Art: Fresh insights in PAFA rehang
Historical, stylistic context makes sense in reinstallation of its permanent collection.
'America Starts Here" sounds like a tourist itinerary, but in fact it's what the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts calls the extensive reinstallation of its permanent collection in its historic landmark building at Broad and Cherry Streets.
A more precise title might be "American Art Starts Here," for indeed it does. Founded in 1805, the academy is the nation's oldest museum and art school. The installation's chronology begins in the colonial era and continues more or less uninterrupted to the mid-20th century.
Anyone who has visited the collection frequently should be familiar with its highlights, among them the many paintings by various members of the Peale family, Winslow Homer's Fox Hunt, Picnic at Bedford Hills by Florine Stettheimer, and Flower Abstraction by Marsden Hartley.
Fortunately, familiarity doesn't preclude fresh insights. Academy curators Anna O. Marley and Robert Cozzolino have shuffled the deck adroitly to create a more logical and engaging narrative.
Historical and stylistic contexts now make more sense than in the past. For instance, Fox Hunt is now presented in its appropriate time period, the late 19th century, as the centerpiece of a large gallery that contains examples of Hudson River and impressionist landscapes, and paintings from the Gilded Age characterized by portraits by Sargent, Whistler, and Beaux. (The Hudson River pictures are loans, because this movement is one of the collection's more glaring lacunae.)
Thomas Eakins' masterpiece, The Gross Clinic, of which the academy is part owner, will find a place in this section in April.
The curators also have pulled out of storage key works that even museum regulars probably haven't seen, such as Lilly Martin Spencer's 1867 Mother and Child by the Hearth and especially Philip Evergood's Mine Disaster of 1933, a pungent social commentary framed as a secular altarpiece.
The new installation doesn't differ radically from its predecessor. It still begins in the front of the building with colonial art, including three portraits of George Washington and a gallery devoted to the Peales. Benjamin West's two monumental biblical canvases, Death on the Pale Horse and Christ Rejected, flank the stairway as they always have.
From there, the chronology proceeds roughly clockwise, with a large gallery devoted to art of the pre-Civil War period. Here, one begins to recognize how old favorites such as Pat Lyon at the Forge by John Neagle and Interior of a Smithy by Bass Otis have been recontextualized.
One also understands how the curators have emphasized the collection's strengths, such as trompe l'oeil still life and theatrical subjects, by creating groups of pictures.
So-called salon painting, which the academy school and museum fostered into the 20th century, is somewhat de-emphasized in this hanging, although still prominent with paintings such as Daniel Ridgway Knight's Hailing the Ferry and Frank Duveneck's The Turkish Page.
By combining impressionism, Hudson River landscapes, Gilded Age portraits, and early-20th-century realism in one large gallery, the curators neatly carry the narrative through the period when American art began to assert itself. This couldn't happen without the Hudson River loans, though.
Early modernism holds its own, thanks in part to the 2003 Meyer P. and Vivian O. Potamkin gift - eight paintings, one sculpture, and one pastel drawing, formerly shown as a unit, but now sensibly dispersed throughout the galleries. By ending at 1950, the installation avoids having to deal with the fact that abstract expressionism is another collecting area that's somewhat thin.
The success of this reordering can be measured by the fact that, no matter how many times one has visited this collection, this rehang makes it seem lively and freshly considered.
Front and center at last. The University of Delaware has been acquiring art through gifts since early in the last century, but until recently didn't have a central place to exhibit it.
This year, the university renovated what had been its largest gallery for special exhibitions to create a home for the permanent collection. Old College Gallery, situated in the university's oldest building (dated 1834), now houses an eclectic group of objects, from European and American paintings to Russian icons and American Pueblo pottery.
It's only the tiniest fraction of the roughly 10,000 works the institution owns. The unifying factor is that many of the objects that Janis Tomlinson, director of university museums, selected for the inaugural installation relate to the university's history.
For instance, a large history painting by Stanley Arthurs that depicts the landing of Dutch colonists in southern Delaware in 1631 was donated in 1961 by alumnus H. Rodney Sharp after being on loan since 1917.
Several works, including a 17th-century portrait of an aristocratic Englishwoman by an unidentified artist and a bronze figure of Venus by French sculptor Aristide Maillol, were given by members of the du Pont family.
The Maillol is one of three splendid bronzes on view, the others being a torso by William Zorach and a reduced-scale version of an allegorical figure of Victory by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
The installation also includes a clutch of paintings by Brandywine artists and illustrators - N.C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, and Howard Pyle among them. There's a small early Grant Wood oil of a French chateau and a group of modern and contemporary works by African American artists, including Hale Woodruff, Felrath Hines, and Wilmington artist Edward Loper.
Add to this a half-dozen icons, several other European paintings, an Egyptian mummy portrait from the Fayum, six pre-Columbian ceramics from western South America, and a vitrine of Pueblo pots, and you have a piquant realization of eclectic.
Dedicating this gallery to the permanent collection is a trade-off. It was the university's primary space for special exhibitions; except for African American art, those are now relegated to a smaller room off to the side.
A show of photographs by Andy Warhol will open in that space Jan. 12, when all university galleries, now closed for the holidays, reopen.
Since 2004, African American art has enjoyed its own precinct in Mechanical Hall, next door to Old College. The African American collection, bolstered by major gifts from Atlantan Paul R. Jones and the Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia, has its own curator and organizes its own exhibitions.
Art: Collection Rebirth
3 p.m. Dec. 24 and 31. Admission: $10 general, $8 for visitors 60 and older, students with I.D., and visitors 13 through 18. Information: 215-972-7600 or www.pafa.org.
8 Thursdays. Free. Closed for holdiays through Jan. 11, reopens Jan. 12. Information: 302-831-8037 or www.udel.edu/museums.