WASHINGTON, D.C. — A new installation of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s celebrated pre-1945 American paintings and sculpture, “American Journeys — Visions of Place,” explores the changing concept of place in the history of American art. Featuring more American paintings — approximately 110 — than have ever been on view in the museum, and integrating 15 sculptures, the new presentation suggests how increased communication and shifting aesthetic ideas — the invention of photography, the advent of railroad and transatlantic travel, and international art exhibitions — altered artists’ responses to the world around them and access to aesthetic ideas.
The exhibition is organized by Sarah Cash, the museum’s Bechoefer curator of American art, who says, “Visitors will have the opportunity to understand how changes — societal, physical and technological — affected, inspired artists working in the pre-World War II era.”
The exhibition comes at a time of great change at the venerable Corcoran. Financial pressures recently forced the private art museum to enter into a partnership with George Washington University to take over its grand building and the Corcoran College of Art + Design, and with the National Gallery of Art, which will acquire the Corcoran’s estimated $2 billion art holdings. What exactly this means for the Corcoran’s building and collection remains to be seen.
The historic museum had its beginnings in 1850 when William W. Corcoran (1798–1888), a native Washingtonian who became wealthy as a banker, retired and began to assemble one of the most important art collections of his day. In 1869 he founded his namesake museum and donated to it his works of art. According to Cash, “It was the country’s first cultural institution to be established expressly as an art museum.” In addition, as “the first gift of an art museum of substantial size to the American public by a single individual, … it established a paradigm for cultural philanthropy in the young nation.”
Early on Corcoran supplemented acquisitions of traditional European works with purchases of contemporary American paintings and sculpture; he was one of the first American collectors to focus on domestic art. His first such purchase, in 1850, was Daniel Huntington’s large and sentimental “Mercy’s Dream,” based on John Bunyan’s popular Pilgrim’s Progress. This was followed by acquisition of a group of American landscapes by established painters including John Frederick Kensett, Jasper Francis Cropsey, George Inness and Thomas Cole’s poignant “The Departure” and “The Return,” “the most significant American landscape paintings in his collection,” says Cash. At the same time, Corcoran purchased genre scenes by well-known painters, such as William Tylee Ranney’s evocative “The Retrieve,” and everyday scenes by Eastman Johnson, plus Western genre vignettes by Seth Eastman and John Mix Stanley.
Corcoran also collected sculpture, starting with Hiram Powers’s nude but chaste “Greek Slave,” which had aroused much controversy, becoming the most famous American sculpture of the first half of the Nineteenth Century. Other early buys were statuary by William Rinehart and Larkin Mead.
Corcoran’s philanthropy extended particularly to supporting Washington artists and arts organizations, including works by resident members, Johnson, Eastman, Stanley and Emanuel Leutze, and such nonresident members as Albert Bierstadt, George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Brown Durand, Huntington, Kensett, Rembrandt Peale and Thomas Sully.
In 1859, having assembled an impressive collection with appeal to a national audience, Corcoran set out to build a museum to house them. Strategically located just down the street from the White House, it was designed by New York architect James Renwick, instructed by Corcoran to “‘design a gallery in the Second Empire style modeled on the new wings of the Musee du Louvre…,’ which evidently had impressed Corcoran when he visited Paris in 1855,” says Cash.
Construction was halted during the Civil War, when the federal government commandeered the building for storage of military clothing. Meanwhile, Corcoran, a Southern sympathizer, fled to Europe for the duration.
He was the subject of hostility upon his return, but he continued to build his art trove, and resumed work on his art museum. At its opening in 1874, the gallery displayed 350 objects, including 112 paintings.
Greeted with critical and official praise for the building and appreciation for the national character of the collection, the new gallery got off to an auspicious start. Envisioning a national portrait gallery, Corcoran began collecting likenesses of all the presidents, including 15 by G.P.A. Healy, as well as statesmen and other notables. He also continued acquiring American landscapes and genre works. All this, observes Cash, was consistent with Corcoran’s core mission to “encourage American genius,” as well as to “develop his national gallery and to demonstrate his patriotism.” In 1888, the year of his death, Corcoran donated funds to launch a school associated with the gallery; it opened in 1890 and continues in operation today.
After starting out three blocks north in what is now the Renwick Gallery, the collection has been housed since 1897 in a massive Beaux-Arts structure designed by Ernest Flagg. Frank Lloyd Wright is said to have considered the Corcoran the most beautiful building in the nation’s capital. By the turn of the century, the collection included around 1,500 works.
The Corcoran’s holdings of pre-1945 American paintings and sculpture have grown to more than 500 works dating to 1718. The collection is strong in Hudson River School paintings, Nineteenth Century portraits and genre works, Impressionist art and early-Twentieth Century Realism. Numerous bronze and neoclassical marble sculptures complement the painting trove.
