Over the years the Corcoran was governed by nine trustees who met annually at Metropolitan club. From 1873 until 1968, the art gallery had only five directors. The trustees decided to reorganize the Corcoran appointing a chief executive officer over the director of the gallery and dean of the school. From 1968 to 1972, in four years, the Corcoran had two CEO’s and five directors! Bill Williams retired in 1968 after 21 years, then there were Harithas, Hopps, Baro and me!
I had been made Dean of the school in 1970. Obviously, the Corcoran’s administrative structure was fraught with difficulties and tension which escalated into a public fistfight at a black-tie opening. The chief executive officer, Vincent Melzac, struck the director, Gene Baro, in the face, cutting open a wound with his ring. Baro made the mistake of having a photograph taken which was then published in the New York Times and Newsweek. The photograph of the bloody director was stark evidence that not all was well at the Corcoran. The chairman of the board said to Mr. Baro, “you have brought dishonor on my house”. Both Melzac and Baro were fired and, in November 1972, I was appointed director of the gallery. By working hard with trustees, staff and volunteers of the Corcoran, I helped to restore morale, fiscal stability and the reputation of the Corcoran Gallery and School by the time I left in 1977.
As I have said, when appointed director, I toured the galleries and found masterworks, both paintings and sculpture, laying in storage, neglected and abandoned. In 1974, with an NEA grant, the paintings and sculptures were installed chronologically in 12 galleries, previously boarded-up. These galleries were of beautiful proportion with wooden floors, gorgeous ceilings and mutated skylights, an elegant setting for Mr. Corcoran's collection. The installation was called “The American Collection” and I was hailed as “an American scholar” by the New York Times. I knew little about American Art of that time but as Bill Williams told me, “few people do”!
Much was written on the installation. My favorite quote is from the critic Frank Getlein who said, “It is all at the Corcoran and if you are an American you have to go there to begin to understand yourself. But what ever you are, the Corcoran's collection is the best readily available summary of a new country, a new mind, new vision…..”
“The single great distinctive landscape at the Corcoran is Frederick Church’s Niagara” he wrote. “Better than any other, this painting sums up the American feeling about the American landscape”. During the 19th century, philosophers and poets wrote off the ‘sublime’ landscape. Painters sought to convey on canvas a ‘divine’ presence in nature. The painting “Niagara” by Frederick Church was done 1857 and acquired by a William Wilson Corcoran in 1876. When first shown in it’s 1857 debut at a ticketed exhibition presented in New York City, “Niagara” lured100,000 visitors to glimpse what one newspaper described as “the finest oil painter picture ever painted on the side of the Atlantic. Critics and the public marveled at the picture’s grand scale, fine detail and especially its illusion of reality. Church eliminated any suggestion of a foreground, allowing the viewer to experience the scene as if precariously perched on the brink of the falls. The water seems to cascade towards the viewer. As one writer enthusiastically noted, “this is Niagara with the roar left out". Church secured his reputation with this great painting and its acquisition by the Corcoran was important for the young museum and inspired other major artist to seek representation in the collection.
At Tampa Museum of Art, through April 1, 2007, is an exhibition from the Cooper Hewitt Museum. “Frederick Church, Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran: tourism and the American landscape" is a lengthy and cumbersome title for a gem of an exhibit. The sketches and works on paper of the vanishing world created a national craze to visit these areas from the Catskills to Niagara to the Grand Canyon. As ever, the artists led the way and opened the eyes of others. The sketches are of particular interest where artists make brevity of line and gesture translate into abstraction.
The painting “Niagara” also brought developers, hustlers and tourists. From 50,000 tourists in 1850 the visitors grew to 1,000,000 in 1900. The work was shown in Paris at the1867 Exposition Universelle where it created a sensation, as does the painting for us today, 150 years later.
Another sensational painting is “Mount Corcoran” 1876 by Albert Bierstadt. The opening up of the West became a source of fascination for Americans and Bierstadt’s dramatic landscapes of the region commanded the highest prices in any works of art by an American at that time. “Mount Corcoran” is a composite of impressive sights the painter saw in 1857 while traveling in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Of course, the founder had little choice but to purchase this work of art which was named for him. Although there was argument at the time although whether that such a mountain existed, there is no doubt that in 1937 Mount Corcoran is clearly shown on a government map. Like Church’s “Niagara”’, the work envelops us the foreground tumbles towards the viewer with the crystal clear lake, majestic trees and towering mountings reflecting the grandeur of nature and ambition of the artist.
Albert Bierstadt is “The Last of the Buffalo” 1888 was a gift of Bierstadt’s widow in 1909 and this painting reflects the opening up of the West. The work is vast in scale and reminds me of a German friend, visiting for the first time, saying, “The sky is bigger in America”. The painting, “Impending Storm The Buffalo Trail” is smaller in size but has a grand feeling of nature and landscape.
