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History of the American Art Collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

The American art collection is the oldest of the museum’s collections and the one most central to its historical identity.

Joint plans of the state, city, and county for the development of a cultural center and park in the area of the city’s current Exposition Park gave rise to the founding of the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art in 1910. Ground was broken there that year for its building, which officially opened on November 6, 1913. That organization was the parent of the present Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which, as an independent museum, opened its own building in the city’s Hancock Park in April 1965. Unlike some museums that are founded with the gift of a major collection, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science, and Art was created without any collection in its Art division. The museum’s founding can be understood as an expression of pride in the rapidly growing metropolis: the museum’s grand opening in 1913 was part of the celebration of the completion of the Owens River aqueduct, which assured the city’s expansion. Moreover, it can be seen as a competitive gesture in the emerging rivalry among the leading cities along the West Coast, part of the same cultural self-assertion that generated the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 and the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego the following year. (It would be 1925 before Los Angeles would be able to respond to these challenges with its own Pan-American Exhibition.) However, organized art activity had been available in Los Angeles for some years through the artists’ clubs and the influential women’s clubs. The Fine Arts League, an offshoot of the Federation of Women’s Clubs, was placed in charge of the programs of the Art division of the new museum. The Art division opened with a loan exhibition of contemporary and older paintings from local collections. It was followed by a kaleidoscope of rapidly changing exhibitions, primarily of contemporary American paintings.

Given the division’s very limited budget, it is not surprising that the artists of Los Angeles dominated the exhibition schedule. Through the 1940s there were few significant artists of Los Angeles who did not have at least one solo show at the museum. In 1914 it became host to the regular exhibitions of the California Art Club and in 1921 to those of the California Water Color Society, organizations primarily of regional artists despite their names. Gifts and purchases of paintings and works on paper by the city’s artists, beginning at an early date and continuing to the present, have added up to the most important institutional holding of the art of Southern California. Particularly in the 1930s special efforts were made to build this collection.

There is nevertheless considerable evidence that, from its beginning, the Art division saw a major part of its mission to be to bring contemporary American art from other parts of the country to Los Angeles. Besides group exhibitions of artists from elsewhere it held exhibitions of the work of Robert Henri in 1914 and of George Bellows, Louis Kronberg, and George Inness in 1915, and a calendar of future exhibitions printed in 1914 announced (unrealized) plans for exhibitions of the work of Gardner Symons, William Glackens, John Sloan, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Guy Pène du Bois, Karl Anderson, and Allen Tucker, among others. The young Art division also announced ambitious plans for an annual, juried, competitive exhibition of contemporary American painters, with several purchase prizes. The first and only exhibition in the projected series was held from June 15 to September 30, 1916, and the museum purchased from it paintings by Daniel Garber, Richard Miller, and William Wendt. (Its first purchase of a painting, on September 6, 1916, had been George Bellows’s Cliff Dwellers, painted in 1913.) Another early purchase was Boy with a Cod by the Northern California painter Armin Hansen, acquired in 1919 from the Exhibition of Paintings by a Group of Artists of San Francisco and Vicinity. Although the museum’s plans for exhibitions and acquisitions of paintings by leading eastern artists were not realized because of the disruptions of the First World War and continuing financial constraints, it should not be thought that Los Angeles was isolated from trends in eastern art. The city was visited before 1920 by leading artists such as Robert Henri, George Bellows, and Childe Hassam and in the following decades by a surprising number of the artists included in this catalogue, some of whom worked in this active art center, among them Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Philipp, Norman Rockwell, and Morgan Russell.

The museum’s early interest in the national scope of American art was given new impetus in 1918 by the magnificent gift of the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison, whose names appear frequently. The museum’s collection essentially began with the Harrisons. Writing in 1930, Harrison recalled, “Twelve years ago, in a city of half a million, we were confronted with an unheard of opportunity--a new museum, the proud possessor of precisely four permanent pictures.... This constituted the start of a really remarkable instance of building up a public art gallery, with the eyes of the world focused on the gradual development of a growing collection. . . .” As its first and for a long time its only major donor, as a supporter of the programs of the Art division during difficult decades, and as more or less the founder of the Museum Associates, the museum’s major support group since 1938, Harrison easily could be said to have been the museum’s greatest benefactor. He stated repeatedly that only the collection of a museum matters in the end, not the endless round of exhibitions. He was the first one to work toward building the museum’s collection into something of national significance.

