posted by December 4 at 16:06 PMon
So this is what SAM was after.
Since May, Seattle Art Museum has sold $2.35 million in American art at auction, and a portion of that money went to pay for this painting, John Singleton Copley’s Sylvester Gardiner (circa 1772).
In a recent conversation, SAM American art curator Patti Junker told me that major early American paintings were so expensive that they were “out of the question.” I guess all I can say to that is: um, not?
Sylvester Gardiner, measuring 40 by 50 inches, pictures a physician and real-estate developer born in Rhode Island who happened to be on the wrong side of the American Revolution (which meant he fled to Nova Scotia after 1776), unlike Copley’s other famous subject from his American period, Paul Revere (who comes off in Copley’s portrait a bit like a hobbit).
From SAM’s release:
The subject, a distinguished surgeon of admirable intellect, was a good friend of the artist’s in Boston, and their warm personal relationship may account for the extraordinary human presence that this painting conveys. Copley portrayed Gardiner simply as a man of seeming curiosity and bemusement. The portrait may have been the result of a business agreement; Gardiner had sold Copley property on Beacon Hill, and perhaps Copley painted the portrait as partial payment for those lots.
Copley was widely revered as a painter in the colonies prior to his departure for London in 1774. (He was primarily self-taught, and there’s an endearing strain of awkwardness to his portraiture before he decamped to Europe and joined the Royal Academy of Art in Britain.)
Of the portraits Copley painted between 1771 and 1774, “all but Sylvester Gardiner made their way into museum collections long ago,” according to the museum. “This work remained, in its original frame, in private hands until its recent acquisition for the Seattle Art Museum.”
Copley’s lack of expressed political conviction in this tumultuous time in Boston is partly explained by his careerism as a painter. He was known as the foremost portraitist in Boston, so he strained at neutrality and painted both patriot and loyalist subjects in various manners in the years leading up to his departure for Europe in 1774. In the end, at least circumstantially, he sided with his father-in-law, one of the merchants whose stuff was dumped in the Boston Tea Party, and other loyalists, in signing a letter against the patriots’ non-importation act. Copley never returned to America after he left.
The press release announces that this is SAM’s first 18th-century portrait, and it is probably one of the very few Copleys on the West Coast. In those terms, it is certainly the type of treasure the museum has been promising to buy in exchange for the paintings it has sold lately, including two Hartleys, a Marin, and a Cassatt. Funds from those sales were cobbled together to purchase Sylvester Gardiner from an unnamed private collection, and donors pitched in, too, but judging from the few auction records I could find for Copley paintings (around $400,000), the museum still has plenty of money to play with in the American department.
What should I say about whether the exchanges were worth it? Two thoughts come to mind. One, I never got to see the Hartleys, the Marin, or the Cassatt, except in reproduction. (An aside: As veteran P-I critic Regina Hackett pointed out to me privately recently, the museum did have one of the Hartleys on display a few years ago, even though the museum’s own exhibition records show that the painting in question had never been out of storage since coming to the museum. The museum’s response to this oversight is that exhibition records only record showings that generate scholarship, or catalogs, and that they don’t include permanent collection exhibitions. This, according to the museum, is standard practice in the industry. Well, so was keeping sales a secret, and that was wrong, too—so wrong that SAM has admirably changed its position and agreed to publicize its sales in annual reports. Hey, SAM, can I offer another request?: How about compiling real exhibition records for artworks? Otherwise, it’s impossible to determine which parts of your collection you value enough to include in rotating collection shows over time. That’s historically and culturally important, don’t you think?)
Because I never got to see those paintings, and because I’ve never seen Sylvester Gardiner either—any more than you have—I can hardly throw out an educated opinion on which paintings are more appealing. And it’s arguable whether, say, Hartley or Copley is a better and more important artist for a West Coast museum to own in the year 2006. But in most cases at SAM, the museum hasn’t had to choose. It has kept other Hartleys and Cassatts, for example, and added Copley, and a whole vital segment of American history with him, to the roster.
My second thought is about museum sales in general. (In her blog, Hackett declares the subject too boring to give any time to. I’m torn; I have a secret fear that she’s right, but I also find it rather a more colorful corner of wonkery than most.) Bloggers like Tyler Green and Lee Rosenbaum seem opposed to most sales on principle, and they make good arguments. No matter how good the intentions of a museum, its decisions are always based on the subjective reasoning of a particular moment in time. (There was an era, for instance, when nobody would have cared whether Hartley took a hike; now it seems nobody cares whether a regional-period Hartley takes a hike.)
Yet hanging on to anything and everything by a name artist evokes the same spirit of hero worship that drives stale blockbuster shows. Isn’t this exactly what’s wrong with museums?
A museum like Seattle’s will never truly be encyclopedic in its collections, but that doesn’t mean that historical gaps in the collection will not be glaring if the museum intends to tell certain national stories. If SAM is to have an American department, which it now has for the first time in its history, better that the holdings reflect breadth in quality instead of shooting for skewed pockets of depth. (Not that four or five Hartleys, which is how many the museum had before it sold two, could ever constitute depth.)
I, for one, am excited to see Sylvester Gardiner. The traitor.