After the “American Collection” was installed, President Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn visited at the time of a women's rally. As he was about to walk back to the White House, I asked if he would like to the see the collection. The president turned to Rosalyn and said, “Do we have time before dinner?” She said yes and so we scrambled up the back stairs through studios into the upper galleries. President knew great a deal about American painting of that time for, when he governor of Georgia, he had installed many works in the Governor's mansion. When the Secret Service caught up with us, Jimmy Carter was asked, “Mr. President is everything all right?” The President replied, “I am taking the president of the director of the Corcoran on a tour of his gallery.”
When Gerald Ford became President, he gave a speech early in his tenure to Vietnam Veterans. The day before, I received an urgent call from the White House to borrow Healey's portrait of Abraham Lincoln 1860. I gained permission from the Chairman of the Board and the curators carried the painting across the lawns to the White House where it was hung in the library next to the Oval Office. That night, in a dramatic speech to the nation on television, President Ford pointed to the painting and said that, “He was not the first president to face a nation divided over a civil war.”
Sculpture was important within the Corcoran’s collection from the beginning with statuary and bronzes. Amongst famous works are sculptures by Frederic Remington, Paul Manship, Elie Nadleman and many others. These are not on view here at the Ringling but the paintings reflect our founding and growth as a nation.
In 1967 when I arrived in Washington, DC, I was bitterly disappointed as I had expected to see great museums of modern and cotemporary art throughout the capital. Yet little if anything was evident in the nation's capital, at that time considered a sleepy Southern town. Although “Rome was not built in a day”, within a decade Washington, DC, emerged as a cultural capital. The opening of the National Gallery’s East Wing; the Kennedy Center; the Hirshhorn Gallery; NCFA; Arena Stage; the Air Space Museum and much else joined the Corcoran and Phillips collection in a celebration and recognition of American arts and culture. To paraphrase John F Kennedy, civilizations are judged by their culture.
In 1976, the bicentennial was celebrated throughout the nation, bringing recognition and praise to our artists and the arts, At the Corcoran a huge flag stretched across the building’s façade and continued in the grand staircase. This work by a Washington artist, Mimi Herbert, was a fitting tribute as was the exhibition on the founder. The celebration of our founder, William Wilson Corcoran, seemed most appropriate as he had stated his desire, through the gallery and school, “to promote and encourage the American genius”. In 1976 growing recognition and praise came to American art, including that of the 19th century, and our nation's capital became a cultural capital.
During the bicentennial, many exhibitions occurred, including the Museum of Modern Art's exhibition and catalog “The Natural Paradise”. After two visits from Richard Oldenburg, director of MOMA, I agreed to loan Church’s “Niagara”, if the painting was used as the cover of the catalog and poster. The Museum of Modern Art agreed and recognized the importance of 19th century American painting by using “Niagara” on the cover of their catalog, “The Natural Paradise: Painting in America 1800-1950.” I thought that it most appropriate that this long overlooked and neglected painting “Niagara” should be now celebrated. The ambition of scale of this work and its grandeur was a prelude to the modern American painters: Still; Frankenthaler; Rothko; Newman; Frankenthaler; Pollock and many more.
The exhibition “Encouraging American Genius” that you about to view at the Ringling Museum is beautifully installed in a sparkling presentation. The wall texts and labels are most informative. The exhibition was curated by Corcoran’s curator of American painting, Sarah Cash in collaboration with associate curator, Emily Shapiro. As you view the paintings in the galleries, please read the texts, particularly those that describe the various groupings:
-American Art of the Colonial and Federal periods
-Natural wonders: The dawn of American Landscape Painting
-Pictures of the people: The rise of American Genre Painting
-Late 19th century Landscape Painting
-Post-Civil War Pluralism: Later 19th century Genre and Still Life Painting c
-Cultural Crosscurrents: American Impressionism and the Expatriate Painters t
-The Gilded Cage: Images of Women, 1875
-1925 -Art for a new Century: The Eighth and the Fourteenth Street School
-Between the Wars: The Emergence of American of modernism
As I said at the beginning of the lecture, I am only talking about certain works and reminisces. The labels and texts will give you a comprehensive understanding of the paintings in the exhibition.
The painting, ”Young Girl at a Window” c1883-85 by Mary Cassatt is important as Cassatt was the first American to associate with the French Impressionists and was the only one invited to exhibit with the group. “Young Girl at a Window” showcases the obvious mastery of impressionistic techniques. Although the painting is Impressionistic, the work fits well within the group of images of women called “The Gilded Cage”. I remember doing a similar grouping in 1974, as these works reflected tranquil and genteel women in interiors at the turn of the century, yet how those times and attitudes have changed.
