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What the Corcoran collection could mean to NGA

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Over the course of this post and another tomorrow, I’ll examine what the National Gallery of Art’s likely assumption of the Corcoran Gallery of Art means for art, for our understanding of art history and for (and about) the NGA. Today I’ll start with a focus on the Corcoran’s collection. Where would key works go and what will Corcoran paintings and sculptures mean to other Washington-area collections?

Last week, when asked by the Washington Post’s Philip Kennicott about what Corcoran works the National Gallery would take and what it would distribute to other Washington-area museums, the National Gallery punted.

“Our team of scholars and curators is deeply knowledgeable about American art and American history, but at this point we can’t say what we’ll take,” NGA spokesperson Deborah Ziska said. “It is too early in the process. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”

But the rest of us should be thinking about it, as the National Gallery’s takeover of the Corcoran’s collection has implications for how art in America — and especially American art — will be seen, considered and studied. Over the last week or so I’ve been going through the available Corcoran holdings both at the museum and online in an effort to better understand where the Corcoran’s art will end up and what it will mean to the NGA and other area institutions. As I’ll address some of the big questions around the likely takeover tomorrow; for now I’ll confine myself to the artworks themselves.

This will not be a comprehensive list — even if you wanted to read more than 3,000 words (!) on the future of the Corcoran collection, there’s not enough of the Corcoran’s art on view or online for me to be comprehensive. Besides, this post will be plenty long enough without my addressing every William  Merritt  Chase, Jasper  CropseyFrederic  Edwin  Church or Mary  Cassatt at the Corcoran (and that’s just the ‘Cs’). Instead, I’ll try to address many of the highlights of the apparently pending transfer. The art pictured with this post is all from the Corcoran’s collection, unless otherwise noted. (All information on the NGA’s collection is taken from its website. Any errors or omissions there will be mirrored here.) [Image: Chase, An English Cod, 1904.]

There are many areas in which the National Gallery will substantially benefit from Corcoran holdings, including but not limited to:

