An art world news flash last week was that of the imminent demise of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, with the building and school to be taken over by George Washington University while the art collection to go to the National Gallery of Art, which gets the opportunity to cherry pick the best of the 17,000 works of art now in the Corcoran inventory. Left overs are to be distributed through the country to other museums presumably with more room to display the works. All of this is subject to a court review, but given the nature of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s financial implosion there really is no alternative, indeed Franklin Kelly’s curator skills and reputation at the National Gallery suggest these iconographic works will be in better hands.
What has been lost is the idea a major private museum can compete in Washington DC for patrons, exhibitions and visitors against the giant public museums floated by the United States taxpayer so free admissions became a game changer. This is a eulogy to what was Washington DC’s first art museum.
William Corcoran (1798-1888) was an art collector who made his money in banking and was able to retire by 1854. In 1859 he hired architect James Renwick (1818-1895) to build a museum for him just across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House. The Civil War got in the way of his ambitions and the confederate sympathizer took French leave in Paris where his son in law George Eustace was a Confederate representative to the court of Napoleon III in hopes of getting the Cnfederate States French recognition. While abroad the Federal government seized the incomplete project. After the war the building was returned to its’ owner and only then was work resumed. The gallery opened in 1869.
The gallery and art school quickly outgrew the original structure; the second structure of the Beaux Art Style was designed by Ernest Flagg and opened in 1898. The collection remains first rate as Corcoran bought the best of the Hudson River School and the French Impressionists. The Degas image may be one of the best by the artist.
It was the American collection set in the nation’s capital that gave this gallery its greatest legacy. It helped provide the scenic impetus for the National Parks as created by the United States Congress in the late 19th century. An 1876 acquisition was Frederic Church (1823-1900), Niagara, painted in 1857, that was taken to Britain twice on tour, and exhibited at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1867. Eventually the Brits bought their own version of this subject which hangs in the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh.
The chief rival to Church in the mastery of depicting the American Sublime was the German born artist Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). A native of New Bedford, Massachusetts this artist was the first European trained painter to capture the drama and scale of the American west on canvas. The Alps may be tall, but the Rockies and Sierra Nevada ranges are big, and cover an expanse of countryside that is enormous. Until Bierstadt went out there in the late 1850’s nobody realized just how big these places were and what scenery deserved national protection from the wave of emigrant miners and industrialists who craved the mineral riches that lay underneath the massive landscape, When Bierstadt heard of the sale of Niagara he offered a painting he retitled “Mount Corcoran” to feed William Corcoran’s ego.
While many decried this as a stunt, with a fudged map to confirm such a place existed, until recently nobody knew the location of this work, and a perusal of Bierstadt’s biography reveal trips to the high sierras in 1872 in the company of Clarence King. A complicated Victorian character in charge of the United States Geological Survey, King led an impromptu agency charged with inventorying the American landscape for scientific purposes, one that became a world leader, particularly in the mapping and mineral exploitation fields. In 1872 King took Albert Bierstadt, already sick of Yosemite being too crowded with tourists to virgin high country south of Yosemite towards Mount Whitney. Today we know of the region as Kings Canyon National Park and while Mount Corcoran remains something of a misnomer, one of the earliest national parks remains a civic standard for preserving the American Eden
Another Bierstadt masterpiece in the collection is the 1888 canvas “Last of the Buffalo.” Done after the artist went into critical eclipse and commercial neglect this time he caught on canvas the near extinction of what once a near limitless population of 30 million one ton beasts in the western hemisphere. The bison were doomed by encroachment of habitat, first in the form of the transcontinental railroad and later barbed wire used for cattle ranches. This dangerously reduced the habitat that the buffalo used for forage. The great herds starved. Once the Buffalo were gone so too was the nomadic way of life for the indigenous folk that lived off of it, for the American Indian, reservations beckoned. Helped by this canvas the Bronx Zoo maintained a small herd of several hundred captive bison, from this group the modern population of an estimated half million are descended from.
The Cocorcan Gallery collection includes some 17,000 works of art. It is a safe bet that amongst the following works, most these images will wind up at the National Gallery. Besides being Deputy Director of the National Gallery of Art, Franklin Kelly is the scholar on Frederic Edwin Church, so the opportunity to acquire yet another Church painting, Tamaca Palms, from the mid 1850’s will not be lost on him.
Related in spirit, but unique in his subject, the coastal marsh country was Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904), this work “Marshfield Meadows," done circa 1867-1876 shows a New England salt marsh where hay was grown. Heade was a minor figure in the late 19th century (he often made a living running errands for the better known Frederic Church) , but to the 20th century eyes more sophisticated by their Victorian grandparents by assimilating such themes as surrealism made this artist much more popular a century later than in his life. Thought strange in his day, his work comes across as unique Yankee distillation of Barbizon on a post Hudson River School era.
The rest of the collection of influential content includes the American Impressionists, artists who came of age a generation after the Civil War when Americans of artistic talent studied abroad where they were exposed to avant guarde themes such as the French Impressionists. Theodore Robinson was an artist who with a small group of friends were allowed access to the home environs in Giverney of Claude Monet, an otherwise recluse, but whose home was open to American art students because Theodore Butler married Monet’s step daughter.
Willard Metcalf (1858-1925) was another of Robinson’s band of brothers, but the canvas of his represented at the Corcoran is the dramatic nocturne of the Florence Griswold home of Old Lyme, titled, "May Night, 1906," its sale to the gallery cemented Old Lyme as the foremost art colony of American Impressionist artists. Apparently the camaraderie the artists developed in Giverney found a similar oasis here in the New World. Today the Griswold building is a part of the Florence Griswold Museum.
Last of this group is a magical example by the artist Abbot Henderson Thayer, a winter time view of Mount Monadnock, near Peterborough, NH. A subtle painting, its light brings a blast of cold air when viewed much the way Church’s canvas of Niagara almost brings a sense of enormous noise. The gallery was one of the places that honored this arcane independent artist with a memorial exhibition after he died.
The Corcoran Gallery of Art is winding down its operations, and before it gets dispersed one might want to consider a trip to DC. This grandparent American art museum is located north west of the White House. While not free, it is worth the visit, this collection will never be seen together in this building again.