This painting by Cassatt was purchased from the Corcoran Biennial an exhibition of contemporary American painting, the first exhibition opened in 1907, its purpose ‘to promote and encourage’ American art. Paintings were purchased from the Biennial throughout the years and were recently recognized in an exhibition and publication “Corcoran Collects”.
The painting by my Marsden Hartley “Berlin Abstraction” 1914 is our first mention and viewing of abstraction, which was to dominate the Twentieth Century, particularly the work of America's Abstract Expressionists. One of the last works from the Corcoran Collection in the exhibition is Edward Hopper’s “Groundswell” 1939, painted just before the war. Although this work is stylistically different from Church and Bierstadt, being more formal and simplified, within the painting there is a space and tranquility confirming that grandeur and vastness of America.
Although the exhibition “Encouraging American Genius” deals with the 19th and early 20th century there is much more to appreciate and understand particularly in the Corcoran’s ongoing support of contemporary art. I would like to show a few images and discuss the work of contemporary artists that I showed when director. Hopefully, contemporary American art will be introduced and shown here in the new galleries of the Ringling in these coming years.
Helen Frankenthaler’s painting “Nature Abhors a Vacuum” 1973 was included in the exhibition “Helen Frankenthaler 1969-1974”. The exhibition was organized by Gene Baro who I invited to work with me on the installation and catalog. The painting gives a suggestion of horizon, landscape, sea, sky in a glorious and colorful abstraction, like a visual music, an orchestration of space.
Color and gesture becomes pure abstraction in Sam Gilliam’s hanging canvas, “Light Depth” 1969, a Corcoran museum purchase. Sam is a friend and a Washington artist who was recently recognized in at a major retrospective exhibition and catalog. I included Sam Gilliam in the Corcoran biennial of 1975 where he showed the hanging canvas “3 Panels for Mr. Robeson”.
As director, I organized the 1975 Corcoran Biennial, selecting 50 painters, each to show one work. 25 established painters such as Warhol; Diebenkorn; Indiana; de Kooning; Motherwell; Olitski; Noland were invited along with 25 emerging artists such as Sam Gilliam. Also included was the painter Joan Snyder with “Greek Square” 1974, her work was acquired from the Biennial and, again, is a joyous abstraction of geometry and gesture, color and creativity.
William Christenberry is another dear friend and the photograph “$.31 gasoline sign, Albama”1964 is show not only as a recognition of his work as an artist but also to emphasize the fact that the Corcoran has encouraged and supported Washington artists and, also, photography, evident during my tenure as director.
For the 1975 Biennial, I invited the Washington painter Gene Davis to create a work for the rotunda. “Magic Circle”, painted on the walls of the rotunda, surrounded the viewer with colors and stripes that vibrated visually like musical chords in a painterly orchestration.
Another friend and Washington artist was Robert Stackhouse who was included, with other artists, in the Bicentennial show and catalog “The Corcoran and Washington Art”. Three years earlier, in 1973, I invited Bob Stackhouse to do an on-site installation in the Corcoran Gallery. On the atrium bridge, he built “Sleeping King Ascending” a wooden sculpture 40 feet wide, 20 feet high, yet only 4 inches deep. This impressive and towering work continued the tradition of contemporary sculptural installations at the Corcoran, notably those in 1967, Ronnie Bladen's “X” and Tony Smith's “Smoke”. Bob Stackhouse, a graduate of the USF, is back in St. Petersburg working with Carol Mickett in their studio. I welcome him here today.
As Bob said to me, on going through these new and glorious galleries of the Ringling, “This is like being in the Metropolitan”. These final slides are of these galleries and the Corcoran exhibition that you are about to see. Since its founding, the Ringling has long been associated with European art, now with “Encouraging American Genius” we have an unequaled introduction to American art. Wander through the galleries, read the texts and labels, most of all view the paintings, enjoy and appreciate these masterworks. We must also acknowledge the new Ringling with it’s transformation over the past few years thanks to the support of the State; FSU; and donors and the efforts of the director John Wettenhal.
Now is your opportunity to see the exhibition, realizing that these works were abandoned and neglected 35 years ago, when as director, I saw them for the first time. These artists opened up our eyes and documented the opening up of the West and of our natural wonders; hear the roar of Niagara! These painters show an ambition of scale, for the sky is bigger in America, and the grandeur of place and gesture that was to impress and influence the artists and abstraction of the 1960s. Look again, celebrate as viewers, patrons, professionals, donors, students and, in so doing, you join Mabel and John Ringling and William Wilson Corcoran in celebrating and encouraging American genius!
A few of the 40 sldes shown in the Cocoran lecture.....
-drawing of W W Corcoran 1798-1888
-Hiriam Powers 'The Greek Slave' 1846
-Albert Bierstadt 'Mt. Corcoran' 1875/6
-MOMA catalog with Church's' Niagara Falls' 1857
-Edward Hopper 'Ground Swell' 1939