National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS
American Impressionism and Realism

Reminiscences and Reflections on Collecting

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A few weeks later, we came upon, and bought, Childe Hassam's Nurses in the Park, painted in Paris about 1889. This is also an early work in an impressionist style. We thought it was exceptionally fresh, and we were captivated by it because of the unsentimental way Hassam painted the charming and sentimental subject.

As our interest and knowledge grew, we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art virtually every Sunday and roamed through all the painting galleries. One painting there attracted us particularly, a landscape by Theodore Robinson called Bird's Eye View, Giverny. The more we looked at the painting the more we realized that it could hold its own with the French impressionists and that Theodore Robinson was a magnificent painter.

We tried to find out as much as we could about Robinson's work and kept after the dealers for Robinsons. Toward the end of 1961 we got lucky and found the self-portrait by Robinson -- said to be the only one he ever painted. What we found especially appealing, and of course especially revealing, is that he pictured himself reading a book and in profile rather than the usual full-face portrait.

Looking back, I believe that the character of the collection was already defined by these three early oils -- the Henri, the Hassam, and the Robinson -- even though in 1961 we were not yet fully committed to collecting. That would happen the following year, 1962, when we acquired more than twenty diverse works in various mediums, among which were pictures by John Singer Sargent, Maurice Prendergast, Childe Hassam, and Ernest Lawson.

It was only at this time, when we could be more analytical about our acquisitions, that we came to the realization that we were greatly attracted to lyrical, representational, but nonacademic painting; painting that expressed a definite sensibility and certain moods and feelings -- warmth, tenderness, intimacy, optimism. In spite of differences in style, there was cohesion and unity in our choices. The pictures we consistently admired had more than surface appeal, they all had a strong structural and aesthetic underpinning.

These days, when "American impressionism" is a household term, it is difficult to realize how little interest there was in this field only thirty years ago, and how unfashionable it was. In fact, we were ridiculed as "square" by most of our chums who had an interest in art. Outside of museums, most turn-of-the-century American paintings one saw in auction houses and art galleries were pretty dismal and could easily discourage popular or critical interest. We had to apply ourselves constantly to find good examples.

For Margaret and me, collecting and the development of connoisseurship were serious matters. We constantly talked to other collectors, art historians, museum curators, and dealers, trying to learn as much as possible. We traveled to museums, large and small, to look at works we had seen in reproduction, and we read everything that remotely bordered on our field.

After our 1962 buying spree we confronted the question of whether we should continue to concentrate on this one area of art. Here, Margaret's objectives and mine dovetailed completely. She was insistent that there was great emotional satisfaction in mastering one field and in pursuing a single vision and organizing principle. There was no chance that I would ever collect contemporary American or French impressionist art, which were fashionable even then. I might have ventured into areas that were then relatively overlooked, like German expressionism, but for a person like me, with my mind set and limited resources, it was natural for me to go along with Margaret's preference for American impressionism. And that we have continued to do.

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