Curator highlights works from the Amon Carter Museum's collection

Posted 6:24pm on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011

Ask museum curators to name the best artwork in their museums and they are not likely to have a swift answer. Best for a particular artist? Best for its time? Best purchase price? Best for the collection? There are so many considerations -- including shelving any personal bias -- that the curator pauses, sputters and asks for a reprieve. It's like asking a mother to name her favorite child.

Nevertheless, we asked the curators at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, which has more than 250,000 pieces in its permanent collection, to choose their favorites. They identified 14 works purchased after the museum opened in 1961 that they feel are pivotal to the collection. They didn't consider the original collection of Western art from Amon Carter Sr., with its Remingtons and Russells and the public favorite, A Dash for the Timber, by Frederic Remington, in making their choices. That's as close to favoritism as they'll get. Here are their choices.

Light Coming on the Plains I, 1917

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)

Watercolor on newsprint

Acquired in 1966

Rebecca Lawton, the museum's curator of paintings and sculpture, says "1966 was a banner year for us. We worked with a living artist organizing a retrospective, which she hadn't had in a number of years. We bought three works right out of the show." The three watercolor works on newsprint were abstractions O'Keeffe made in 1917. They were inspired by the Texas landscape of the Panhandle and Palo Duro Canyon, which she had come to love when she lived in Texas teaching in the art department of the West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University) in Canyon, just south of Amarillo. The prescient nature of the abstractions and their link to Texas were what attracted the curators to select these works for the permanent collection.

Blips and Ifs 1963-64

Stuart Davis (1892-1964)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 1967

"This is the largest-scale work in our collection, and its purchase was pivotal," Lawton says. "That decade was a lead-up to the U.S. bicentennial in 1976, and all the great minds in art were saying that American art needed better recognition within museums.... It was an exciting body of studies to undertake, and we had the great leadership to take us on that journey." It was a good time to collect American art, as the "competition wasn't as fierce as it is today," Lawton says.

Attention, Company!, 1878

William M. Harnett (1848-1892)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 1970

"This is one of our most mysterious and compelling works," Lawton says. "It begs us to answer, 'What is this about?' It seems simple -- it's a young boy playing soldier. But no one knows who this boy is. It's an exceptional work, and there's not anything like it in other museums." The young African-American as a subject matter is of huge importance to the Carter's education program. The school groups stop here on their tours so that students can see it, but the older visitors stop as well. "It appeals on a multigenerational level," Lawton says. "It is so sensitive and enigmatic -- it offers so much room for interpretation."

Thunder Storm on Narragansett Bay, 1868

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 1977

"This is a very flexible and elastic painting," Lawton says. "There is light and dark, violence and calm. It is a good stopping point on tours to discuss connoisseurship." When this work was first shown in 1868, it was considered, at best, "peculiar." Heade never did achieve success in his lifetime, and it wasn't until this work resurfaced in 1943 that the art community became aware of him and his work found an appreciative new audience.

The Hunter's Return , 1845

Thomas Cole (1801-1848)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 1983

Cole was a popular and avidly collected artist, and what his clients liked best were his dramatic landscapes. He obliged with works such as The Hunter's Return, but for all its bucolic splendor, there are ominous warnings included by the artist. "He brings together a number of themes: the role civilization plays, the bridge between wild and tamed," Lawton says. "The time is the end of the day -- the hunters have returned and are welcomed by the family, but violence has taken place. The deer has been killed." There are other signs of the family's destructive influence: Trees have been chopped down, their stumps evident in the foreground. "This is a monument of Hudson River School painting," Lawton says.

Wrapped Oranges, 1889

William J. McCloskey (1859-1941)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 1985

"There is such a level of engagement with this painting," Lawton says. "There is such exuberance here. It reminds us of the exuberance of life, and all it takes to remind us of that is six oranges." It is a simple painting, and a subject matter that McCloskey painted many times, the tissue-wrapped citrus. He was a student of Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and there, Eakins would assign this still-life of oranges wrapped in paper to his students for the challenges of shape, light and texture. McCloskey must have enjoyed this particular assignment. He became very adept at round pieces of fruit, some wrapped, and some unwrapped on a reflective mahogany table.