  • Andrea Vanni. The Corcoran’s Italian collection consists of not much beyond a marvelous little triptych by the Sienese Vanni. The NGA is strong in 14th-century Sienese painting, from Duccio through Pietro Lorenzetti and Lippo Memmi, the brother-in-law of Simone Martini, who is represented in the NGA collection by this Annunciation.
  • Jan van Goyen. A painter of mostly landscapes who worked primarily between Dordrecht and The Hague during the Dutch Golden Age, van Goyen was also Jan Steen’s teacher and father-in-law. Perhaps because he was pretty much always in massive debt, van Goyen was an enormously prolific artist who authored around 1,200 paintings. Two are at the Corcoran — a view of Dordrecht and a marvelous View of Rhenen (1646, at right), a town to the southeast of Utrecht. The NGA has just one van Goyen, a smashing Dordrecht view.
  • Gerrit Dou. One of Rembrandt’s best-known pupils is represented in the NGA collection by a semi-devotional painting of a St. Jerome-like figure. The Corcoran’s Dou is a tiny, oval portrait-on-panel, possibly of Dou’s  father. It’s a tender gem that would look great in the NGA’s Dutch cabinet gallery.
  • Jacob van Ruisdael. The Corcoran has a 1650-51 painting of a fallen tree. It’s installed too high up on a wall to see anything but the silvery limb of a tree in the foreground, but who in their right mind would ever turn down a van Ruisdael?
  • Albert Cuyp. The NGA has seven Cuyps. Still, the Corcoran’s smashing Landscape with Herdsman (1650-52) might be the best Cuyp landscape in Washington.
  • Jean-Simeon Chardin. There are eight Chardins at the NGA, including genre scenes, still-lifes and paintings of the leisure class at play. The Corcoran Chardin, a small-but-powerful The Scullery Maid (1738) would pair nicely with the NGA’s excellent The Kitchen Maid from the same year.
  • Joshua Johnson. Likely the first and greatest black American professional painter,  the Baltimore-based Johnson was born a slave and then was apparently able to purchase his freedom through his talents as a painter. The NGA already has five Johnsons (though it rarely exhibits any but this gem), tied with the Baltimore Museum of Art for the nation’s largest museum collection of the artist.  (About 80 Johnsons are known. Four additional Johnsons are in Baltimore at the Maryland Historical Society, bringing the total in the area to 15.) The Corcoran has a charming Johnson portrait of Grace Allison McCurdy and her daughters from 1806 (at right). Installed with the NGA’s 1800 Johnson group portrait of an unknown family, the NGA could show the significant progression in Johnson’s work.
  • Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun. The Corcoran’s 1782 portrait of Madame du Berry is evidently related to this 1781 portrait of the same sitter at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It would be just the second portrait by the artist in the NGA’s collection.
  • Samuel F. B. Morse. The NGA has two Morse portraits, but the Corcoran has The House of Representatives (1822-23), one of Morse’s best-known paintings.
  • George Caleb Bingham. In 1845, Bingham began a series of paintings of Western frontier life, and with it began the mature portion of his career. The Corcoran’s Cottage Scenery (1845), painted while Bingham was living in Saline County, Missouri, dates to the beginning of that period. (It’s a quirky painting that recalls the Spanish countryside of early Goya, a likely impossible influence as it would be a decade before Bingham would visit Europe.) The National Gallery has but one Bingham.
  • George Inness. The NGA is home to Inness’ marvelous The Lackawanna Valley (ca. 1856) and three other paintings. The Corcoran Inness, Sunset in the Woods (1891) is a particularly engaging experiment in portraying light.
  • Albert  Bierstadt. The only Bierstadt at the NGA is Lake Lucerne (1858), a European view that Bierstadt made before he discovered how photography of the American West (notably the work of Carleton Watkins) could inform his work. The Corcoran is rich in Bierstadt: It is home to what may be Bierstadt’s most famous painting, The Last of the Buffalo (1888, at right). The other big Corcoran Bierstadt is the hilariously titled Mount Corcoran (ca. 1876-77, at top, click that link for the story of how the painting was marketed named), a painting that may have been informed by Watkins. (The two men were friends, Bierstadt owned Watkins’ work, and Watkins explored entering into a business relationship with Bierstadt’s brother Edward.)
  • Niagara Falls. Before the opening of the American West, the most dramatic subject in American landscape painting was Niagara Falls. The NGA lacks so much as a mediocre Niagara Falls painting. Meanwhile, the Corcoran is famously home to the greatest Niagara of them all — and maybe America’s greatest 19thC painting — Frederic  Edwin  Church’s masterful 1857 view of the falls.
  • Frederic  Remington. Despite having presented a Remington exhibition in 2003, the NGA does not have one. The Corcoran does. With Western-themed American bronzes in the midst of a well-received moment, one would think the NGA would be trying to address that collection gap (even independent of the Corcoran takeover).
  • American trompe l’oeil painting. The NGA has excellent holdings of John Frederick Peto, William Michael Harnett and others, but trompe l’oeil typically receives secondary real estate in a closet-sized gallery in the NGA’s West Building. Maybe picking up the Corcoran’s entertaining Harnett and Charles Bird King would be additions that would lead to a greater NGA embrace of the type?
  • Cecelia Beaux. Most recently examined in a 2007 retrospective curated for the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts by Sylvia Yount (who is now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), Beaux was one of the top late-19thC American society portraitists. A Beaux has occasionally hung in the NGA galleries recently, but it must be a loan as the museum’s online collection catalogue lists no Beauxes. The Corcoran has one of her most engaging paintings, Sita and Sirata (c. 1921, at right). It was the cover image for Yount’s catalogue.
  • George  Bellows. Last year the NGA made Bellows the subject of a third retrospective since 1979, an unnecessary show of an over-examined artist. Given the NGA’s evident infatuation with Bellows, there’s no chance that the excellent Forty-two Kids (1907), Bellows’ earliest major painting, would escape the NGA’s grasp.
  • Aaron Douglas. While the NGA has never prioritized including non-white-men in its collection or presentation of pre-World War II American art, it may be hard to condemn the museum for its failure to own a significant Douglas. As Douglas was substantially but not entirely a muralist, most of his best work is in situ, such as at Nashville’s Fisk University. Examples of his paintings are clustered in major museum collections — and have been for years. (However, studies for his murals remain in several private collections.) A highlight of the Corcoran’s collection is Douglas’ powerful Into Bondage (1936), one of four works Douglas painted for the Texas Centennial Exhibition. Only two of those four Texas paintings survive (the other is at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). They were featured at the Hall of Negro Life, a Texas Centennial Expo hall separate from the main fair (the state of Texas funded the whites-centric hall, while the federal government and Dallas African-Americans funded the other). The catalogue of the 2007 Douglas retrospective features an excellent Renee Ater essay on the Texas paintings.
  • Marsden  Hartley. Somehow the NGA has just four Hartleys. The magnificent Berlin Abstraction (1914-15, at right), one of more than a dozen paintings Hartley made in Germany, is one of the  best things in the Corcoran collection and would immediately be the best Hartley at the NGA.
  • Arthur Dove. Space Divided by Line Motive (1943) at the Corcoran, painted just three years before Dove’s death, is one of Dove’s most fully resolved abstractions. The National Gallery has an excellent pair of earlier, less abstract Doves. This late painting would give the NGA the opportunity to exhibit Dove’s progress.
  • Edward Hopper. The Corcoran’s Ground Swell (1939) is illustrated candy, but as the NGA has just one Hopper oil painting…
  • Contemporary art. Depending on what happens with photography — more on that in a minute — this may be the Corcoran collecting area from which the NGA will likely keep the least. The Corcoran has excellent examples of Ad Reinhardt, Thomas Nozkowski, Anne Truitt, Gene Davis, Richard  Diebenkorn, Cy  Twombly, Ellsworth  Kelly, Lari Pittman, Neil Jenney, Kerry James Marshall and Lee Bontecou that the NGA would be thrilled to have. The Corcoran has a terrific mulberry Rothko, but as the NGA already has over 1,000 total works by the artist, look for the Corcoran’s to go to the Hirshhorn.

