Art Collectors' Council 2013 Acquisitions
ART COLLECTORS’ COUNCIL PURCHASES NEARLY $1 MILLION IN AMERICAN PAINTINGS
At its annual meeting, the support group helped purchase important large-scale works by Reginald Marsh and George Luks.
Reginald Marsh (1898–1954), The Locomotive, 1935. Tempera on concrete, 58 x 53 ½ in. (left); George Luks (1867–1933), The Breaker Boys, ca. 1925. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 in. (right), The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.
May 7, 2013—The Art Collectors’ Council of The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens made possible the purchase of two major paintings for the institution’s American art collections at its annual meeting on April 27. The group, made up of 43 donors from across the region, first voted to acquire The Locomotive (tempera on concrete 58 x 53 ½ in.), made in 1935 by Reginald Marsh (1898–1954) in preparation for a government-commissioned post office mural in Washington, D.C. In a dramatic show of support for the collections, 11 members of the Art Collectors’ Council then contributed additional funds in order to purchase The Breaker Boys (oil on canvas, 50 x 60 in.), painted about 1925 by George Luks (1867–1933). The total funds spent were nearly $1 million.
“We simply couldn’t be more thrilled about the Art Collectors’ Council’s show of support this year,” said Kevin Salatino, Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Collections. “These are two great and riveting works that are perfectly suited to our collecting strategy. The council made a powerful statement this year that reinforces The Huntington’s commitment to American art.”
The new works will go on view in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art tomorrow (May 8) for three months, until early August. They will then reappear as signature elements in a new installation planned for June 2014, when The Huntington’s American art galleries expand with 5,400 square feet of new gallery space previously used for storage.
“Everyone felt an exciting momentum this year, I think,” said Nancy Berman, chair of the all-volunteer council. “This could be because we are inspired by the gallery expansion, which will be glorious for art lovers; but it also could be because we sense The Huntington is poised to become a premiere place to experience American art in the country."
While both of the new paintings were made around the same time, just ten years apart, and are of similar scale, they couldn’t be more different, explained Jessica Todd Smith, Virginia Steele Scott Chief Curator of American Art. “These two works will have a powerful impact in the galleries,” she said. “In one way, they are both about industrial America, but their messages—communicated through different media, paint handling, color palette, and composition—are like night and day. The Luks painting is expressionistic and painterly, and its subject depicts one of the most appalling forms of child labor in America at that time. Marsh, on the other hand, foregrounds the powerful locomotive, representing its mechanism with meticulous accuracy. The few people that Marsh included in the scene are dwarfed by the train and relegated to the margins of the composition. These paintings represent very different aesthetic directions and points of view, and they will contribute profoundly to our representation of the range of American painting in the 1920s and 1930s.”
Reginald Marsh (1898–1954), The Locomotive, 1935. Tempera on concrete, 58 x 53 ½ in.
Raised in New Jersey and New York, Reginald Marsh first pursued a career as an illustrator, working for the New York Daily News and The New Yorker, and only later began taking painting classes at the Art Students League. He turned more seriously toward painting when he joined the Whitney Studio Club, where he had his first one-man show in 1924. Later in the decade, he learned how to paint using tempera, a rapidly drying medium that allowed him to work quickly and achieve the calligraphic line that characterized his illustrations. With this discovery, he began painting with a new sureness that led to his success in the 1930s.
Marsh made The Locomotive as a study for a commission he received from the Treasury Department to design and execute two murals for the Post Office Building in Washington, D.C. Although the building’s architect suggested that Marsh complete his paintings on canvases that would later be affixed to the walls, Marsh sought permission to execute the murals in fresco, a technique of applying pigment on freshly laid plaster largely associated with Renaissance masters. In preparation for the project, Marsh studied fresco with the Swedish muralist Olle Nordmark, who was eventually hired to oversee the final murals in Washington. Marsh completed two known frescoes while in Nordmark’s studio, Gathering the Mail (Palmer Museum of Art, Pennsylvania State University) and The Locomotive.
