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 Curatorial Library/Archives

From the Beautiful Box: Tarbell and Hand-Painted Glass Slides

Edmund Charles Tarbell, Three Sisters - A Study in June Sunlight, 1890. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Montgomery Sears. Photo credit Efraim Lev-er.
Edmund Charles Tarbell, Three Sisters - A Study in June Sunlight, 1890. Oil on canvas. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Montgomery Sears. Photo credit Efraim Lev-er.

In my last blog post, I shared with you the secrets of a lovely wooden box which contained a collection of glass lantern slides from about 1920.  While most of the slides are black and white, a few colorful slides rest as jewels among them.

In the early 20th century, photography was principally a black and white experience.  Color photography, an experimental practice at best, was not a terribly viable practice for mass consumers/audiences until the 1940s.

American Art Collection Curatorial

From the Collection—“Chippendale” Philadelphia High Chest

Philadelphia, High Chest of Drawers, 1760-75. Walnut, yellow poplar, white cedar, brass hardware (replaced),94 1/2 x 46 3/4 x 23 3/4 in.  Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, Virginia Booth Vogel Acquisition Fund M1984.120. Photo by John Nienhuis.

If you need an excuse for cake, Thomas Chippendale would have celebrated his 293rd birthday today. Indulge and then come to the Museum’s American Collections Galleries on the Lower Level and appreciate several sumptuous forms of “Chippendale” style furniture.

Chippendale was born in England on June 5, 1718. He became a London cabinetmaker in the 1750s, and though his furniture appears in many grand 18th-century English homes, he is more widely known for publishing books on trendy furniture design.  His publication was so influential that the name “Chippendale” stuck as shorthand for a wildly popular style of ornament.

As an example, you can stand in front of the Museum’s High Chest and refer to it as either “Rococo” or “Chippendale” in style. You’d be looking at an American object that Mr. Chippendale didn’t know about or help make, but your term would still be apt because its American craftsman knew about Chippendale’s ideas of good taste when he put together the exquisite carved ornament on this monumental object.

Art Curatorial

Join Me on a Visit to the MFA’s “Art of the Americas” Wing

Boston MFA Americas Wing

Last week I visited The Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and I was delighted by what I saw.  I traveled with several Milwaukee colleagues as we prepare for upcoming installation projects at the Museum. I was delighted to visit old “friends” in Boston’s rich American collection, I was thrilled to experience Norman Foster’s cool and elegant architecture, and I was grateful that several MFA curators took time to discuss the project in detail.

Acclaimed by everyone as a smashing success since its opening in November 2010, the Boston MFA’s $504 million, 121,307 square foot addition reorganizes the American art collection into 53 varied galleries. I found it an academic and sensual pleasure.

I was in the building for almost 12 hours, and I snapped almost 400 digital pictures. Here are a few that share what I saw and some notes on how these things might affect installation here in Milwaukee:


Teacher’s Night Recap: American Art & Visual Literacy

In early March, twenty-two teachers joined us at the Museum for a free Teacher’s Night that focused on the recently unveiled Charles Prendergast installation in Gallery 15 on the Main Level. We got a generous grant from the Terra Foundation for American Art not only for the installation (the beautiful Prendergast objects featured are almost all from their collection), but also for a Teacher’s Night inspired by the works! Here’s an inside look at the planning for the event as well as the event itself…

Art Curatorial

From the Collection–Byrdcliffe Colony Chest

Zulma Steele (American, 1881–1979) designer, Chest, ca. 1904. Produced at Byrdcliffe Colony, Woodstock, New York. Poplar and original copper hardware. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection L1993.5.1. Photo by Efraim Lev-er.

In honor of women’s history month, here is one of the Museum collection’s most striking objects from the Arts & Crafts Movement–an object that happens to have been designed by a woman.

This poplar wood chest was made at the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony near Woodstock, New York and features a relief panel designed by Zulma Steele. Steele–a talented painter, potter, and designer–arrived at the idyllic community of craftsmen at age 22 in 1903 and became a lifelong resident. She was one of many women drawn to the community in search of an independent artistic career instead of the traditional, subservient role of wife that was prevalent among her contemporaries.

Art Curatorial

From the Collection–George Washington (ish)

English (Staffordshire), Figure of Benjamin Franklin, 1780-1800. Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Floyd A. Segel, M1984.111.

President Barack Obama has one of the world’s most famous faces. It would be hard to imagine a newspaper or a t-shirt maker or a sculptor getting away with substituting a similar grin and telling us it was our President. I suspect we’d know the difference.

But if this were the 18th century, we may be none the wiser.

Art Behind the Scenes Exhibitions

Wright Changes to the 20th-century Design Gallery

Milwaukee Art Museum 20th-Century Design gallery. Before changes (above) and after (below).

When you visit the Museum’s Frank Lloyd Wright: Organic Architecture for the 21st Century exhibition, you’ll notice that in addition to a trove of architectural drawings from the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, the installation includes drawings and furniture from the Museum’s permanent collection.

In the “Commissioned Houses” section, alongside stunning drawings of Wright’s homes for specific clients, the Museum’s George Mann Niedecken Combination Daybed/Writing Desk/ Lamp sits grandly on a center pedestal. Designed for Wright’s Irving House in Illinois, the desk is reunited with an Irving House lamp on loan from a private collection. In the exhibition’s section on “Enlightened Workspaces” the Desk (on long term loan to the Museum) designed for the S. C. Johnson Company building in Racine is on view along side site plans, presentation renderings, and models.

Art Art News

American Industrial Design Stamps

2011 "Pioneers of American Industrial Design" postage stamps from

One could say that I’m jumping the gun on this post. But I’ll argue that I’m giving design-lovers six months fair warning, and I can’t contain my excitement: The United States Postal Service has announced their 2011 special stamps. In July we’ll see a sheet celebrating the “Pioneers of American Industrial Design”!

The stamp series honors twelve of the nation’s most important and influential industrial designers. Their combined work encompasses everything from furniture and appliances to office buildings and locomotives, and it shaped the look of everyday life in the 20th century. This new pane of stamps will be “Forever” rate, so I’ll be stocking up to use these for years of rent checks and utility bills.

The stamps are beautifully designed–and they beautifully connect to many design objects in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s collection.

Art Curatorial

From the Collection–Rubens Peale “Apple and Two Pears on a Pewter Plate”

Rubens Peale (American, 1784–1865), Apple and Two Pears on a Pewter Plate, 1861. Milwaukee Art Museum, Purchase, Layton Art Collection. Photo by John R. Glembin.

In the American Collections of the Milwaukee Art Museum is an example of the long-standing artistic tradition, the still life painting. Apple and Two Pears on a Pewter Plate (1861) by Rubens Peale, speaks both to the history of the still life genre and the Peale family’s American artistic dynasty.

Historical origins of the still life trace back to antiquity, but it was not until the Renaissance that still life painting rose and flourished as a distinct tradition, when painters throughout Europe explored the art of painting a carefully arranged assemblage of objects.