Then there are the paintings and collecting areas about which the National Gallery would have to make some decisions. The NGA has never much gone in for American genre painting, and there’s no acquisitive evidence that a lackluster 2009 Metropolitan Museum of Art survey of the type motivated the NGA to address the area. However, the Corcoran is particularly rich in American genre painting, with examples by Horace BonhamWilliam Sidney Mount, John Mix Stanley and others. The NGA likely wouldn’t totally ignore the set — is this Corcoran Thomas Eakins, unlike any Eakins in the NGA collection, a genre painting? — but don’t expect the NGA to suddenly become interested.

And what about paintings by lesser Americans that have not really been NGA artists. What about 19thC Washingtonian William Douglas McLeod, an artist and teacher whose family owned an early Washington hotel and who served as a Corcoran curator? The Corcoran has three McLeods, including a lovely Potomac River view. Or what about second-tier colonial painter Joseph Blackburn? A circa 1760 Blackburn portrait of an unknown sitter at the Corcoran features a terrific waistcoat (at right), a bit of textile-and-brocade that bounced off of Blackburn’s brush. The NGA has one desultory Blackburn that came in after Andrew Mellon’s death and which may not have been exhibited in the gallery.

There are other Corcoran holdings about which the decision to keep instead of to distribute may not be — or should not be — quite so clear-cut, including:

