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July 05, 2022

Franklin Kelly, Christiane Ellis Valone Curator of American Paintings

Franklin Kelly, Christiane Ellis Valone Curator of American Paintings, National Gallery of Art

Franklin Kelly is recognized nationally and internationally for his accomplishments as an art historian, museum professional, and university professor. Kelly has wide-ranging knowledge of the history of art and is considered one of the world's leading authorities on American art of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. He is particularly known for his expertise on the artists of the Hudson River School, especially Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Sanford Robinson Gifford, and on the artists Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and George Bellows, and the British painters John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. His scholarly publications include books, exhibition catalogues, museum collection catalogues, essays, and articles. He has also presented scholarly papers at symposia and conferences and has lectured extensively at museums, universities, civic organizations, and other venues.

Born in Richmond, Virginia, Kelly holds degrees in art history from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (B.A., 1974), Williams College (M.A., 1979), and the University of Delaware (Ph.D., 1985). He is currently Christiane Ellis Valone Curator of American Paintings at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and a Distinguished Affiliate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Kelly's career in museum work began in 1975, when he was appointed Artmobile Curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond; he held that position for a year and a half, at which point he was promoted to Curatorial Assistant. In 1978 he returned to school to pursue graduate work in art history; during 1978-79 he worked part time as a Curatorial Assistant in the Paintings Department of the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

In 1980 Kelly began his association with the National Gallery of Art in Washington, when he was appointed to an internship in the Department of American Art (now the Department of American and British Paintings), working for Senior Curator John Wilmerding. He was subsequently awarded a two-year Samuel H. Kress pre-doctoral fellowship for 1981-1983 at the Gallery's Center for the Advanced Study in the Visual Arts (CASVA). During that time, in addition to researching and writing his dissertation on Frederic Edwin Church, he again worked in the Department of American Art, with a particular focus on preparing entries for publication in the forthcoming systematic catalogue of 19th-century American paintings.

In 1983 Kelly was named Associate Curator of Paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), a position he held until 1985, when he returned to the National Gallery as Assistant Curator of American Art. Two years later he was promoted to full curator.

Late in 1988 Kelly joined the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington as Curator of Collections, a role within a new senior management team. At the Corcoran, he was responsible for all works of art dated pre-1945. Kelly remained at the Corcoran for two years, eventually serving as acting chief curator and, briefly, as acting director. He returned to the National Gallery as Curator of American Art in 1990 and, in 1991, saw the department's responsibilities expand to include British paintings in recognition of his expertise in that area. In 2002, he was promoted to Senior Curator of American and British Paintings, and in 2005 was given additional responsibilities as Senior Curator, Office of the Deputy Director (Alan Shestack was Deputy Director 1993-2008). Kelly was appointed Deputy Director and Chief Curator in October 2008, and served in that capacity through 2019, moving then to the combined position of Chief Curator and Christiane Ellis Valone Curator of American Paintings in January 2020, and in February 2021 full time as the Christiane Ellis Valone Curator of American Paintings.

Throughout his museum career Kelly has held important roles in the academic community. Beginning in 1990 and until 2008 he taught the history of American art in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, College Park, working with both undergraduate and graduate students. During the 1990s Kelly and his colleagues developed the program in American art at Maryland into one of the strongest and most prestigious in the country. Many of Kelly's former students now hold important academic and museum positions at institutions throughout the country. Kelly has also taught at Princeton University (1991) and at the University of Delaware (Visiting Scholar, 1995). In 2008 he was named a Distinguished Affiliate in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland, an appointment that continues to the present.

Museum Work

Kelly has had extensive experience in working in major art museums, and has a distinguished record of organizing exhibitions, making acquisitions, producing scholarly publications, and creating educational programs. He also has a long and successful history of working with trustees, advisory groups, collectors, donors, corporations, foundations, and other groups in establishing and implementing museum programs and policies and in securing support and funding. His work has required close cooperation and interaction with numerous museum departments and personnel, including those responsible for administration and finance, curatorial activities, conservation, design and installation, publications, registration, education and interpretation, public information and marketing, and development. In the course of such work, he has become thoroughly accomplished in successfully negotiating the myriad challenges presented by mounting major projects in large and complex institutions.

Over the course of his career, Kelly has organized numerous significant exhibitions. These have ranged from a broadly focused investigation of issues concerning problems in museum curatorial and conservational practices (Mia, 1985), to an in-depth study of the American painter Thomas Cole's paintings of Eden (Amon Carter Museum, 1995), to the presentation of a premier private collection of 20th-century American art (National Gallery of Art, 2000). The following are selected examples of the most important exhibitions he has organized:

Problems in Connoisseurship and Conservation, Minneapolis Institute of Art (1985): A large exhibition drawing objects from all areas of the Institute's encyclopedic collection and on the expertise of all its curatorial departments in investigating issues of authenticity, condition, and quality, and how these issues affect a museum's presentation and interpretation of the works in its care.