For the current exhibition, older paintings have been hung salon style — eye-level to ceiling — as was the custom in the Nineteenth Century. More recent works are hung in today’s manner. Even for the casual student of American art, each gallery contains “Wow” paintings that remind one of the rich holdings of the Corcoran.
Standouts among the early works are the charming but stilted “Grace Allison McCurdy (Mrs Hugh McCurdy) and Her Daughters Mary Jane and Letitia Grace,” circa 1806, by Baltimore’s Joshua Johnson, the nation’s first known professional black artist, and Rembrandt Peale’s enormous equestrian “Washington Before Yorktown,” circa 1825, which commands an entire gallery filled with masterworks. Among the other presidential likenesses, J.P.A. Healy’s beardless, President-elect “Abraham Lincoln” is especially interesting.
Arguably the most important painting in the collection, Church’s majestic, unparalleled “Niagara,” was purchased in 1876. Two years later, Bierstadt persuaded Corcoran to acquire his massive Western panorama, suggestively titled “Mount Corcoran.”
Significant acquisitions for the new building included George Inness’s striking “Sunset in the Woods,” Charles Frederic Ulrich’s memorable “Land of Promise, Castle Garden,” and the first of many Impressionist works, this by Theodore Robinson, a scene in Giverny. The museum bid on Leutze’s large “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” but lost out to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Corcoran became the first museum to purchase bronze sculptures by the chronicler of the Old West, Frederic Remington, highlighted by his dynamic “Off the Range (Coming Through the Rye).” Later, a large number of sculptures by Bessie Potter Vonnoh and some by Augustus Saint-Gaudens were added.
Beginning in 1907, the Corcoran’s Biennial Exhibitions of Contemporary American Painting gained national attention, and proved the most important vehicle for acquiring new works. By this means, paintings by Impressionists Mary Cassatt, Childe Hassam, Gari Melchers and Edward Redfield were added to the collection. Standouts were Winslow Homer’s powerful “A Light on the Sea” and Willard Metcalf’s evocative “May Night,” depicting the Florence Griswold House in Old Lyme, Conn., where he and other artists stayed.
Biennial acquisitions represented the best works by living artists, albeit they were relatively conservative in nature, and were behind the curve, adding styles like American Impressionists and the Ashcan School well after their heyday. Two highlights of these styles: Cassatt’s beautifully painted, affectionate portrait of a young, fresh-faced Parisian woman holding a dog, and John Sloan’s evocative glimpse of the world around him, in this case of a distinguished group dining informally at a French restaurant in Manhattan.
Rivaling Cassatt’s masterwork for beautiful brushwork and an insightful figure is “Sita and Sarita,” painted much later by Cecelia Beaux, who was often compared to John Singer Sargent. Sargent’s splendid “Mrs Henry White” showcases not only the charms of a strikingly attractive, poised young woman, but the fluent skills that made Sargent the painter of choice among the international glitterati of his day. His evocation of “Simplon Pass,” painted while trekking across the Alps, has been voted the favorite artwork of Corcoran visitors.
The highlight of numerous Modernist artworks is Marsden Hartley’s powerful evocation of the military pageantry of the German imperial capital soon after the outbreak of World War I, “Berlin Abstraction,” one of his series of fascinating war motif works.
Monographic exhibitions of solo artists in the early years of the Twentieth Century led to additional acquisitions. During that time, Bierstadt’s widow donated his final great Western painting, “The Last of the Buffalo,” and important acquisitions like Samuel F.B. Morse’s iconic “The House of Representatives,” Sargent’s early masterpiece “Setting Out to Fish” and William Merritt Chase’s masterful portrait of William A. Clark, a Montana “Copper King,” US Senator and major benefactor of the Corcoran. The William A. Clark Fund, for example, has been used to acquire such important canvases as George Bellows’ Ashcan scene “Forty-two Kids, and Edward Hopper’s graceful marine, “Ground Swell.”
Clark also helped perpetuate Corcoran’s aim of showing native works alongside European examples, donating several hundred European artworks along with a selection of such Americans as Ralph Blakelock and Gilbert Stuart, whose Atheneum-style portrait of Washington was the second to enter the collection. In 1928, a new wing to house the Clark trove, designed by Charles A. Platt, was completed with funds from the senator’s family, nearly doubling the size of the museum.
Since then, the Corcoran has continued expanding its outstanding collection of American artwork by purchase, gift and bequest. Colonial portraits, modern and contemporary American and European art, African American paintings and American photographs have helped round out the museum’s world-class holdings. “During its distinguished history, now well into its second century,” observes Cash, “the institution has continually and enthusiastically renewed its founder’s aspiration that it be ‘used solely for the purpose of encouraging American genius.’” Hopes are high that in the days ahead, under the aegis of the National Gallery of Art, this tradition will continue.
The 335-page catalog, Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945, with an historical essay by Cash and contributions about individual works by some 20 experts, is published by the Corcoran in association with Hudson Hills Press. It is priced at $60, hardcover.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is at 500 17th Street NW. For more information, www.corcoran.org or 202-639-1700.