  • Dutch painting. While there are several Dutch paintings that the NGA would no doubt eagerly snap up (see above), there are some less distinguished works here too. The NGA has three paintings by Pieter de Hooch, one of the most popular Dutch Golden Agers. Will it want a so-so Corcoran de Hooch that may have suffered significant paint loss? (The painting is on view now, but is hung so high up on a wall that it’s difficult to examine closely.) The Corcoran exhibits a 1633 Man with Sheet Music as a Rembrandt, but the painting is sometimes considered a ‘circle of’ painting. Would it add much to one of the world’s finest Rembrandt collections, or would it be shown more at the Phillips or at the Baltimore Museum of Art? (And for the purposes of the NGA-Corcoran deal, are the BMA and the Walters area museums?) The Corcoran has a ter Borch portrait pair, but the NGA has two ter Borches that are at a significantly different level than the Corcoran paintings. (NGA curator Arthur Wheelock included neither of the Corcoran paintings in his 2004 ter Borch retrospective.) The Corcoran has a 1667 Steen  Music Lesson, but its figures are awkward in comparison with this NGA Steen.
  • Anton Raphael Mengs. There isn’t a Mengs painting in the NGA collection, which is either a gap or a considered decision to not bother with a painter who tends toward wan neo-classicial solipsism. The Corcoran’s Adoration, which has been in the museum’s collection for so long that you can read the entry on it in the Corc’s 1882 collection catalogue, is saccharine. If the NGA hasn’t bothered with Mengs before now, this one won’t change its mind.
  • Gilbert Stuart. The NGA has ~47 Stuarts, more than any other American museum. (Depending on how one counts unfinished paintings and the like, the Metropolitan and the MFA Boston each have around 30.)  The Corcoran has two versions of Stuart’s famed portraits of George Washington, which sounds like a lot… except that the NGA has four. The NGA could opt to pass the Corcoran Stuarts onto the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which has only this Stuart portrait of John Adams and an oil sketch of an unknown lady.
  • Honore Daumier. The NGA already has 50 Daumier sculptures, roughly half of the artist’s output in the medium. If there are duplicates between the Corcoran and NGA holdings, expect the NGA to first look to round out the Hirshhorn’s excellent Daumier collection, and then perhaps to the Phillips Collection, which has many Daumier paintings and works on paper, but no sculptures. One exception: The Corcoran has a Daumier self-portrait in bronze that the NGA would likely keep.
  • John Singleton Copley. The National Gallery has 15 Copley paintings, complete with examples of work he did in the colonies and in England. (Nine are on view now.) The Corcoran portrait of Thomas Amory II is from 1770-72 (above, right), a period from which the NGA has several Copley portraits. It’s great to have depth in an artist, but expect the Smithsonian American Art Museum to hope for the Corcoran painting. SAAM has two Copley canvases. Both are on view.
  • Thomas  Gainsborough. While the National Gallery has 11 Gainsboroughs, none are paired portraits of a couple, as is the Corcoran’s 1786 Gainsboroughs of Lord and Lady de Dunstanville. Blake Gopnik wrote about them here.
  • Henry Raeburn. Again, the NGA may be rich in Raeburn (it holds 11), but the Corcoran’s portrait Mrs. Vere of Stonebyers (ca. 1805) may be too good to give up.
  • Thomas Cole. The Corcoran has two syrupy, pre-Kinkadeian Coles, The Departure (1837) and The Return (1837). The NGA has eight Cole paintings, each of which is better than the Corcoran paintings. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has three Coles.
  • Nineteenth-century French academic painting. The Corcoran has a lot of it. The group seems a better fit at the Walters Art Museum, which also has a good bit of the stuff, than at the NGA. The Corcoran also has the usual American amount of weak Corot, the sort that for whatever reason appealed mightily to American collectors. However, it also has the sparklingly good Corot Repose, an Arcadian nude (1860, 1865-70, at right) that would likely stay at the NGA.
  • Edgar  Degas. The National Gallery has an embarrassing abundance of super Degas. Will it bother with this painting of dancers, which would look lovely at the Phillips?
  • Winslow  Homer. The Corcoran Homer is dreadful.
  • John  Sloan. On one hand, the NGA has just one Sloan painting, an excellent New York City landscape that’s on view now. This Frenchified Corcoran Sloan is far from a typical painting by the artist, and it seems possible that it was modeled on Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, the Phillips’ most famous painting. (The Phillips is also chock-full of excellent Sloan.)
  • Frantisek Kupka. In 2009 the Corcoran received the last significant modern painting to be added to its collection, this sparkling untitled 1912 Kupka (at right). The donors are Washingtonians who, evidently, chose the Corcoran for the painting over the NGA, which has an extraordinary Kupka from the same period. This painting might be a good test of how the NGA is able to soothe local donors who pointedly supported other institutions.

Note that this summary fails to include photography and decorative arts. The Corcoran has a significant photography collection — likely one of the top 10 or so photography collections in the country — but only 10 objects from that collection are online and the Corcoran has never published its photo collection. In addition to having many major works, the Corcoran photo collection is particularly strong in photographers from the District and in pictures of the District. What happens to those pictures will be a key question as the NGA’s takeover of the Corcoran moves forward.

Readers are welcome to address additional specific works in the comments.

Second post: What would a post-Corcoran National Gallery and Washington look like?

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  1. It would be wonderful if there was period of about a year during the transition where they opened the Corcoran for free so the public could see the collection in place one last time. Then after about three months they swapped it all out with Corcoran holdings that aren’t currently on display and so on until every last work was seen one last time hanging at the gallery. I think this would be a fitting way to memorialize the history of the Corcoran’s acquisitions, but it would also give people like me who always wonder what we don’t get to see, a chance to finally have that OCD-inspired desire fulfilled.

  2. Stephen says:

    Works could remain in the Corcoran, yet be borrowed regularly by the NGA, though that could lead to situations where works are more often on loan than in their home setting.

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  6. Henry says:

    What constitutes an area museum? Has that been determined? I understood that the restrictions on Mr. Corcoran’s gift would place works at museums in the District of Columbia. So maybe the Kreeger or the Katzen Center will have a windfall? But I don’t imagine any of this will happen very soon.

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  8. […] business or transition plan.  Many of the key issues are still unclear (such as acquisitions, restricted funds, and deaccession proceeds); key leaders at all three institutions didn’t […]

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