Published: November 29, 2011
When eminent American art historian, curator and scholar extraordinaire Theodore E. Stebbins Jr was a Yale student in the late 1950s, he majored in political science, with an eye toward law school and ultimately a career as a US senator. His roommate was an art history major, which he says now he just did not understand.
Three years of law school helped him see the error of his ways. Finding it largely uninspiring, Stebbins was determined to finish what he had started. As a third-year law student, the New York City native wrote a paper on liability for art experts titled “The Problem of Tort Liability for the Art Expert.”
During the course of Stebbins’ research, he was stimulated by the paintings he saw in the offices of art historians and curators that he visited, such as Lloyd Goodrich, James J. Rorimer, John P. Coolidge and Jakob Rosenberg. Like St Paul on the road to Damascus, he was converted.
While his paper remained a standard reference in case law for many years, its author moved on to art, picking up a master’s degree and then a doctoral degree in the history of art, both from Harvard. Meanwhile, the college roommate with the art history degree became Senator H. John Heinz III of Pennsylvania.
On a recent rainy afternoon in the comfort of his book-lined study, Stebbins recounted his career, his interests and the course of art history. His doctoral thesis was “The Life and Work of Martin Johnson Heade.” When asked, why Heade? Stebbins responded with a smile that John Wilmerding had already captured the Fitz Henry Lane market. Actually, Stebbins says he loves landscapes, and when he first saw a Heade prominently displayed at a Boston gallery, he was much moved by it. Although he is most often recognized as the expert on Heade, Stebbins’ interests are wide and all-encompassing.
Stebbins’ trajectory from aspiring politician to highly regarded art expert has resonance with Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” he is very much a part of all he has met. He is a unique combination of art historian and curator, professor, authenticator, fundraiser, stimulator of donations, builder of collections and observer of the human condition.
He began his career back at the Yale museum as curator of American painting, associate professor of art and American history and acting director of the museum between 1968 and 1977. He taught the popular “Pots and Pans” class there with Charles F. Montgomery. At Yale, Stebbins built a premier collection of Nineteenth Century American landscape and still life painting, along the way adding Frederic E. Church’s spectacular sunset view of Mt Ktaddn [sic] executed in 1853.
He returned to Boston in 1977 as the John Moors Cabot curator of American paintings and ultimately, from 1999 to 2000, was chair of art of Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA.)
In his 22 years at the MFA, Stebbins left a profound mark on the museum. It was he who acquired the nearly 100 Twentieth Century American Modernism works that comprise the landmark William H. and Saundra Lane collection. Whether Boston was ready for it or not, Stebbins changed the local landscape of art, introducing the community to Charles Sheeler, Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur G. Dove, Marsden Hartley and many other American Modernists. Stebbins eventually added more than 300 great pictures to the collection, from Copley’s “Col Nathaniel Sparhawk” in 1983 to Warhol’s double “Red Disaster” in 1986.
At the MFA, Stebbins organized major exhibits on such artists as Washington Allston, whose “Elijah in the Desert” was the first entry to the MFA collection and who was all the rage in the late Nineteenth Century. He curated more than a dozen major exhibitions of work by other artists, including John Singleton Copley, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Charles Sheeler, Edward Weston and, of course, Martin Johnson Heade.
For the Sargent show in 1999, Stebbins arranged the donation, by family descendants, of the two large Arita vases depicted in Sargent’s 1882 “Daughters of Edward Darley Boit.” The Nineteenth Century vases, which today flank the painting, are pretty hardy as they survived multiple transatlantic crossings with the Boits. Stebbins also mounted “Boston Collects,” an exhibit of contemporary painting and sculpture that helped dust off the reputation of fustiness of Boston collectors.
When Stebbins resigned from the Museum of Fine Arts in 2000, he thought he would simply retire and write. That just was not meant to be, however. Instead, James Cuno, then director of the Harvard Art Museums, persuaded him to cross the Charles River to Cambridge to develop and head the newly created department of American art as the first curator of American art at Harvard. As of July 1, 2011, he is the consultative curator.
According to Stebbins, Harvard, even though he is a Yale man, has allowed him great latitude in building up the American paintings department. The Theodore E. Stebbins Jr Curatorship of American Art has been endowed in his honor. Part of the honor entails financial responsibility; so far, he has raised more than $10 million to endow the department of American art, which includes decorative arts.
Fundraising is not easy, but Stebbins described the process as “a joyful experience.” He says people have been incredibly generous and, “At the end of the day, I have made some very real friendships through a shared interest in art.”
In many ways, Stebbins was presented with a tabula rasa at Harvard, which for him is perfect: “What I love most is to get into new things.” The art museums are undergoing a major expansion designed by Renzo Piano that, when complete in 2013, will house, but not combine, the Fogg, the Busch-Reisinger and the Arthur M. Sackler museums, as well as first-rate conservation laboratories and study centers, under one roof in the expanded 1927 Fogg building. It is an exciting time to be reforming the American collection.
Over its three and three-quarter centuries Harvard amassed around 1,200 early portraits of important American figures and Harvard presidents, most of which were commissioned, beginning with the 1680 purchase of a portrait by Captain Thomas Smith of Puritan William Ames. Stebbins has in mind the expansion of the collection from one of “all white males” to include portraits of minority figures in Harvard history.