Frederic Edwin Church, National Gallery of Art (1989-1990): A critically acclaimed retrospective of the great 19th-century American landscape painter's finest works.
American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection, National Gallery of Art, Detroit Institute of Arts, San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1989-1990): A survey of masterworks from the most extensive and finest collection of 19th and early 20th-century American paintings in private hands.

Thomas Cole's Paintings of Eden, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas (1995): An exhibition documenting the creation of the most important paintings from this key American artist's early career, the pendants The Garden of Eden and Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, which were shown together again for the first time since 1829.

Winslow Homer, National Gallery of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1995-1996): The most comprehensive exhibition ever held of the work of this great American artist. The exhibition received widespread critical acclaim and was seen by more than one million visitors at its three venues. Kelly was the co-organizing curator.

American Impressionism and Realism: The Margaret and Raymond Horowitz Collection, National Gallery of Art (1999): A selection of works from a superb private collection of late 19th and early 20th-century American paintings, watercolors, drawings, and pastels. Kelly was the co-organizing curator.

Twentieth Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, National Gallery of Art and Seattle Art Museum (2000): A presentation of a premier private collection of American modernist works from 1910-1970.

Hudson River Visions: The Landscapes of Sanford R. Gifford, National Gallery of Art, Amon Carter Museum, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2003-2004): The most complete retrospective of the important 19th-century American landscape painter's work ever presented. Kelly was the co-organizing curator.

American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection, National Gallery of Art (2004): Paintings, watercolors, and drawings from a collection assembled by a renowned scholar of American art.

Winslow Homer in the National Gallery of Art, National Gallery of Art (2005-2006): A selection of masterworks from the Gallery's extensive holdings of Homer's work.

Constable's Great Landscapes: The Six-Foot Paintings, Tate Britain, National Gallery of Art, and the Huntington (2006-2007): An unprecedented gathering of Constable's most famous paintings and the full-size sketches for them. Kelly was the co-organizing curator.

Edward Hopper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, National Gallery of Art, and The Art Institute of Chicago (2007-2008): A comprehensive survey of Hopper's finest achievements as painter in oil and watercolor and as a printmaker. Kelly was the co-organizing curator.

J. M. W. Turner, National Gallery of Art, Dallas Museum of Art, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2007-2008): The most comprehensive survey of Turner's works ever presented in America. Kelly was the co-organizing curator.

Kelly is currently working on an exhibition for the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York. Scheduled for 2022, this exhibition will reassemble works of art and other objects and materials that were in Cole's studio at the time of his death in 1848. It will consider the nature of Cole's artistic practice during the later years of his career, the major works he produced during that time, and the important influence that the studio-which was preserved intact after his death by his family-had on the many painters who visited it to learn as much as possible about the late master.

During his career Kelly has been instrumental in acquiring, through both purchases and gifts, numerous important works of art for the institutions he has served and has expert knowledge of the art market. Among the most important acquisitions by purchase he has spearheaded are:

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
Thomas Cole, View of Mount Etna, 1842
Martin Johnson Heade, A Cloudy Day, 1874

Minneapolis Institute of Art
Joseph Wright of Derby, A Cottage on Fire by Moonlight, c. 1786-87

Corcoran Gallery of Art
John Singleton Copley, Portrait of Thomas Amory II, c. 1770-72

National Gallery of Art
(as Curator, Department of American and British Paintings)
John Singer Sargent, Valdemosa, Majorca: Thistles and Herbage on a Hillside, 1908
Albert Bierstadt, Lake Lucerne, 1858
Thomas Cole, Italian Landscape with Ruined Tower, 1838
William Michael Harnett, The Old Violin, 1886
Martin Johnson Heade, Giant Magnolias on a Blue Velvet Cloth, c. 1890
Winslow Homer, Home, Sweet Home, 1863
John Haberle, Imitation, 1887
George Henry Durrie, Winter in the Country, c. 1859
Sanford Robinson Gifford, Siout, Egypt, 1874
John La Farge, The Last Valley-Paradise Rocks, 1867-68
Richard Parkes Bonington, The Grand Canal, 1826/27
William Trost Richards, October, 1863
Asher B. Durand, The Stranded Ship, 1844
Joseph Decker, Ripening Pears, c. 1884/85
John Martin, Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still Before Gibeon, 1816
John Ward of Hull, The Northern Whale Fishery: The "Swan" and "Isabella," c. 1840
Eastman Johnson, Girl Picking Water Lilies, 1865
Eastman Johnson, On Their Way to Camp, 1873
Alfred Thompson Bricher, A Quiet Day Near Manchester, 1873