William Preston Harrison was the son of a mayor of Chicago and the brother of another that formed a collection of French paintings that he presented to the Art Institute of Chicago. At the time of his initial donation in 1918 and for several years after that William Preston Harrison indicated that he was legally a resident of Chicago and considered himself to be so, but he and his wife had been spending increasing amounts of time in Los Angeles and by 1920 were spending most of their time here. The original gift of twenty-eight paintings simply had been the collection they had formed for their own enjoyment in their home. Even while giving it, Harrison realized that not all the paintings were worthy of the museum, and he made provision for later substitutions of superior works by the same artists, or in other cases, even works by other artists judged to be more important. His concept was to choose for the museum’s collection only “art that will last,” meaning art that would stand the test of time and the judgment of future generations. Because he considered any individual’s judgment to be imperfect in the area of contemporary art, Harrison established for himself the method of watching which artists were acquired for the collections of the older, established museums and which artists received prizes at the major annual and biennial exhibitions. He also limited himself at first to acquiring only the work of artists who were either members or associate members of the National Academy of Design. With the exception of William Wendt, who had strong Chicago ties and was a member of the National Academy, Harrison did not collect the work of local artists, and he even weeded out most of what had been a strong group of works by Taos artists among his original, Chicago-influenced collection. Hedging his bets in this way, Harrison hardly could avoid ending up with a very conservative collection for his day, representing the established artists and those working in a fashionable style. Still, to judge from the merciless and unceasing criticism he received from both public and press for his avant-garde collection of unknown artists, he seems to have been ahead of taste in Los Angeles.

Harrison threw himself into building the collection. He followed art events closely, knew the artists, visited them in New York City, Woodstock, and elsewhere, and liked to buy works directly from them when he could. He worked hard at making the collection as good as he could because, he often said, he knew it would be his monument. He was deeply interested in the collection and the welfare of the museum. The Harrisons made additional gifts at frequent intervals and lent other works, and William Preston Harrison made so many exchanges for the purpose of upgrading given examples that it is impossible to summarize the evolution of the collection. Although he stated in 1930 that he would not buy artists like Andrew Dasburg, Charles Burchfield, and Edward Hopper, he had lent his support to Stanton Macdonald-Wright and the Los Angeles modernists already in 1920. It would appear that his taste did evolve toward modernism judging from the composition of the collection of American watercolors he put together for the museum beginning in the late 1920s.

The years 1925 and 1926 were a turning point in Harrison’s collecting for the museum. The Harrison paintings originally had hung in the main rotunda of the building in Exposition Park, with the understanding that, if an addition were built, one of the rooms was to be named permanently the Mr. and Mrs. William Preston Harrison Gallery of Contemporary American Art. (Reflecting his changing perceptions of the collection, in 1925Harrison requested that the term contemporary be dropped from the name.) Harrison eagerly followed the planning and construction of the new wing, which began in 1919, and to celebrate its completion, he helped organize the First Pan-American Exhibition of Oil Paintings, which ran from November 27, 1925, to February 28, 1926. It turned out to be an important event for the art world of Los Angeles and also for the museum’s collection, to which were added not only the purchase prize paintings-William Wendt’s Where Nature’s God Hath Wrought, John Carroll’s Parthenope, Andrew Dasburg’s Tulips, Guy Pène du Bois’s Shops, and Diego Rivera’s Flower Day --but also Bernard Karfiol’s Seated Figure and Eugene Savage’s Recessional. In 1926 Harrison gave ten more American paintings for the new gallery and then went to Europe, where he became interested in French art and sent back a group of forty-eight School of Paris water colors that he bought to form a new collection for the museum. He wrote from Europe that he felt that he had finished his collection of American art, unless possibly for a watercolor room or a Childe Hassam room. He did assemble an impressive group of American watercolors for the museum and over time purchased a few more American paintings that were given or bequeathed, but after 1926 his resources went into French paintings and watercolors. Like the French works, the American watercolors he acquired during these years were strikingly more modernist than his collection of American paintings. Harrison’s interest in the museum remained just as strong after 1926, as is witnessed by the crucial financial support he gave the Art division during the Great Depression.

