Published: September 25, 2001
BRIMINGHAM, ALA. – The Birmingham Museum of Art reopened its American Art Galleries on Sunday, September 23, with a striking installation fully integrating the museum’s collection of American painting and sculpture with American decorative arts.
Newly located in the former contemporary galleries on the second floor, the reinstalled American Art Collection accommodates approximately 130 objects and presents a comprehensive overview of the late Eighteenth through the early Twentieth Century.
These include works from the permanent collection that have never (or rarely) been on display before due to previous gallery restraints, several new acquisitions and numerous long term loans. Arranged in chronological and thematic order, together these works narrate the history of American art from its neocolonial roots to its flowering in the mid-Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries.
This collection occupies approximately 6,000 square feet of gallery space, one-third more than the previous installation. The galleries have been entirely reconfigured: new lighting has been added as well as numerous built-in wall cases and platforms, allowing for more flexibility in the integration of decorative arts with fine arts. The walls are painted a deep peacock (teal), providing a dramatic background for these aesthetically rich objects. Expanded didactic labels highlight important thematic groupings and a didactic time line of American culture presents a captioned visual narrative tracing the development of the arts in the United States.
The American reinstallation falls under the direction of two Birmingham Museum of Art curators: Dr David Moos, curator of painting, sculpture and graphic arts, and Dr Anne Forschler, curator of decorative arts. Both feel that the integration of fine and decorative arts within the scope of one installation will afford visitors the opportunity to experience the full range of art that was produced in the United States over an extended period of time.
Beginning with Benjamin West’s “Erasistratus the Physician Discovers the Love of Antiocys for Stratonice,” 1772, and concluding with Thomas Hart Benton’s “Windmill,” 1926, the Museum’s collection of American painting and sculpture spans the Eighteenth Century through the introduction of modernism in the early Twentieth Century.
Noted strengths within this collection include Nineteenth Century romantic landscape paintings, scenes of the American West and numerous bronzes by Frederic Remington. Visitors will see new significant works by Albert Bierstadt, including “Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California,” 1865, along with other major works by Thomas Doughty, Martin Johnson Heade and Georgia O’Keeffe. The collection also includes outstanding paintings by John Singer Sargent, Frank Duveneck, Charles Courtney Curran and Henry Ossawa Tanner, all of which will be on view.
In addition to these highlights from the previous installation, a significant number of works that were rarely displayed due to gallery constraints are on view. These include Thomas Cole’s masterwork “View of Mount Aetna,” 1842; Asher B. Durand’s “Tree,” 1880; two paintings by Ralph Blakelock; and Peter Blume’s “Weathervane,” 1941-43, among others. Numerous sculptures by Frederic Remington, including “The Bronco Buster,” 1895 and 1907, and “The Wounded Bunkie,” 1896, are featured.
Among the many important rdf_Descriptions on loan now featured are works by Theodore Earl Butler, Samuel Colman, Frederic Edwin Church, Victor Higgins and Edward Potthast.
A vital component of this installation is the addition of American photography. Works by Berenice Abbot, Edward S. Curtis and Alfred Stieglitz, among others, will be featured. A new acquired mammoth-plate albumen print by Carleton Watkins debuts in the reinstallation. Together these works provide a visual experience of the shaping of American culture.
The museum’s American decorative arts collection stems primarily from the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries and features objects from every area of the decorative arts, including furniture, porcelain, silver, glass and textiles. The objects in the gallery are drawn from the permanent collection, new acquisitions and long term loans; arranged chronologically, they will be fully integrated into the collection of American painting and sculpture in an attempt to give a broader view of American Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century culture as a whole.
Highlights include old favorites such as the rococo-revival style sofa made by John Henry Belter around 1850; a vase-shaped pitcher produced by the Tucker porcelain factory in Philadelphia about 1828 and a square piano crafted by Alpheus Babcock in Boston between 1822 and 1823.
In addition to these highlights from the previous installation are two remarkable new acquisitions: a solitaire tea set by Tiffany and Company dating from the early 1870s and a table or plant stand made between 1900-1910 by students at the Tuskagee Normal and Industrial Institute, Alabama’s first training school for African-American teachers.
Outstanding long term loans to this collection include early Nineteenth Century furniture from the mid-Atlantic region, which beautifully represents the flowering of European-inspired classicism in America. On view will be an armchair attributed to the renowned American cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe and a Baltimore mahogany and maple dressing table dating between 1820 and 1830.
An important new feature of the installation is a permanent exhibition space for the museum’s extensive collection of American textiles. Representing all historical and stylistic periods of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, the collection includes costumes, coverlets and needlework, as well as more than 300 Alabama-made quilts, many of which are from the renowned Robert Cargo Collection. The textiles will be rotated on a regular basis.
The museum is quite strong in examples of Alabama decorative arts. In addition to the Cargo collection of quilts, several pieces of Alabama furniture will be rotated regularly. These include chairs, tables, a pie safe dating from the mid-Nineteenth Century and a quilt wardrobe, used to store linens and clothes.
The inclusion of several Alabama decorative art objects to the new installation will give visitors the opportunity to compare those pieces of “high style,” imported from the East Coast, with those made locally following a more modest aesthetic.
The reinstallation and expansion of the Museum’s American Art collection has been generously supported by a grant from The Henry Luce Foundation.
An American art history lecture series entitled “From Colonialism to Modernism: American Art and Culture, 1700-1945” will be presented October 2, 9, 23 and 30, from 6:30 to 8:30 pm in the Steiner Auditorium. For reservations, 205-254-2571.
An “Art Break” will take place October 23 at noon, meeting at the Eighth Avenue lobby. It will be given by Gail Trechsel, BMA director, and Dr David Moos, BMA curator of painting and sculpture. The subject is “Toward an American Landscape.”
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