- The Washington Times - Friday, August 26, 2005

Three months ago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art decided to shelve its Frank Gehry-designed addition, prompting museum president and director David Levy to resign.

Now, while it searches for new leadership, the museum is getting back to the business of exhibiting art. Its latest show, opening today, celebrates what the trend-conscious Mr. Levy never really appreciated — the Corcoran’s core collection of American paintings.

“Encouraging American Genius” is an old-fashioned survey, spanning native artistic accomplishments from the late 1700s through 1945. It starts with Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington and ends with Edward Hopper’s boating scene, “Ground Swell.”

In between are spectacular landscapes by artists Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt that were collected by founder William Wilson Corcoran during the decade before his death in 1888.

More “genius” follows with portraits by Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. Some of the later works were acquired as a result of the Corcoran’s juried exhibitions of contemporary American art, which began in 1907.

This pro-American panorama is a refreshing departure from all the faddish fare that has traveled through the Corcoran’s galleries of late. It presents a good opportunity to reassess the museum’s collection and the many gems that have been relegated to the sidelines far too long.

However, the exhibit, which will travel next year, squanders the opportunity to explain why Corcoran chose to collect the contemporary American art of his day at a time when most of his peers preferred European masterpieces. Missing, too, is a biography of the financier (who co-founded Riggs Bank) and a clear sense of his early collecting habits and how they influenced the institution.

Corcoran was important as one of the first American philanthropists to appreciate native art and make it publicly accessible by building an art museum, now the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery. By the time this first Corcoran gallery opened in 1874, his 78-piece collection had expanded to more than 300 works.

The founder wanted his venue to become the nation’s gallery, and the title of the current exhibit comes from his intention to use the institution “solely for the purpose of encouraging American genius.”

The exhibit doesn’t tell us much about what was first shown by Corcoran except to say that he liked still lifes and the popular genre painting of the Jacksonian era. One of his few identified purchases is “Leisure and Labor,” an 1858 painting by Maryland artist Frank Blackwell Mayer. Its folksy depiction of country squire and toiling blacksmith hints at the growing social and economic divisions before the Civil War.

The closest we come to understanding Corcoran’s tastes is from the landscapes that he purchased in the 1870s, which form the centerpiece of the show. These thoroughly American scenes of waterfalls, buffalo hunting and mountainous terrain suggest the founder, a Confederate sympathizer, changed his politics after the Civil War to become a national booster and supporter of the government’s expansionist policies.

Artists played up to Corcoran’s nationalism in getting him to buy their work. Bierstadt succeeded in selling an imaginary landscape, created from sketches made during a trip to the Sierras, by changing the name of the painting from “Mountain Lake” to “Mount Corcoran.”

To back up his claim that a mountain was named after his patron, the artist presented a War Department map showing the location, though the moniker had not yet been made official. Corcoran eventually got his namesake peak, which is located in the southern Sierras between Mount Whitney and Mount Langley.

As a broad survey of native art, including canvases by female and black artists, the exhibit doesn’t address the issue of Americanness directly but allows viewers to reach their own conclusions about the nation’s collective artistic “genius.” Many of the best native talents, it turns out, weren’t truly homegrown.

Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley, whose dignified portrait of Colonial merchant Thomas Amory stands out in the show, left Boston to spend years in Britain. Bierstadt, a painter closely associated with frontier imagery, was born and trained in Germany. Other virtuosos, such as the Florentine-born expatriate Sargent, were never really American.

If there is a shared theme through the works, it is the exaltation of nature as a symbol of national power and vitality.

By the mid-1800s, American artists had broken away from the European tradition of landscape as allegorical setting to capture our untamed wilderness as a force in itself.

The show makes the case with Corcoran’s great pictures. The most thrilling, Church’s 1857 “Niagara,” presents the falls without a foreground to perch the viewer on the brink of the rushing waters.

Later paintings also seem selected to emphasize American’s fascination with land and sea. They include Winslow Homer’s shore-posed fisherwoman (unfortunately, the painting is hung too high over a gallery fireplace mantel), George Bellows’ skinny-dipping “Forty-Two Kids,” and Thomas Hart Benton’s fluid “Martha’s Vineyard.” Given the wealth of landscapes and figurative paintings, the coda of 20th-century abstraction in the last gallery seems beside the point.

The exhibit of 92 canvases was culled from 650 pre-1945 American works and originally organized so that the treasures would tour the country while the Corcoran’s old gray galleries were being remodeled. Despite the postponement of that construction project, the show will still travel to four venues as planned.

As to when the major overhaul of the museum will start, Jeanette Ruesch, chairman of the museum’s board of trustees, says it won’t begin before 2009. “We are still looking for a construction team, including an architect, that can do the infrastructure,” she explains.

The beaux-arts building badly needs repair. Viewing the current exhibit, it is impossible to ignore the scruffy parquet floors, dingy stonework and spotty lighting in the galleries.

Darkened, crackled canvases and dull gilt picture frames cry out for conservation. A few of them, such as the flaky 1916 landscape “Boathouse, Winter, Harlem River,” are too fragile to travel, according to curator Sarah Cash.

Hopefully, the touring exhibit will help drum up support for the Corcoran and its remarkable collection of American art. Its hometown showing already succeeds in reminding us just how many stirring works still reside in this tarnished museum and deserve to be seen.

WHAT: “Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings From the Corcoran Gallery of Art”

WHERE: The Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue and 17th Street NW

WHEN: Today through Jan. 2, 2006; Wednesdays through Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursdays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

TICKETS: $8 adults; $6 seniors and military personnel; $4 students; $3 members


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