With the receipt of the remainder of the collection following Mrs. Harrison’s death in 1947, the final number of artworks contributed by the Harrisons, after all the deletions and substitutions, came to two hundred sixty-seven, including sixty-six American paintings and forty-eight American watercolors, thirty-four French paintings and eighty French watercolors, two paintings and one watercolor from other European countries, and a number of prints and drawings. Although Harrison worked hard to make his collection an ideal one, he provided in his deed of gift for the collection to be reviewed, beginning in 1956 and every ten years thereafter, by a jury of curators from five specified museums who would vote for the elimination of inferior works, with the director of the Los Angeles Museum retaining the right to accept or reject their recommendations. Proceeds of all sales were to be reinvested in works for the Harrison collection. Harrison believed that this process of winnowing over time must go forward, even though he foresaw the possibility that the collection would be so much reduced that it would fit into a much smaller gallery, even onto only certain walls of the gallery, or that just a few individual examples would remain. As a matter of fact the judgment of posterity has been much kinder than Harrison may have feared. Twenty-six of the original sixty-six American paintings and nineteen of the original forty-eight American watercolors remain. Among them are some of the museum’s most highly prized works. Among the distinguished works purchased with proceeds from the sale of Harrison paintings are such paintings as Marsden Hartley’s The Lost Felice and Rembrandt Peale’s portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Koch.

However, the judgment of experts and the museum’s staff immediately following Mrs. Harrison’s death in 1947 was extremely unfavorable. The collection had fallen into disrepute. The American collection (but not the French collection) was then judged to consist of paintings by artists who had no reputation at that time and of paintings of inferior quality by the few good artists. Just a small selection of it was moved to a modest second-floor gallery, and the original Harrison Gallery was used for special exhibitions-an ironic turn for the collection that had been intended to displace the centrality of special exhibitions in the museum’s program.

The move of the Harrison paintings was announced as part of a reorganization of the American collection into a historical progression from the eighteenth century to the present that was begun in 1948 and completed in early 1951. The museum that had been dominated by the Harrison collection during the 1920s and early 1930s had grown considerably and changed. By 1948 the Harrisons’ founding gifts were a smaller part of a museum that saw itself as presenting a comprehensive permanent collection representing the entire history of art. From its earliest years, actually, the vast majority of accessions, mainly gifts to the collection, had been examples of the decorative arts, Oriental art, and prints and photographs. Bequests in the late 1930s and early 1940s brought to the museum large groups of decorative arts and distinguished old masters. The numerous gifts during the late 1940s and early 1950s from the William Randolph Hearst collection were of decisive importance to the self-image of the museum by greatly expanding its coverage of ancient art, medieval and Renaissance decorative arts, and old master paintings. By the late 1940s the museum was organizing special exhibitions of old master paintings and had on its staff a curator of prints and drawings, a curator of decorative arts, and a curator of oriental art in addition to the curator of modern art, who also handled American art. These collections were displayed in a new wing in a series of galleries presenting the art of every nation and of every era from ancient times to the present.

