The Brandywine shares a new perspective on American art
By J. Chambless
The Brandywine River Museum of Art has benefited tremendously from a recent bequest of American art, and visitors get to share the bounty in “American Beauty: Highlights from the Richard M. Scaife Bequest,” which opened on March 8.
Scaife, a publisher, philanthropist and art collector, passed away in 2014 and left his entire art collection to be divided between the Brandywine, where he was longtime trustee, and the Westmoreland Museum of Art in Greensburg, Pa. The show at the Brandywine contains highlights from both museum collections.
Spanning 58 works – most of which have not been seen outside of Scaife’s private collections in his four homes – “American Beauty” adds depth and breadth to the Brandywine’s holdings of American art, particularly landscapes. While selected according to Scaife’s personal taste, the collection gives an overview of American art that’s immediately accessible. Landscapes are the focus, and they include works by major artists such as William Merritt Chase, Albert Bierstadt, George Inness and others.
There are dazzling moments in the exhibition, both by artists you recognize and those you won’t. James Hart’s “Farmington, CT,” for instance, is a view of a farm, field and distant mountain that has razor-sharp details, and a perfect, slanting summer sunlight. “Maine Coast,” by Alfred T. Bricher, has an extraordinary light and a wall of clouds that captures both the air and the essence of the scene.
On the other hand, “Moonrise, Alexandria Bay,” by George Inness, is a soft-focus but tremendously evocative summer scene. The Brandywine’s first choice in the Scaife bequest is “New Jersey Salt Marsh,” by Martin Johnson Heade, that has a glowing sunset and barely discernible human figures in the midst of a broad swath of marshland.
Not every painting is a large-scale highlight. Take time to explore and you’ll find the small, tranquil “The Tow Path” by William Merritt Chase, and the similarly understated “Coast of California” by Albert Bierstadt, although his huge “California Coast” is more typical of his immersive scale and style.
Edward Willis Redfield’s “Garden of the Girls” is a glorious garden of vivid blooms, with a blue inlet and sky beyond, and there’s a distinct winter gloom in “Hillside Farm” by Chauncey Foster Ryder.
Among the more understated works is “Beach Scene, Coney Island” by Edward Henry Pothast, which shows a group of elaborately attired 1900s bathers dashing into the rolling surf in a moment of unguarded joy. “Yacht Club Basin” by Theodore Robinson, is small but gets the most out of its luxurious blue water and scattered white sailboats.
There’s a striking depth in “New England Doorway” by Abbott Fuller Graves, which has a just-right dappled sunlight on the garden path and the white door. In a darker vein is William Merritt Chase’s “Interior, Oak Manor,” which is large enough to let you appreciate the scale of the room, the sheen on the polished floor, the sumptuous colors and the air of quiet stillness.
“The Goldfish,” a 1911 tour de force by Charles Courtney Curran, is an almost three-dimensional depiction of a woman in a gauzy, translucent gown, with her arm extended over a fish bowl with water rendered so perfectly you can almost feel it.
“The Appraisal,” by Guy Pene du Bois, makes a sly comment on upper-class relationships and an uncertain moment between two formally dressed people. There are no answers to who or what is being appraised, but the painting hints at the cause of the stony silence and sidelong gaze.
In short, there is much to like in the new additions, and you are certain to come face to face with some landscapes that stop you in your tracks as you admire the sleight-of-hand mastery of some giants of American art.
“American Beauty: Highlights from the Richard M. Scaife Bequest” continues at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Route 1, Chadds Ford) through May 27. Visit www.brandywinemuseum.org for more information.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.