Neglected American Masters

Decker, Church, Homer and others get their due at National Gallery

Art

May 16, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Among the more arcane torments I endured as a New York City elementary school student in the 1950s was a weekly art appreciation class, taught by a lady with a lilting Eastern European accent who showed us slides of great paintings.

From week to week I struggled mightily to remember which painters went with which pictures (is that a Monet or a Manet?) -- except when she showed paintings of New England seascapes. Then, I could raise my hand confidently and call out, "Winslow Homer!"

Even then, Homer, the former Civil War illustrator turned painter, was recognized as a great 19th-century American master. So was Thomas Eakins, the Philadelphia artist who scandalized respectable Main Line society by his insistence on painting the nude from life.

But who in the 1950s had ever heard of a marine painter named Fitz Hugh Lane, of landscape and flower artist Martin Johnson Heade or genre painter George Caleb Bingham?

Even Frederic Edwin Church's impressive panoramas were familiar only to specialists, while artists like John Frederick Peto, Joseph Decker, John Frederick Kensett and Edward Seager remained virtually unknown.

By the late 1960s, however, all that had begun to change, thanks in no small part to John Wilmerding, an inveterate collector, scholar and curator of American art who, in 1977, would found the new American department at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. By then, Wilmerding and his colleagues had been ardently researching, publishing and exhibiting little-known 19th-century American masters for more than a decade.

Wilmerding, now a professor at Princeton University, also had begun assembling a fine private collection of significant American artworks, which currently are the subject of a superlative exhibition at the museum he once served.

Titled American Masters From Bingham to Eakins, the show presents more than 50 paintings, watercolors, drawings and sketches by nearly a dozen important 19th-century American artists, many of whom even today are hardly household names.

A neglected master

Take Joseph Decker, for example, whose exquisite Still Life With Crab Apples and Grapes, painted in 1888, hangs near the entrance to the show.

It is a small work, barely a foot square, filled with fruity, spherical volumes rendered in smoky reds, greens and blues that unfold rhythmically across the canvas.

Decker (1853-1924) began as a house and sign painter after emigrating from Germany after the Civil War. He studied at the National Academy of Design in New York, where he exhibited landscapes, still lifes, genre scenes and portraits from the 1870s on. But over a 30-year career, he never found financial success as an artist.

Yet in this still life, which Wilmerding admired for "the solid geometries of these pieces of fruit on the plate," Decker achieved a monumental quality that belies its diminutive scale; it's a tiny, perfect masterpiece of light and color whose commonplace forms evoke an almost tactile intensity.

At Harvard during the early 1960s, Wilmerding was strongly drawn to the marine paintings of Massachusetts artist Fitz Hugh Lane, perhaps because of his own love of sailing.

Wilmerding wrote his senior thesis on Lane and, soon afterward -- with help from his banker father -- he bought his first painting, Lane's Stage Rocks and Western Shore of Gloucester Outer Harbor (1857).

Lane (1804-65) was paralyzed by polio as a child. As a teen-ager, he worked in a printing firm, where he learned lithography and produced illustrations for sheet music covers and the like. By the late 1850s, he had earned local renown for his moody views of Massachusetts' rocky coast, which reflected both the unbridled Romanticism of the era and a long American tradition of precisely observed realism. The show includes a number of works by this neglected American master.

Homer stays on land

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) also combined Romanticism and naturalism in his images of the rough Maine coast. Several striking examples are presented in the show.

Church's dramatic but modestly scaled views of surging breakers flinging foam and spray over the treacherous rocks along the shore, most painted in the early 1850s, clearly anticipate the grand spectacle of his monumental panorama of Niagara Falls (now in Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art), completed only a few years later.

A little further on, I was gratified to come across a work by Homer (1836-1910), though one I never would have recognized in days of yore.

Sparrow Hall, a charming, domestically scaled oil on canvas, was painted in 1881 and 1882, an important moment that pointed Homer toward his mature style. He spent that time abroad in the isolated English fishing village of Cullercoats, on the North Sea coast just below the Scottish border.

There Homer produced oils, watercolors and drawings of the local women, whose stern dignity, strength, courage and beauty he found endlessly fascinating.

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