Whereas the major museums foster attendance, and attendant income, with blockbuster exhibits complete with sophisticated marketing programs, T-shirts and tote bags, university museums face very different challenges. They are first institutions of learning, teaching and scholarship, explains Stebbins, not given to blockbusters. Yet the need to attract an audience and supporters still exists. At Harvard, Stebbins has organized shows on “The Last Ruskinians: Charles Eliot Norton, Charles Herbert Moore and Their Circle,” an American watercolor and pastel exhibition and “Life as Art: Paintings by Gregory Gillespie and Frances Cohen Gillespie,” among others.
In the process of building the collection, Stebbins continues to acquire objects, although funds are limited; his most recent purchase is a Robert Salmon marine painting that he says fills a huge gap. Another recent acquisition is a gorgeous 1799 communion cup by Boston silversmith Jeremiah Dummer. Its relevance to the collection? First, the museums had no Seventeenth Century example and, more important, silver, says Stebbins, was the great art of the era.
Looking to round out the collection with mid- to late Twentieth Century American art, he has brought the Didi and David Barrett collection of self-taught, folk and Outsider art to Harvard. The collection pleases him greatly; the work “demonstrates the very real human impulse to make art,” and includes pieces by such artists as Bill Traylor, Joseph Yoakum and Nellie Mae Rowe.
Part of Stebbins’ mission at Harvard is a catalog of the collection. He says, “Working on the new catalog is one of the things I enjoy most.” Oddly, volume two, American Paintings at Harvard. Volume Two: Paintings, Watercolors, Pastels, and Stained Glass by Artists Born 1826-1856, was the first of the catalogs to be published in 2008. He is now at work on volume one, Paintings, Watercolors, Pastels and Stained Glass by Artists Born Before 1826, which will appear in 2013. Volume three will include the work in the Harvard collections of American artists born after 1856. In addition, Stebbins’ work on the Heade catalogue raisonné is ongoing.
It is not all American art with Stebbins, however, as he describes pictures by Vermeer as “little prayers on canvas.” He views paintings as living entities. “Things have happened to them,” he says. “Colors change, perspective alters.”
His eyebrows raise when he shows a visitor an image of Winslow Homer’s 1885 watercolor and pencil drawing, “Sea Garden, Bahamas.” The story is that Homer, a consummate businessman, tailored his paintings to suit the market. “Sea Garden” originally depicted two Bahamian men harvesting coral with a watery foreground and a sailing vessel on the left horizon. The artist cut the painting, cropping it tightly to give dramatic emphasis to the foreground figure and gave it another signature, rendering it more desirable.
Two fragments forming an L-shape foreground and the left side with the original signature were discarded by the artist, but his family retrieved them and later donated them to the Yale University Art Gallery. The body of the picture is in the collection of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University and the Yale and Harvard pieces were reunited at the Fogg in 1978.
The reconstructed picture also alludes to the monetary side of making art as it demonstrates playing to the popular taste. As in every other market, taste and popularity in art are cyclical. Stebbins cites Washington Allston, considered a giant in the Nineteenth Century and viewed less enthusiastically today. Asked what drives popularity of various artists, he chuckles, “Sometimes it just depends on scholars needing PhD topics.” Sargent, he notes was a leading artist through World War I, but “dead in the water after 1920.” In the 1980s, Escapism was popular and Sargent was hot again.
Stebbins sees it as the curator’s responsibility to mount exhibitions of an artist’s best work; careful selection must be at work, not every work of every artist is excellent. He points out that displays of an artist’s lesser work alongside his or her best examples can diminish the artist overall. For this curator, the purpose of an exhibit is the presentation of the artist at his or her best.
Another curatorial responsibility is that of advising collectors or students, in addition to teaching. Stebbins counsels his advisees to look freshly and originally at a picture, to take in its intrinsic value. The purchase of art as an investment is foolish, he says.
Along the way Stebbins has kept his hand in the matters pertaining to the liabilities of art experts, noting that the stakes are staggeringly higher today than when he first studied the issue. He is also deeply interested in matters of connoisseurship, not a presently popular approach, but one that serves the expert well in authenticating and attributing pictures.
Stebbins is asked frequently to authenticate a painting. He is willing to authenticate works ascribed to Heade as a public service to the field, to the artist and to connoisseurship; no money changes hands. Two new Heades have turned up recently, which Stebbins has authenticated. He says he sees a new, previously unknown, example every month or so. This is attributable to Heade’s relatively recent popularity. In contrast, Winslow Homer’s popularity has long been established, and only one previously unknown Homer work has come to light in the past half century.
Fakes and forgeries are another matter. As Stebbins observes, “Every painter has his friends.” Fakes and forgeries vary with the market, driven by the popularity of the artist, but they are thicker than ever on the ground. Stebbins describes several categories: Some were made to fool, while some were made by admirers of the artist in the style and technique of the master.
An expert eye, based on a complete understanding of the work, heightened perception of technique and form and analytic skill, are all required to make a determination. Stebbins certainly possesses that eye, although the expertise of the expert is sometimes contested hotly. The power of wishful thinking on the part of owners of fakes can be mighty strong.
Stebbins is recognized as one of the world’s leading scholars of American art and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1997. He serves on the board of directors and the Art Advisory Council of the International Foundation for Art Research and is a trustee of the Heinz Family Foundation. In the past, Stebbins has served as advisor to the Henry Luce Foundation, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Art Museums, the Cleveland Museum of Art and others. He has served as a consultant on American art to the kingdom of Spain. Stebbins is the recipient of numerous fellowships, awards and organized the first major exhibition of American Art in Paris since before World War II.
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