Swimming, 1885

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 1990

This is the first painting bought for public display in Fort Worth. It came by way of Friends of Art, a group of inspired citizens who began at the Fort Worth Public Library and eventually grew to become the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. The Friends group purchased the painting in 1925, and at the time, it was considered too risqué for Philadelphia. It was acquired by the Amon Carter Museum in 1990 from the Modern Art Museum through grants and donations from the Amon G. Carter Foundation, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation, the Anne Burnett Tandy and Charles D. Tandy Foundation, Capital Cities/ABC Foundation, the Star-Telegram, the R.D. and Joan Dale Hubbard Foundation, and the people of Fort Worth, according to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art's website.

American Indian Symbols, 1914

Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 1999

During the First World War, Marsden Hartley was in Germany, making paintings that used American Indian motifs. They were often fictional Indian graphics of his imagination; nevertheless, the series of paintings was galvanizing for other artists. "This was a great leap," Lawton says. "Something jarring was happening." His work from this period had a profound effect on art currents after the war. By then, however, Hartley had moved on to Western landscapes.

Indian Warrior, 1895-1897

Alexander Proctor (1860-1950)

Bronze

Acquired in 2002

This is "a great cast," Lawton says, and "we had to throw in a sculpture. It's not just a profile of the man but a beautifully posed horse. It's a commanding piece, impressive and dignified. It's viewed as quite an achievement in bronze casting to pull this off with that feathered headdress." Indian Warrior, like A Dash for the Timber, is used frequently on school tours to encourage descriptive writing.

Chief Joseph, Nez Percé, included in 1911 volume

Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952)

Photogravure

Acquired in 2009

The Amon Carter Museum acquired Curtis' 20 bound volumes and 20 portfolios, with a total of more than 2,000 images. This portrait of Chief Joseph, who tried to take his tribe to Canada to escape incarceration on a reservation and failed just miles short of the border, is a commanding photograph that stirs strong emotions. The Carter had been waiting for an entire Curtis archive to become available, and the wait finally paid off in 2009. "We needed a great complete set," Lawton says, and this has been the collecting mantra at the museum.

Conversation -- Sky and Earth, 1940

Charles R. Sheeler Jr. (1883-1965)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 2009

"This is a landscape of modern technology," Lawton says. "His view of the Hoover Dam is a view of the new American West. It fits the synergy of our collection. He's made a painting that looks like a photograph, and it's broken all the rules. He's placed the viewer somewhere in midair to get a sense of compressed space. It's very unsettling." Even though Sheeler painted this in 1940, when everyone else was in awe of the massive structure of the dam, Sheeler chose to emphasize the enormous need for the electricity it produced. His view is very prescient.

Woodland Glade, 1860

William Trost Richards (1833-1905)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 2009

"This painting is a revelation," Lawton says. "Many people are not aware of this artist who could paint almost microscopically. They don't realize that an artist wielding a brush can give you the detail of a photograph. Trost even includes lifelike insects on the forest floor. Plus, this is a perfect marriage of painting and frame."

Idle Hours, ca. 1894

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)

Oil on canvas

Acquired in 1982

"Chase just nailed it. I don't think there is any painting that is more transportative," Lawton says. "The colors, the light, the brushwork, the sense of being in the fresh air are so well-executed. This teaches us to look with our eye to bring these shapes together. This is an 'A' artist on an 'A' day."

The Potter, 1889

George de Forest Brush (1854 or 1855-1941)

Oil on panel

Acquired in 2009

"This is art about making art, the power of humanity to create," Lawton says. "It's a very simple painting, but the beautiful way the figure is intent on painting this pot excludes everything else. The figure, the leopard skin -- the tactile sensations are beautifully refined."

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