Putting the “American” in American Art
April 14, 2011 by curatorialintern
Bryson Burroughs (1869-1934) worked as a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 28 years in the early 20th century. During his time at the Met, he was responsible for their massive increase in American art holdings, in addition to numerous other achievements including the first acquisition for a public collection of a work by Paul Cezanne (1839-1906). Burroughs’ curatorial decisions and influences were prominent in the advancement of the art market in the early 20th century. Interestingly, his ideas also had a major impact on the NBMAA’s decision to collect solely American art, with a focus on contemporary work.
The NBMAA (originally the New Britain Institute) was intended to be a place of learning for the new immigrant populations of the mid 1800s. In 1901, a new building was opened with the intentions of housing a 75,000 volume library, children’s room, historic room, and an art room which housed several portraits the institute had acquired. John Butler Talcott left a portion of his estate and financial assets to them with the instructions for purchasing “modern oil paintings.” Marcus White was one of the board members in charge of purchasing the art, and wrote to Burroughs who was newly appointed at the Met. His suggestion was to collect contemporary American art because no institution up until this time had dedicated their mission and vision entirely to this ideal. Burroughs’ professional opinion was taken into consideration, and, soon after, taken up as the NBMAA’s own collection philosophy. The NBMAA had at that time a sizeable endowment and significant purchaing power. However, instead of competing with larger institutions for the popular French Impressionist and Old Master artworks, the NBMAA focused on amassing a stellar collection of contemporary American artwork. By following this original path, the NBMAA has amassed an exceptional and encyclopedic collection the Colonial times to the Present.
Prodigal Son, 1933. Bryson Burroughs (1869-1934). Oil on canvas, dimensions. New Britain Museum of American Art, Gift of Caleb Woodhouse, 2004.64
Prodigal Son depicts an outdoor scene full of character, charisma, and life. The expressions of the woman and the man witnessing the little boy’s antics are both quizzical and playful. Burroughs’ brushwork gives definition and distinct textures to the various elements around each section of the painting and the sky and grassy fields have hints of white and light tones to emphasize the atmosphere of the painting. Burroughs developed this in a similar fashion toThomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), another painter who often depicted landscapes and similar outdoor scenes.
Burroughs certainly had the dual role of artist and curator, and these both come out in the historical and visual references of NBMAA. Without his guidance, the NBMAA might have easily become a very different establishment. Come and see how Burroughs’ career and inspiration has come full-circle in the world’s oldest American art museum!
NBMAA Highlights I & II catalogues