This post comes to us from Sara Cotter, Curatorial Intern.
Laura and David Grey began collecting American art in 2001, with the purchase of a maritime scene by the painter Mauritz Frederik de Haas from an auction. At the time, they had not intended to start a collection, but instead simply wished to own a painting they considered beautiful. That same sentiment has remained the center of their collecting philosophy as their holdings of American painting from mostly the latter half of the nineteenth century have steadily grown over the past eleven years. With the help of knowledgeable art dealers and others along the way, the Grey’s have successfully expanded their collection to include important and high-quality American paintings from pivotal moments in our nation’s history, at a time when there are few available on the art market.
The Grey Collection was first displayed at the New Britain Museum of American Art in 2007 in an exhibition titled Poetic Journey. This exhibition afforded the couple an opportunity to share with others the joy that their personal collection has brought to them over the years. It also allowed those lesser-known American artists represented in the exhibition, artists not often contained in major museum collections, to be more widely recognized and studied by those with a serious interest in this period of art. Poetic Journey Continued, which will be on view at the Museum from June 2nd until September 2nd, will bring on public view the twelve most recent additions to their collection. Several of the artworks exhibited in Poetic Journey Continued, such as those by Winslow Homer and David Johnson, complement and reinforce strengths in the Museum’s holdings. Others represent unique works for which the Museum currently has no parallel. All twelve will be interspersed throughout the Museum’s permanent galleries this summer.
In addition, several of the works on display represent unusual or transformative circumstances in their respective artist’s careers. Couple on the Shore, by Winslow Homer, for example, is one of only five surviving examples of the decorative tiles the artist produced while he was a member of the Tile Club, beginning in 1878. The piece is a divergence from the illustrations and paintings that the artist is primarily known for, and it also marks the beginning of the transition into the later phase of the artist’s career. Only a few short years after he produced Couple on the Shore, Homer retreated first to a small fishing village in England, and eventually to Prout’s Neck, a small town on the coast of Maine. His subsequent works were mostly landscapes and seascapes, and the restless sea breaking behind the couple depicted on the tile anticipates the violent waves that would characterize his late works.
Evening, a seascape by Francis Silva, also marks a transition point in this artist’s career. Silva began his career as a self-taught Luminist, interested in the meticulous depiction of light and atmosphere in nature. However, in his mature style he began to concentrate more closely on the contrast in his landscapes between light and dark, and between stillness and action. Evening is a good example of this stylistic shift, as the bright light of the sunset washing over the calm, open sea is sharply contrasted by the shadowed, untamed greenery along the shore. There is also a marked contrast in this painting between the power of nature and the efforts of man, which appear feeble in comparison. Though the sailboats, which are tools of human enterprise, are figured prominently in the composition, they are by no means the subject of the work, and they become secondary to the effects of light and shadow which are the true focus of the artist.
Still Life with Root Vegetables, by Robert Spear Dunning, represents, in this case, a divergence not in style or in medium, but in subject matter. Dunning was the founder of the Fall River School, an artistic group interested in still-life painting that was centered in Fall River, Massachusetts. The majority of the still-lifes Dunning produced throughout his career contain bunches of colorful and luscious-looking fruits and vegetables arranged atop highly polished surfaces. However, in Still Life with Root Vegetables, Dunning includes an assortment of rustic root vegetables spilling from an ordinary brass pot, on top of a rough and worn table-top. This painting may illustrate the artist’s turning away from depictions of luxury and wealth during a prosperous time in Fall River, toward a less optimistic view of the effects of industrialization on the people and economies of the Northeast.
These and the other artists included in this exhibition, such as Asher B. Durand, Charles Sprague Pearce, and Samuel Colman, exemplify some of the finest moments of artistic production in nineteenth-century America. Though the works are diverse and cover a range of styles and subjects, they all raise similar questions about the nature of art at this time. Through the continued generosity of Laura and David Grey, the NBMAA is once again able to share with the public a group of important and influential works of American painting.
How do these paintings illustrate the interaction of humans with their environment at this time in America? What circumstances in the history of nineteenth century America compelled the artists in this exhibition to choose these particular subjects, places, or styles? What perspective are these artists working from? Are there differences in class, background, or region that could have affected the artist’s work?