Art Library/Archives

How did the Milwaukee Art Institute acquire Edmund Tarbell’s “Three Sisters – A Study in June Sunlight”, 1890?

Edmund Charles Tarbell (American, 1862-1938), Three Sisters - A Study in June Sunlight, 1890, Oil on canvas, 35 1/8 x 40 1/8 in. (89.22 x 101.92 cm), Gift of Mrs. Montgomery Sears, Photo credit Efraim Lev-er

Edmund Charles Tarbell (1862 – 1938), the famed American Impressionist painter, completed Three Sisters – A Study in June Sunlight in 1890. The painting, having stirred excitement and debate in the art world from its first appearance, was acquired not long after its completion by Mrs. Montgomery Sears.

Born to a wealthy family in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Mrs. Montgomery Sears was a prize-winning artist and respected photographer in her own right. An art patron and student of the arts, she studied under Tarbell at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and counted, among others, Tarbell, Mary Cassatt, and Alfred Stieglitz as personal friends. With their guidance, she eagerly collected the work of Edgar Degas, Edward Manet, Maurice Prendergast, Paul Cézanne, Georges Braque, Henri Matisse and more. (Today, most of her collection resides in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.)

So, how did Three Sisters find its way from one of the most important art collections of the early twentieth century to a fledgling art institute in the Midwest?

Among a number of interesting connections, John E. D. Trask, director of the Institute from 1924-1925, had managed a gallery on the east coast where he became acquainted with Tarbell and a frequent exhibitor of his work.  In addition, Trask had written a number of articles about Tarbell for popular art magazines of the day.

Perhaps the most significant connection however, is that upon assuming the post of director, Trask wrote to several artists seeking donations of preparatory sketches, drawings, water colors, etc.  In his letter, Trask explained that “a collection of serious sketches and studies would be of great educational value helping to ‘demonstrate to the public the real effort which precedes the production of any serious work and the futility of – the art made easy – idea’” (1).  Although his letter focused on the acquisition of artist’s preparatory items, Trask’s bold request brought the young Art Institute to the attention of artist’s and their patrons nationwide.

While we may never know every detail of the Three Sisters acquisition, the path traveled by artwork from creation to gallery walls is often as fascinating as the artwork itself.

To learn more about Edmund Tarbell’s Three Sisters – A Study in June Sunlight, 1890, visit its collections page on our website.

1 “Gifts Come Generously to Gallery.” by J. K. Journal, March 22, 1925.

Heather Winter manages and oversees the Museum’s George Peckham Miller Art Research Library, the institutional archives and the rare books collection.

One reply on “How did the Milwaukee Art Institute acquire Edmund Tarbell’s “Three Sisters – A Study in June Sunlight”, 1890?”

My Mother obtained this art work about a month or so ago from a shop here in our city. It has a label on the back and everything. We were on here doing some research and found your page. Could you contact us with information if any? We would really like to know if this painting that my Mother obtained is worth money and could be sold.

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