Dear members and friends,
We have been happy to see so many of you over the past few weeks, at symposia, programs, and the recent art fairs. I’m also grateful to our partners and the participants who bring their expertise and enthusiasm to our audiences.
We welcomed colleagues from the Fenimore Art Museum, and others, to celebrate Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed with a scholarly symposium. Paul D’Ambrosio, president of the New York State Historical Association, introduced the audience to the world in which Prior painted: life in nineteenth-century New England, America before and after the Civil War, spiritual beliefs of the day, and families in pre-modern times. Carol Crown, professor of art history at the University of Memphis, spoke about prophecy art in America. And from the Museum, Stacy C. Hollander, chief curator, and Lee Kogan, curator emerita, spoke about the Prior-Hamblin school and ornamental painting, respectively. The art critic Ken Johnson, in his review of the show in the New York Times, calls it “fascinating . . . brings to light a professional artist of extraordinary versatility, resourcefulness and democratic sensibility.”
William Matthew Prior is credited with “democratizing” portraiture, in that he made such paintings available to middle-class patrons through his sliding scale of fees. His portraits tell us much about the lives of Americans of the era. Seemingly an accurate record of an individual, each Prior portrait reveals something about the sitter—his or her role or profession, perhaps an accomplishment, their economic status, or signature values, such as achieving an education or the ability to read. Prior was an abolitionist, and his many paintings of African Americans are among his most enduring and important legacies. His portrait of Nancy Lawson portrays a fashionable, educated, and well-to-do young woman; in the painting of her husband, we see this gentleman’s position as a successful and proud businessman: he wears a gold watch and watch fob and sports a cigar. The Lawson paintings are considered Prior’s masterpieces, and the artist’s evident signature (and date) on the paintings was a daring move in 1843 America.
Prior’s portraits of children are especially riveting. Rachel Rosen, the Museum’s director of education, reports that schoolchildren are fascinated to see their forebears in these paintings. The gazes of the young faces now immortalized by Prior are open and trusting, and clues to their gender can be found in the small toys or props they hold, in the way their hair is parted, or sometimes in their clothing. Also engaging is the frequent inclusion of a family dog, who received as much of the painter’s attention as the children portrayed in these canvasses.
Other approaches to portraiture are evident in Women’s Studies, our other show currently on view. Paul D. Humphrey’s Sleeping Beauties hint at the many different motivations underlying the making of a portrait, as do Eugene Von Bruenchenhein’s photographs of his wife, Marie. Nellie Mae Rowe’s lush and color-saturated depictions of women are paired with Inez Nathaniel Walker’s drawings; these two artists’ works reflect the internal world rather than record their external world. Both Artist and Visionary: William Matthew Prior and Women’s Studies teach us about the many different and complex interactions between artists and their subjects.
Our Winter Symposium on Prior coincided with the opening of the Metro Show, in late January, where we introduced ourselves to new audiences and reintroduced the Museum to many members and supporters. Ten days later, the Museum’s Uncommon Artists XXI, the annual Anne Hill Blanchard Symposium, featured cameo talks by scholars Edward Puchner (on artist Minnie Evans), Lyle Rexer (on Gayleen Aiken), Cara Zimmerman (on George Widener), and Jenny Moore (on Rosemarie Trockel). These incisive discussions were in celebration of the Outsider Art Fair, which we co-sponsored. At the preview of the Outsider Art Fair we hit another high note with the return of our Visionary Award. It was my honor to introduce Trustee Audrey B. Heckler, who presented the award this year to Lee Kogan.
Please remember that Compass: Folk Art in Four Directions remains on view until March 31 at the South Street Seaport Museum. Compass is a truly remarkable exhibition. Featuring outstanding works of art from the Museum’s collection, it sheds light on the ways in which our environments shape our lives, whether natural or built. Seaport life was dominated by wind, weather, and water, and the ways in which human activity evolved there are explored through our collection.
Important works of art from the Museum’s collection are also featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art, which explores the complex role of the Bible in the life and art of African Americans. In programming organized jointly with our neighboring institution in honor of Black History Month, my colleague Dr. Patricia C. Pongracz, acting director of MoBIA, provided a gallery tour of this exhibition earlier this month, and Lee Kogan will discuss the exhibition in an illustrated talk on February 28.
The Honorable Anne-Imelda Radice, PhD
Image: Photo by Gavin Ashworth.