(as Deputy Director and Chief Curator)
Albrecht Dürer, The Apocalypse of Saint John, 1498, complete set of 16 woodcuts, 1498
Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Four Seasons in One Head, c. 1580/1620
Hendrick Ter Brugghen, Bagpipe Player, 1624
Gerrit van Honthorst, The Concert, 1623
Giovanni Antonio Fornari, Holy-Water Stoup, c. 1765-1775
Edwin Landseer, Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveler, 1820
Bertel Thorvaldsen, Lady Elizabeth Vernon, c. 1821
George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846
Robert Duncanson, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, 1848
James McNeill Whistler, The Palace: white and pink, c. 1879/80
Thomas Moran, The Mountain of the Holy Cross, 1890
Edward Steichen, Rodin, 1907
Archibald Motley, Portrait of My Grandmother, 1922
Margaret Bourke-White, Fort Peck Dam, 1936
Aaron Douglas, The Judgment Day, 1939
Norman Lewis, Untitled (Alabama), 1967
Glenn Ligon, Untitled (I Am a Man), 1988
Kerry James Marshall, Great America, 1994
Cecily Brown, The Swing, 2004

Kelly has also been instrumental in cultivating many important gifts from private collectors. Among the most significant of these gifts are:

Raphaelle Peale, A Dessert, 1814 John F. Peto, For the Track, 1895, and Sanford Robinson Gifford, The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert Island, 1864-65 from the collection of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr.

Charles Sheeler, Classic Landscape, 1931, Georgia O'Keeffe, Blue, Black and White, 1930, and Arthur Dove, Moon, 1935, from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Barney A. Ebsworth.

George Inness, Harvest Scene in the Delaware Valley, 1866, from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Jack Kay.

Asher B. Durand, Pastoral Landscape, 1861, from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Manoogian.

John Singleton Copley, Study for the Copley Family, 1776, from the collection of Richard T. York.

Childe Hassam, Poppies, Isles of Shoals, 1891 and J. Alden Weir, U.S. Thread Company Mills, Willimantic, Connecticut, c. 1893/97, from the collection of Margaret and Raymond Horowitz.

In addition, Kelly has been closely involved in bringing two highly important collections to the National Gallery as present and promised gifts. The first of these is the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William H. Gerdts of American still life paintings, which includes superb examples by all of the key practitioners of the genre working in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century. The Gerdts also agreed to donate their personal library on American art-the most important and finest in private hands, and particularly rich in primary sources, rare publications, and ephemera-to the Gallery The second major gift of a private collection was that of John Wilmerding, which includes 50 paintings, watercolors, and drawings by such great American artists as George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Edwin Church, Martin Johnson Heade, Fitz Henry Lane, John F. Peto, and Thomas Eakins.

In 2015 Kelly, in his role as Chief Curator of the National Gallery, oversaw the transfer of some 18,000 works of art from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which closed that year, to the custody of the Gallery. Having previously served as Curator of Collections at the Corcoran, Kelly had knowledge about and familiarity with this important group of works. Over the next three years, Gallery staff assessed the works, choosing 9,467 to be accessioned into the permanent collection (and subsequently assisted in the distribution of the remainder to other cultural institutions, primarily in Washington). The Corcoran collection added American and European paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, drawings, prints, and photographs to the Gallery's holdings, including an especially notable group of American 19th-century paintings. Among the latter were masterpieces by Albert Bierstadt (The Last of the Buffalo, 1888), Frederic Church (Niagara, 1857), Thomas Cole (Departure and Return, 1837), Thomas Eakins (Singing a Pathetic Song, 1881), Sanford Gifford (Ruins of the Parthenon, 1880), William Sidney Mount (The Long Story, 1837), and John Singer Sargent (Setting out to Fish, 1878). The Corcoran works and those already in the Gallery's collection combined to result in one of the finest and most comprehensive representations of American historical paintings in existence.

Scholarship and Research

During more than 40 years working as a museum professional, university professor, researcher, writer, and public lecturer, Kelly has become recognized as a leading scholar in the field of American art. He has published widely, and is especially known for his important book, Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape (1988), and for monographic exhibition catalogues on major artists, including Winslow Homer (1995), Hudson River School Visions: The Landscape of Sanford R. Gifford (2003), Constable's Great Landscapes (2006), and J.M.W. Turner (2008). Kelly has also helped produce comprehensive, scholarly catalogues on museum permanent collections, including American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century (a National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue), for which he was the coordinator and lead author. He has also contributed to collection catalogues for other museums, writing important groups of entries for publications by the Albany Institute of History and Art and the Corcoran Gallery of Art, among others. Kelly also has an extensive record of publishing essays and articles beginning in the early 1980s and continuing to the present; and his work is frequently cited and discussed in scholarly publications by others.

Kelly is well known and often sought out as a lecturer, having given numerous individual talks at universities, museums, and other institutions in the United States and abroad and participated in scholarly symposia on a wide variety of topics. In addition to numerous fellowships and awards, Kelly has also been the recipient of many honors, including the Sypherd Prize for the Outstanding Dissertation in the Humanities at the University of Delaware, the Distinguished Alumni Award from the Collegiate Schools, the Award for Outstanding Achievement from the University of Delaware, and the Frederic Edwin Church Award.

Franklin Kelly lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, photographer Karen Jordan.

Contact Information

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