The paintings of the Harrison collection and the early purchases of the museum now fit into this series of galleries and their historical perspective. They had undergone the perceptual change from being contemporary art to being historical art. Although by no means all phases of the history of American art were represented, it was easier to fit the American collection into a historical sequence because of its growth during the 1940s and its expansion beyond the boundaries of the Harrison collection, which was limited essentially to the period of about 1915 to 1925. The first important additions to that collection came in the bequest in 1939 of Paul Rodman Mabury , which, in addition to choice examples of the decorative arts and fine old master paintings, included nine American paintings, watercolors, and sculptures, among them George Inness’s October and Winslow Homer’s Moonlight on the Water, as well as Homer’s outstanding watercolor After the Hunt. The collection of Mary D. Keeler, which came to the museum in 1940, included late nineteenth century American paintings such as John S. Sargent’s Man Wearing Laurels, William M. Chase’s Pablo de Sarasate: Portrait of a Violinist, and George Fuller’s Sprite. Among the large collection of Dr. Dorothea Moore, bequeathed in 1943, were Arthur B. Davies’s Pastoral Dells and Peaks and Robert Henri’s Edna. The bequest of Mr. and Mrs. Allan C. Balch, which so enriched the museum’s collection in other areas, included Frederick Carl Frieseke’s In the Boudoir. Similarly, the William Randolph Hearst collection, among its other treasures given between about 1946 and 1952, added to the museum’s American art collection Childe Hassam’s The Spanish Stairs, Gari Melchers’s Writing, Worthington Whittredge’s A Home by the Sea Side, Frederic Remington sculptures, and a group of ship portraits. In 1946 works by Phillip Evergood and Robert Gwathmey were purchased with funds from the sale of artworks left to the museum by Mira Hershey. With the revival of interest in nineteenth century American art some Hudson River school landscapes began to be given in the late 1940s and the 1950s.

The annual reports during these years lament the utter lack of acquisition funds aside from a few annual purchase awards. The collection was almost entirely shaped by collectors such as those named and by the donors who from time to time gave extremely important individual works, such as Mrs. Fred Hathaway Bixby’s bequest in 1962 of Mary Cassatt’s Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child. Valuable gifts and bequests have come from all parts of the community, not the least of them a wide range of gifts from the members of the entertainment community, including Billy Wilder, Clifton Webb, Ira Gershwin, Irving Mills, Merle Oberon, Ozzie and Harriet Nelson, Burt Lancaster, and Steve Martin.

A turning point in the development of the American collection came with the opening of the new buildings for the newly separated Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1965. Early American art was identified at that time as one of the areas of greatest need and one that the trustees would endeavor to build. In an initial effort the museum purchased George Caleb Bingham’s A View of a Lake in the Mountains, John S. Copley’s Portrait of Hugh Montgomerie, Later Twelfth Earl of Eglinton, Gilbert Stuart’s Portrait of Richard Barrington, Later Fourth Viscount Barrington, and John S. Sargent’s Portrait of Mrs. Edward L. Davis and Her Son, Livingston Davis. An advocate of an expanded role for American art, Larry Curry became active with that collection while it still was at Exposition Park and organized exhibitions of American art in the new facility while still associate curator of modern art. He then became the museum’s first curator of American art and served until 1971, Donelson Hoopes from 1972 to 1975, and Michael Quick from 1976-1993. Nancy D. W. Moure was curatorial aide from 1968 to 1972 and then assistant curator of American art from 1972 to 1983; Ilene Susan Fort served as assistant curator from 1983 to 1987 and associate curator from 1987-1993 and curator since 1993.

The paintings and sculptures purchased by the museum since 1965 form the backbone of its collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century American art. The collection assembled by gifts, bequests, and infrequent purchases before 1965 was strong in conservative painting from the first third of this century and in the regional school. The challenge facing curators since then has been to achieve for the collection a greater range and balance. In 1970 the collection’s first large Hudson River school landscape was purchased, Jasper E. Cropsey’s Sidney Plains with the Union of the Susquehanna and Unadilla Rivers; it was followed by Thomas Cole’s L’Allegro in 1974, Sanford R. Gifford’s October in the Catskills in 1977, and Cole’s Il Penseroso in 1980 (reuniting Cole’s long-separated pair of landscapes). The historical range of the collection was greatly extended by the purchases in 1968 of the Copley and Stuart already mentioned, portraits by John Smibert and Rembrandt Peale in 1978, a portrait by Henry Inman and a second, American period Copley portrait in 1985, and a portrait by John Hesselius in 1986. New artists and types of painting were added with the purchase of a history painting by Emanuel Leutze in 1976 and another by Benjamin West in 1982 and the purchase of an early genre painting by Allen Smith, Jr., in 1981. An effort has been made to extend a limited group of sculptures with the purchase of early works by John Quincy Adams Ward in 1977, William Wetmore Story and Randolph Rogers in 1978, Arthur Putnam in 1984, Thomas Ball and Frederick MacMonnies in 1986, and Charles Henry Niehaus in 1987.