In a pencil sketch of The Locomotive, Marsh divided the work into five sections or “joints,” each corresponding to a different area of work, and indicated whether it should be done in “rough plaster” or “smooth.” According to Smith, “These variations in the texture of the painting’s surface enhance the dynamic impact of the composition by creating a distinctive sense of depth and palpable atmosphere.” A powerful representation of a subject that preoccupied Reginald Marsh throughout his career, The Locomotive exemplifies the artist’s skilled draftsmanship and passion for depicting the urban landscape and working-class life of New York. While a social realist, Marsh was also part of an artistic generation fascinated by the aesthetics of machines and turned his close observations of trains into prints and paintings.
At The Huntington, The Locomotive will complement Marsh’s painting Red Buttons (1936), which represents his interest in depicting the people of New York. It also serves as a link to the Library’s rich holdings in the history of railroads. Most importantly, The Locomotive builds on The Huntington’s growing collection of American art from the 1930s and helps contextualize the monumental Sargent Johnson relief sculpture (1937) acquired by the Art Collectors’ Council in 2011.
George Luks (1867–1933), The Breaker Boys, ca. 1925. Oil on canvas, 50 x 60 in.
George Luks, one of the central figures of the Ashcan school, is also considered that group’s most colorful and flamboyant personality, traits manifested in his boldly virtuosic style. A founding member of The Eight (with Robert Henri, William Glackens, John Sloan, Everett Shinn, Ernest Lawson, Arthur B. Davies, and Maurice Prendergast), Luks aspired to unite the dazzling skill of Old Master painting with new and radical subject matter—the unvarnished reality of life on the streets at its messiest and most vibrant.
Luks was raised in Pottsville, Penn., a coal mining town, where he developed compassion for working class people, especially the hardscrabble families of coal miners. After briefly attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany, he traveled extensively throughout Europe, maintaining that his exposure to the Old Masters (especially Frans Hals, Velázquez, and Goya) and such 19th-century artists as Édouard Manet was his true education. Returning to Philadelphia, he honed his visual skills as a newspaper illustrator and cartoonist before turning to painting.
Luks received widespread critical recognition with his first acknowledged masterpiece, The Spielers in 1905. Significantly, it was the rejection of a Luks painting by the National Academy of Design in 1907 that prompted Henri to withdraw from the academy and form The Eight. For the next two decades, Luks’ celebrated paintings of urchins, boxers, peddlers, and shop girls, the downtrodden and the overlooked—all granted dignity and poignancy through accomplished technique and subtle humanity—were among the most critically acclaimed paintings in America.
The Breaker Boys depicts a topic familiar to early 20th-century child labor reformers: youngsters called “breaker boys,” who removed, by hand, impurities from coal, a practice begun in the 1860s and ended only in the 1920s. Brutal and dangerous, the work of the breaker boys stirred public outrage as early as the 1880s, reaching a climax in the 1910s with the publication of Lewis Hine’s shocking photographs of child labor in America.
Luks’ large and powerful Breaker Boys, though focusing its attention squarely on three boys in the fore- and middle-ground, emphasizes the callous dehumanizing effect of their work by suppressing the boys’ facial features and presenting them only from the side or the back. Rendered in a restrained palette of blue, black, gray, violet, and white, the work still vibrates with color. While its slashing brushwork and dark colors recall Goya and Manet, its violent angles, zigzagging composition, and flattened planes reveal the influence of early 20th-century abstraction. Both pictorial and abstract, Breaker Boys looks both backward and forward in art history. “It is the finest of Luks’ canvases from the 1920s and one of the masterpieces of his career,” said Salatino. “It’s a testament to his humanity and to his genius as one of the greatest painters of the period.”
The Huntington has a growing collection of works by Ashcan artists, including a small, well regarded early canvas by Luks—Boxing Match (1910). “The addition of the strikingly different Breaker Boys greatly enriches the story of one of the most vibrant eras of painting in America,” Salatino said. “It will become one of the most dramatic visual statements in The Huntington’s American collection.”