Hagerstown receives artistic enhancement Big year: Washington County Museum opens a new wing, refurbishes its old building, and displays a major gift of 130 works.

November 12, 1995|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

It's not often that a museum opens a new wing, refurbishes its old building and receives the gift of a 130-piece collection of art all in one year. But that's exactly what's happened to the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, and it all makes this a good time for a visit.

In March, the museum opened its new "wing," actually a U-shaped building that more than doubles the museum's total space, from 8,000 square feet to more than 18,000 square feet.

DIt then closed and refurbished its old building, reinstalled it with the permanent collection and reopened it Oct. 7.

At the same time, it opened an exhibit of its latest acquisition, the major gift of 130 paintings, watercolors, prints and drawings of the collection of Dr. and Mrs. Albert R. Miller Jr.

The occasion was clouded by sadness. Dr. Miller, an economist and state planner who lived in Baltimore and had been eagerly looking forward to the opening, died of a heart attack at the age of 82 a month before the show opened.

His gift, however, will remain as a permanent tribute to him and his late wife, and he chose wisely in sending it to Hagerstown.

"Before deciding on us, he looked at museums in other places," including Reading, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., says museum director Jean Woods.

The museum's financial stability and its picturesque setting at .. the edge of a lake in Hagerstown's city park entered into Dr. Miller's decision. "But our collection was the main reason" for the gift, Woods says. For the Miller collection fits into the museum's collection like a hand in a glove.

"With the donation of the Miller Collection the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts' holdings of late nineteenth and early twentieth century American art have been dramatically enhanced," writes William R. Johnston, associate director of the Walters Art Gallery, in his foreword to the just-published catalog of the Miller collection. "The institution already held exceptional canvases of that period that reflected prevailing Impressionistic and naturalistic trends in American art."

Since its founding in 1930, by artist William H. Singer Jr. (originally of Pittsburgh) and his wife, Anna Brugh Singer (originally of Hagerstown), the Washington County Museum has concentrated on American art.

"We have never purchased art that was not American," says Woods, though there have been gifts of European paintings, Chinese export porcelains and other non-American objects.

But the museum's strength is in American painting, from portraits by members of the Peale family, Joshua Johnson and others, through 19th-century landscapes by Jasper Cropsey, John Kensett, Asher B. Durand and George Inness, down to early 20th-century paintings by Robert Henri, George Luks, William Glackens and Ernest Lawson.

The Miller collection, which concentrates on American paintings but includes some European works, complements the museum's previous holdings.

"It enhances the holdings of some of the artists we have, including Henri, Hassam, Bruce Crane, Alexander Wyant and Adolphe Monticelli," Woods says. "And it adds artists that we didn't have, including Dwight William Tryon, Robert Swain Gifford and J. Appleton Brown. It also adds European artists of the period of American art we have, including Charles Francois Daubigny, Hippolyte Delpy, Theodore Rousseau, Constant Troyon and Jean-Charles Cazin."

According to Johnston, "The preference of Dr. & Mrs. Albert R. Miller, Jr. has been for small, intimate landscapes evocative of a particular mood or feeling. Especially well represented in their collection are examples of the turn-of-the-century movement known as tonalism. Its adherents sought to convey their subjective responses to nature, often depicted in the dimly lighted, tranquil moments of twilight or early dawn." Works by Wyant, Homer Dodge Martin and Edward Gay, among others, reflect this style.

Johnston also notes that the artists' colonies of the Eastern seaboard are well represented, including Old Lyme, Conn.; Cape Ann, Mass.; and East Hampton on Long Island, N.Y.

Among the collection's most appealing works are several of the watercolors, including Thomas Pollock Anshutz's seascape with a solitary figure, "Near Cape May 1894"; Henry Ward Ranger's atmospheric "Village Harbor"; Charles Warren Eaton's

"Farmscape"; and Edwin A. Harvey's "Off Folly Cove," together with Hugh Bolton Jones' "Grand Canal -- Venice," a wash over pencil drawing.

At the moment, the entire Miller collection is on view in the new TC wing's main gallery. After this show, it will be integrated with the museum's other art.

The Miller collection is one of several attractions the Hagerstown museum offers visitors just now. There's also the new installation of the permanent collection; a show of landscape paintings by Maryland Institute, College of Art faculty member Phil Koch; and the new wing, which greatly enlarges the museum without overwhelming the original building.

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