Two Museums

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Shaw Memorial (1900) Augustus Saint-Gaudens

We visited the National Gallery in Washington, DC and the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, MD in one weekend.

I love American art and artists, and even though the gentleman at the desk of the National Gallery really was steering us toward the Dutch Old Masters and the Renaissance painters, I made straight for the American wing of the National Gallery. In these galleries works of some of my favorite artists hang, and it was a delight to see the work of Frederic Church, Childe Hassam, and Thomas Cole. There was a wonderful Archibald Motley portrait that I had not seen before, as well as a John Singer Sargent portrait of someone that I want to be friends with (she looks like trouble, though I read that she died of peritonitis at age 14 – very sad).

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Portrait of my Grandmother, 1922 Archibald Motley
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Miss Beatrice Townsend, 1882 – John Singer Sargent

I have come to appreciate the artists through my exploration of the United States. Cole and Church are from the Hudson River School, and after spending time at Bard College in Annandale-On-Hudson and my mother-in-law’s home in nearby Woodstock, NY, I have seen that river in many seasons. The paintings try to reflect the scope of the river, and there is a romanticism of the work that partners well with the writings of the Transcendentalists. It is always a pleasure to see their paintings. They are often so large, and their colors and details are lost in the photographs of them in books.

My expectation of the physical size of most of the Hudson River School paintings is what provided both surprise and delight when I went to the Washington County Museum of Fine Art (WCMFA). This museum also has paintings from these artists, but they are much smaller in scale. There is a study of Thomas Cole’s at the WCMFA for a larger work that is hung at the National Gallery. Seeing The Voyage of Life: Childhood on Saturday and the study for the boat with the two figures on Sunday was a bit like peeking behind the curtain to watch the artist work.

Even as they attempt to faithfully and in detail depict people they encounter, there is an idealized nature to the art from the 19th Century (from George Caleb Bingham’s The Jolly Flatboatmen to portraits of Native Americans by George Catlin). Compare the illustration of the flatboatmen with Twain’s descriptions in Huck Finn, for example. Romance and realism bump up against each other.

As a Chicagoan, I have a fondness for the curatorial style of the Art Institute of Chicago when it comes to American decorative arts, pairing examples of furniture, textiles, and art from a time period and a design aesthetic in a single gallery. The National Gallery seems to have a limited collection of decorative arts on view, with examples of Georgian, Federal, and Chippendale styles close together in a few galleries shown with some examples of contemporary portraiture. The WCMFA has only a few fine examples of decorative arts, but they include less formal styles, and they are organically placed in the galleries.

One of the most charming aspects of our visit to the WCMFA was the barbershop chorus in concert. They were actually the reason for the timing of our visit, and they were exactly as I hoped: enthusiastic, earnest, a cappella. This is what I loved about the smaller museum.

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