American Art Collection Curatorial

Refreshed Look for the American Paintings Galleries

American Paintings gallery, August 2011. Photo by Mel Buchanan.
Milwaukee Art Museum American Paintings gallery, August 2011 reinstallation. Photo by Mel Buchanan.

The newly reinstalled galleries in the Museum’s lower level offer a survey of the American paintings collections from the Colonial era to the turn of the 20th century.  The nearly fifty objects on view showcase not only a history of American art, but also the history of the Museum’s interest in American art.

Around half of the paintings on view are part of the Layton Art Collection, Milwaukee’s first public art gallery and our present-day Museum’s parent organization. The Layton Art Gallery was founded by meat packer and philanthropist Frederick Layton in 1888, and you’ll find Layton’s monumental 1893 portrait by Eastman Johnson still on view in the newly-installed American painting gallery.

The other half of the collections on view represents works acquired by the Museum as gifts and purchases, both before and after its 1957 merger with the Layton Art Gallery.

Old favorites remain, but there are many new additions pulled from Museum storage.

Art Collection Contemporary

From the Collection–Agnes Martin’s “Untitled #10”

Agnes Martin. Untitled #10, 1977. Gesso, India ink, and graphite on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Friends of Art. Photo credit Dedra Walls. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Agnes Martin. Untitled #10, 1977. Gesso, India ink, and graphite on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Friends of Art. Photo credit Dedra Walls. © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Agnes Martin’s work can be tricky, all lines and grids and pale neutrals. It used to make me wonder, what’s the big deal? Pencil marks and a wash of color–not so impressive. I chalked it up to those nutty Abstract Expressionists and Minimalists, divorcing themselves from the real world and delving into a world I didn’t know how to get into.

But then I got a job as a docent at my college’s art museum, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. I gave tours, but I also spent a lot of time in the galleries at the docent’s table, where we waited for visitors to ask us questions (and maybe did some homework when things were slow). The table was situated right across from their Martin, The Harvest (1965). Being forced to look at this painting nearly every day, at least for a few minutes before a visitor approached me, completely changed the way I viewed Agnes Martin’s work. The Harvest, with its imperfect grid and odd “T” in the corner, became a quirky friend I saw each week–a comforting presence away from papers and tests.

But I’d never spent any long, uninterrupted time with an Agnes Martin. Seeking some quiet time away from my email inbox this past week, I wandered past Milwaukee’s Agnes Martin painting and then stopped and turned around.

It was time for a 45-minute slow look at Untitled #10.

Art Collection Curatorial European

From the Collection–Wilhelm Trübner’s “Salome”

Salome Wilhelm Trübner 1898 Oil on cardboard 39 3/4 x 21 in. (100.97 x 53.34 cm) Purchase, René von Schleinitz Memorial Fund M1978.2
Wilhelm Trübner (German, 1851–1917), Salome, 1898. Oil on cardboard, 39 3/4 x 21 in. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, René von Schleinitz Memorial Fund, M1978.2. Photo by Larry Sanders.

German artist Wilhelm Trübner’s depiction of Salome shows the New Testament character brazenly nude, holding the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

When this painting by an admittedly-minor artist was recently rotated into the permanent collection gallery #11, it was hung alongside masterpieces by Monet and Caillebotte. I was stunned that my eyes left Boating on the Yerres to look instead at this girl, Salome, painted in vibrant colors with dramatic light and shadow on the model’s skin.

I was also stunned that after a childhood of of attending Sunday school, I needed to turn to Wikipedia to learn more about Salome.

I learned that this temptress-of-legend has been the inspiration for everything from an Oscar Wilde one-act play to a B-side song by U2.

The Biblical story explains that Salome, daughter of Herodias and therefore stepdaughter of King Herod Antipas, danced to entertain and seduce the ruler of Galilee at his 1st century AD birthday celebration. Her dance survives in our cultural imagination as the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” during which seven veils are sequentially and tauntingly removed. You can watch femme fatale Rita Hayworth performing the dance in her 1953 film Salomé.