These acquisitions, so central to the present collection, were made possible by an exceptional level of individual generosity, in particular by the support of Mr. and Mrs. Fred A. Bartman, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Willard G. Clark, Mr. and Mrs. Julian Ganz, Jr., Mr. and Mrs. Alan D. Levy, Mr. and Mrs. John M. Liebes, Dr. and Mrs. Matthew S. Mickiewicz, Mr. and Mrs. Charles C. Shoemaker, and Mr. and Mrs. J. Douglas Pardee. The support groups of the museum also have made important acquisitions possible. The Art Museum Council purchased John S. Sargent’s watercolor Rose-Marie Ormond Reading in a Cashmere Shawl in 1972 and contributed toward the purchase of Thomas Cole’s L’Allegro in 1974 and of John S. Copley’s Portrait of a Lady in 1985. Since its founding in 1973 the American Art Council, the official support group of the American art department, has made possible the purchase of Elihu Vedder’s Japanese Still Life, Allen Smith, Jr.’s The Young Mechanic, Reginald Marsh’s Third Avenue El, Henry Inman’s Portrait of Mrs. James W. Wallack, Sr., and Frederick MacMonnies’s Young Faun and Heron, and also was the largest contributor toward the acquisition of Copley’s Portrait of a Lady. In the case of the most important acquisitions, an extraordinary group effort was necessary. Mr. Edward W. Carter recognized the exceptional importance of Winslow Homer’s The Cotton Pickers and led the heroic effort to acquire it in 1977, himself contributing and also enlisting the aid of fourteen of his fellow trustees. Mr. Julian Ganz, Jr., likewise contributed to and led the effort in 1984 and 1985 to acquire another of the museum’s most outstanding masterpieces, John S. Copley’s Portrait of a Lady.

Another significant source of funds for the purchases of the late 1970s and early 1980s was the sale of objects from the collection. The first large sale was in 1965, in connection with the move to the new museum building. The largest of the sales was in 1977 and another significant group of paintings was sold in 1985, with additional items sold in 1982, 1985, and 1986. The collection that had been accumulated at the museum from gifts and bequests over so many years contained inauthentic paintings, duplicate material, small or decorative paintings more suitable for a home than for a museum, and serious imbalances of coverage and quality The deaccession sales were meant to eliminate works that were not of museum quality and to use the proceeds of the sales to acquire other works in areas not represented in the collection. Important works indeed have been added to the collection through this process, which, after such large scale selling, certainly has run its course.

Unfortunately, one can see in retrospect that the collection at the same time has suffered certain irreplaceable losses, particularly in the area of Southern California painting, a school now so much better understood and more highly valued.

Along with the purchases, important gifts continued to add to the collection’s depth and stature. The collectors who were most generous with gifts to the collection during the late 1960s and into the mid-1970s were Mr. and Mrs. Will Richeson, Jr., with gifts such as Daniel Huntington’s Philosophy and Christian Art, David Neal’s After the Hunt, and Ralph Albert Blakelock’s Landscape with Trees, among numerous others, and Mr. and Mrs. Julian Ganz, Jr., with gifts such as George Baker’s Portrait of Children, Edmund Tarbell’s Mrs. George Putnam and Her Daughters, and Emil Carlsen’s Still Life: Brass Bowl, Ducks, Bottles, among others. Individual gifts of great distinction were received throughout the period from other collectors and valued friends, among them, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Avery, Mr. B. Gerald Cantor, Mr. Richard W. Foster and his family, Mr. and Mrs. Herbert M. Gelfand, Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Honeyman, Jr., Dr. and Mrs. Ronald M. Lawrence, Dr. and Mrs. Matthew S. Mickiewicz, Mr. and Mrs. Hoyt S. Pardee, and Dr. and Mrs. Herbert B. Sussman.

The collection continues to grow and represents a major holding in the area of American art. A great point of distinction is its collection of Southern California artists, who are represented by their masterpieces as painters and watercolorists.

The future of the collection still rests in the hands of private collectors. Even as the museum has purchased more American art than ever in its past, the number and quality of the community’s private collections of American art have grown even faster. Formally and informally promised to the museum are collections of American impressionism, Ash Can school paintings, Southern California paintings, and other important individual works.

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