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Two paintings in the top-secret collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art were revealed last week prior to their public exhibition at museums in New York and Connecticut.
One of them — Richard Caton Woodville's “War News from Mexico” — was once in the collection of a New York museum that art experts speculate sold two Hudson River school masterpieces to Crystal Bridges in a controversial deaccessioning last year.
“War News,” a 27-by-25 inch oil painted in 1848, will go on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art next week as part of its “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life.” John Haberle's “Small Change,” a 9 ¼-by-7 ¼ inch oil painted in 1887, will be part of “John Haberle: Master of Illusion,” in the Museum of American Art in New Britain, Conn. A third, already announced, painting, “The Life of the Hunter: A Tight Fix” by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1856), will also be part of the Metropolitan exhibit, which opens Oct. 12.
The National Academy Museum in New York City, which once owned “War News,” shook the museum world last year when it sold, without prior announcement, masterworks by Frederic Edwin Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford to raise operating funds. The $13.5 million sale earned it the censure of the Association of Art Museum Directors, which instructed its members to suspend loaning art to or collaborating with the National Academy, a serious sanction.
Selling art from a museum collection to raise money to buy more appropriate art is considered ethical policy; selling paintings for cash for operations is not.
A little digging by blogger Lee Rosenbaum (www.artsjournal.com/culturegrrl), who interviewed a prior director of the National Academy, turned up the information that “War News” had also been sold when the Academy needed cash, in the 1990s. Alice Walton wasn't the buyer; private American art collector Richard Manoogian was. Walton apparently bought “War News,” exhibited in 2007 at the National Gallery, from Manoogian.
Now, speculation is that Walton — or, more accurately, the Crystal Bridges Museum foundation that she created — purchased from the academy Church's “Scene on the Magdalene” and Gifford's “Mount Mansfield, Vermont” last year. While the museum is in hot water for selling the pieces, some critics in New York have bemoaned the fact an Arkansas institution may have acquired two Hudson River school pieces. They are probably the same folks who were unhappy when Walton bought Asher B. Durand's much beloved “Kindred Spirits” from an earlier and equally controversial sale by the New York Public Library. The Wall Street Journal described Walton in 2007 as a “culture vulture, poised to swoop down and seize tasty masterpieces from weak hands.” Had Walton been a New Yorker buying for a New York museum, the WSJ might not have been so colorful, one suspects.
To get back in the museum association's good graces, the academy agreed to forego selling two other paintings, which it had wanted $1.5 million for: John White Alexander's “Mrs. Thomas Hastings” (1901) and Robert Blum's “Study for a Japanese Beggar.” When Crystal Bridges opens in Bentonville — and that date is as secret as the rest of the art collection — they won't be on the walls.
In a press release, CB curator Manuela Well-Off-Man (whose last name leaves her wide open for jokes about working for a Well-Off-Woman) said “War News,” which depicts an open-mouthed crowd gathered around a man holding a newspaper, “demonstrates the power of the newspaper to unite people who share certain interests and instant information.” The slaves and woman off to the side depict as well “the stratification among social groups by race, gender and class during the mid-19th century,” she said.
Haberle specialized in trompe l'oeil paintings of currency. “Small Change” was reported to be on the market in 2007; perhaps Walton bought this small piece from Manoogian, owner of another Haberle painting, as well.
Artists around Mena will welcome visitors for OAT, the Ouachita Art Trails studio tour Oct. 9-11. Get a map for the self-guided tour at the Mena Art Gallery, 607 Mena St.; the artists would like visitors to pre-register at www.ouachitatrailscom. Twenty-eight artists are participating.