Art Collection Curatorial European

From the Collection–Miss Frances Lee by Francis Cotes

Francis Cotes (English, 1726-1770), Portrait of Miss Frances Lee, 1769. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William D. Vogel M1964.5. Photo by Larry Sanders.

The Milwaukee Art Museum has in its collection a beautiful portrait by Francis Cotes, one of the highlights of the Museum’s Gallery of 18th century English and Italian Works (gallery #7, main level).

Cotes’ story is an interesting one.  Francis Cotes’ (English, 1726–1770) fame as a portrait painter in eighteenth-century England was surpassed only by that of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough—and many feel that if he had not died so early in his career at age 44, his name would not have faded into obscurity.

Cotes was particularly talented in working with pastel, evident even in his oil paintings which use bright yet delicate colors and contrasting textures.  Examples of pastels by Cotes are at the Cleveland Museum of Art and in The Frick Collection.  Some oil paintings by Cotes are in the Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the National Museum of Wales.

Cotes was particularly successful with likenesses of children, since they have an unaffected immediacy lacking in the more formal, decoratively detailed society portraits.  Portraits of children can be found at the J. Paul Getty Museum and the Speed Museum of Art.

Art Collection Curatorial European

From the Collection—Portrait by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein

In 1988, the Milwaukee Art Museum purchased a painting by Carl Christian Vogel von Vogelstein, one of the most important German portraitists of the early 19th century. Up until that point, most of the paintings in the Museum’s German collection were from the second half of the 19th century, so this was a significant acquisition.  You can find it on the bright blue wall in Gallery 9.

The portrait is a fantastic example of German neoclassical style blended with Biedermeier attention to detail. The upper-class gentleman, dressed expensively and with his jewelry prominently displayed, sits comfortably in an elaborately carved chair. The chair, with a griffin as the armrest, is gilded and upholstered in dark blue—an interpretation of ancient Roman furniture. Behind him is a gilded desk with marble top, again a quote from the ancient world, and a window with a luxurious dark red velvet curtain pulled up to show a city in the distance. The sitter is well-educated, shown by the books spread out on the table and the roll of paper with writing in his hand. He also wears the Maltese Cross on his jacket.

The question is, who is this man?

Ancient Mediterranean Art Art Collection Curatorial

From the Collection—Ancient Greek Vases

Niobid Painter (Greek, Attic, active ca. 470–ca. 445 BC). Hydria (Water Jar), ca. 460 BC. Red-figure terracotta. Gift of Mrs. Douglass Van Dyke, in Memory of Douglass Van Dyke, to the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo credit Larry Sander

The Milwaukee Art Museum may have a small collection of ancient Mediterranean art, but we have some great pieces!

Take, for instance, our two ancient Greek Hydria.  Walk into Gallery 1, and you will see them in the free-standing case on the right. 

What is so exciting about Greek vases?  Well, for one thing, they are some of the only artwork that we have remaining from this important ancient civilization.  In particular, their decorations are the only hint that we have of what ancient Greek painting looked like.  Practically all ancient painting has been destroyed due to its fragility.  Greek vases survived because they were put into tombs and sanctuaries as offerings.  In fact, the accident of their survival has made them more important to us than to the Greeks, who for the most part did not seem them as great art and used them as everyday objects.

Art Collection Curatorial European

From the Collection–English Monteith

George Garthorne (English), Monteith, 1688. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, Virginia Booth Vogel Acquisition Fund. Photo by John R. Glembin.

‘Tis the spirit! There are spirits of Christmas past, jolly good tidings and spirits of the season, and then my favorite type of holiday spirits: The beer, liquors, and wines that keep us jolly through office parties and family reunions.

In what started as a playful nod to seasonal parties, I thought I’d highlight a late 17th-century silver monteith in the Museum’s Collection. But what started as a jolly excuse to talk about wine consumption then and now soon turned dark, as often happens when you dig deeper into the layered meanings of cultural objects.