Thursday, March 18, 2010

A Little Gem




This is the view standing in the old masters gallery at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland. It's just west of the first long string of mountains you hit as you travel in from the coast near Washington, DC and Baltimore. Because of this geography, it was right on the route the Confederate Army took heading to and retreating from Gettysburg during the Civil War. Apparently Lee's army camped on the grounds where the Museum is now located. Dripping with history, the setting is also very beautiful.

I attended the Members Annual Meeting today at the Museum. Had the chance to meet the President of the Board of Trustees, Tom Newcomer. He's an energetic supporter of the Museum and proved an engaging speaker as he chaired the meeting. Here he is framed by the work from the local Valley Art Association now hanging in one of the galleries.





In addition to displaying the work of famous artists, the Museum has a long and commendable history of exhibiting the artists of the region. Some years back I served as one of the jurors for the Museum's annual juried regional art exhibition.

And here is the new Director of the Museum, Rebecca Massie Lane, who came last year to the Museum from Sweet Briar College where she was the Director of that college's Art Gallery.





In a move that is remarkable in the middle of a recession, the Museum is planning a major improvement to its facility by adding an elegant glass roof over the Museum's large interior courtyard. In making that central space available for year-round use, WCMFA emulates the excellent renovation Washington. DC's Smithsonian American Art Museum did recently in glassing over their central courtyard. We wish Newcomer and Lane luck in the last leg of fundraising for this project.

Some years ago, perhaps as a warm up for the Courtyard Project, WCMFA wrapped glass walls around the rounded portico that used to serve as the Museum's front entrance. It opens up the front of the Museum to view the lake in City Park and give a special prominence to the much beloved Anna Hyatt Huntington sculpture Diana of the Chase of 1922 pictured at the beginning of this post.





I remember when I first saw this addition some year ago I was utterly charmed at the new intimately welcoming space it created. In the winter its great to sit on one of the benches and see the snow around the lake. You admire the Diana sculpture from several different angles.





Huntington knew her stuff and created an amazingly energetic yet graceful series of forms rising up through the hound, through the figure and finally up into the bow and beyond. It dances for your eyes. And all this with the lake as a backdrop. As a natural setting for art, nobody else in the region comes close. I suspect the the new Courtyard project will be a lovely addition as well.

After the war Hagerstown built an amazing City Park that reminds me of a small version of New York's Central Park, though Hagerstown's has a view of the mountains New Yorkers would envy. Then in 1930 a wealthy artist built and opened the WCMFA. It is something of a rarity both for its strengths in 19th and early 20 century art and for its remarkable setting. If anyone wants to introduce young children to their first art museum, this is the place to do it. The facility sits on the bank of an enormous winding pond loaded with waterfowl and huge fish. It teams with life. Here's some of the critters within a few steps of the Museum entrance.



The kids will like the museum as it is small enough to see in a half hour. Then take them on a walk around the twisting and bending pathways surrounding the pond and they'll love the birds and fish.

Seriously, visual art and wildlife have more of a tie in than you might think. We evolved, after all, from some distant ancestors we share with these animals. Artists when they make work for us are reaching deeply back into parts of ourselves that are too often hidden from our view. Art's job is to awaken some of these slumbering spirits. Both art and the natural world vibrate with instinct, emotion, and sensual beauty. I believe that in the presence of animals and when we stand before art, we sense something deeper within ourselves. Museums on the approachable scale offered by the WCMFA are perfect for inviting the growing mind of the child into seeing art as a natural, and very enjoyable part of their lives. And what kid doesn't like ducks?

The Museum's Permanent Collection really surprised me years ago when I first saw it. Hagerstown after all is a small and somewhat remote little city. One I particularly like is a baroque oil by the Dutch painter Gofried Schalcken, Self Portrait of the Artist Holding a Candle from 1694. The rhythm that runs through the figure is great. Note how the artist runs the angle of the upper hand exactly parallel with the tilt of the candle's shaft. And how the artist's highlighted thumb and index finger echo the flourish of the candle's flame. These baroque painters had such a sense of mysterious subtly glowing light.






Below is a beautiful little George Inness oil, Coming Storm, Montclair from 1876. Inness painted several different versions of this same basic composition but each carries a distinctly different mood. This one puts a big emphasis on the white cloud that contrasts both the very blue sky and the beautifully shaped stand of trees. Inness could at the same time suggest great solidity while still describing forms with feathery sensitive textures. How he pulls this off so well and still creates such a palpable atmosphere is a mystery.



And below is a Hudson River School painting by one of my old favorites, John Frederick Kensett's A Mountain Pond from 1863. He's an artist I fell in love with when I first saw his work at Indiana University Art Museum back in 1970 as I entered my MFA program for painting. I did my first copy of a master's painting right from that I.U. Museum Kensett and learned a great deal.




Kensett didn't paint a lot of vertical canvases, so this one is sort of unusual for him. What it does have that is so distinctive is his characteristic crisp and even brittle textures that are then softened by his sensitive touch with atmosphere. The warm colors of the rocky mountain played off against the cool greys of the fog is worth the price of admission. (The Museum, by the way, is free).

Below is one of the Museum's signature pieces, Scene on the Catskill Creek , New York, by the great Hudson River School painter Frederick Church. I first saw this painting in Washington D.C. when the National Gallery of Art borrowed it to include in their monumental Church exhibition some years ago. They were lucky to get it.

Church could be an amazing composer of shapes. Look at the sharp wedge-like white cloud as it stretches across the painting, almost as if it strains to reach out and touch the dark silhouetted trees of the foreground. And note the beautiful simplicity of the flat shapes of the foreground at the right. Church was a master of detail to be sure, but he knew how to plant all that information on an energized abstract composition that gave his paintings an extra breath of life.





And finally here's an oil by a painter I didn't know, Hamilton Wolf, an American artist who lived from 1883- 1967. It's titled simply Annunciation. While not displaying a date, I'd bet it is from the 1930's or so. It has a wonderful sculptural monumentality that reminds me of my favorite American printmaker, Rockwell Kent. I did two blog post on Kent's engravings a few weeks ago. Also, like Kent, Wolf the painter does a masterful job with an abstracted geometry in the background that works both with and against the figure's pose at the same time in a perfect balance. Always a treat to discover new excellent work by a little know artist. And to see their work getting some of its due.






If you've never been to WCMFA and you're in the area, go see it. You won't be sorry.













2 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your appreciation for this marvelous little gem. I moved to Hagerstown a few years ago and will always remember my delight when I first visited the museum....it is an absolute treasure and I join you in saying to anyone who has not visited please plan to do so. It will be well worth your time.

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  2. Anonymous- thanks for your comment. I always tell people about this place. Everyone is pleasantly surprised.

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