Washington County Museum of Fine Arts is one of those places that when you visit for the first time you scratch your head and wonder "What's a museum with a collection like this doing here?"
Rebecca Massie Lane, the Director of the Museum, asked me to join their Board of Advisors. As I've been a fan of the Museum for years and had an exhibit of my own paintings there back in 1995 I said sure. Was just out to Hagerstown, MD for one of the Board's meetings last Thursday and took time afterwards to enjoy the quiet of the galleries.
Situated between the mountain ridges of the easternmost Appalachians, it came into being when a wealthy artist William Singer and his wife Anna Singer decided her hometown should have an art museum. It's a bit remarkable as it happened during the Great Depression and was started just with the Singer's money and art collection. It's now got some 7000 pieces in its Permanent Collection and has American Association of Museum accreditation. Its Collection has an amazingly strong number of 19th and early 20th century paintings as well as one of my own landscapes.
Here's a few of the paintings that are up just now:
Above is a moody forest interior by Worthington Whittredge (American, 1820-1910), a painter with a name I always found overly stuffy, but one heck of an artist. He had an uncanny eye for the light and atmosphere of the deep forest. I grew up in just such a place in upstate New York and always feel Whittredge nailed it with such scenes. Notice how he divides the space with overlapping planes of dark, then light, then dark tones. A landscape has to earn its keep by building a space you can feel, and this one does that beautifully. It's also an example of how a good artist knows what to focus on and what to suppress- the limited whites in the painting are reserved to make high contrast just in the artist's favorite place along the center stream.
Here's a little oil by Theodore Rousseau (French, 1812-1867) who is my favorite of a group of painters who form the Barbizon School, named for the forest near Paris they loved to work in.
They form a bridge between the landscape traditions of 17th and 18th century art with a new interest in atmospheric effects and looser handling that came to full bloom with the Impressionists a generation later. But they were a powerfully expressive group of artists in their own right. Rousseau in this piece shows us a wonderful unity between the earth and sky. One of his tricks is using the same nervous little brush strokes to describe both foliage and clouds. And he's got an impressive ability to mass the thousands of leaves in trees to form an intriguing silhouette, like the two central trees here.
Switching gears, here above is an American Impressionist interior and figure by Richard Miller (1875 - 1943). Miller's a master of light effects and composition that combine to foster the distinctive and contemplative mood of the painting. Look at how the artist segregates all his cool colors and darker tones to just the indoors, leaving the outside warm and light-filled. The model's lounge chair and vanity table create a network of blues that form a large triangle, framing the reclining woman. That and oblique angle of the woman's pose play off against the more formal horizontal and vertical window frames. Maybe my favorite device is Miller's playful diagonal arrangement of the opened venetian blinds.
Just below is a Robert Bruce Crane (American 1857-1937) landscape that's a wonderful example of tonalist painting. Titled Near Hoboken, it shows Crane reserving almost all his lights for a dramatic flame along the horizon silhouetting two well chosen groups of trees.
And here below is a piece by the French painter Jean Charles Cazin (1841-1901) that has a luxurious softness to its paint handling. It's one of those paintings you want to stroke like you would a favored dog or cat's fur. But Cazin isn't just about his elegant textures. Check out the range of clouds he's giving us, smokey and amorphous at the top and then the completely opposite, sharply cut-out shapes near the horizon. He is telling us a story with his clouds, and of course any good story comes with surprises.
I once read an article in the New York Times labeling the Ogunquit Museum of Art in southern Maine as having perhaps the most beautiful setting of any art museum in the country. Well I've been to Ogunquit's Museum many times and love it, but I suspect the Times' writer has never seen WCMFA.
One of the other things I always do when I'm there is visit the ducks in front of the Museum in the Park's Lake. They're good looking, ill mannered and always busy, just as good ducks should be.
Right now the Museum is engaged in a major project to cover over their interior courtyard with a transparent or translucent roof. It's not going to be complete until next year, but it will be a very useful addition.
And here's the giant archway you walk through to enter the Museum. On the other side on top they have an inscription from good old Oscar Wilde. "The Secret Of Life Is In Art" it says or something like that. Wilde was right by the way.