Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 15, 2000
Thayer Tolles American Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born Before 1865, Volume 1 Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1999. 480 pp.; 29 color ills.; 198 b/w ills. Cloth $95.00 (0870999141)

The last quarter of the twentieth century was a Golden Age in the study of the history of American art. Inspired by Milton Brown, John I. H. Baur, and Lloyd Goodrich, a new generation of specialists in the field—including Wayne Craven, William Gerdts, Jules Prown, Barbara Novak, and John Wilmerding—initiated a scholarly reassessment of the entire history of American art, especially the neglected nineteenth century. These scholars passed their standards and methodologies on to several generations of students, some of whom have now become leaders in the field. This period of rapid growth was manifested in the organization of hundreds of exhibitions, with accompanying catalogues; the publication of scores of scholarly monographs on American artists, famous and forgotten; and the completion of seemingly endless numbers of theses and doctoral dissertations on every conceivable aspect of the topic.

An important part of this renaissance has been a proliferation of published catalogues of publicly accessible collections of American art that had been, for the most part, ignored or forgotten. Within the past five years alone, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the National Gallery of Art, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, to name but a few, have produced major catalogues of their American holdings. These catalogues, some of which have been published in several volumes, consist of scholarly object entries generously illustrated with color reproductions. Smaller, regional or specialized museums have followed suit. Lately, this has included the Butler Institute of Art in Ohio, the Addison Gallery of American Art in Massachusetts, and the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut.

While most of these catalogues include both paintings and sculpture, some museums have such extensive holdings in the latter category that separate catalogues devoted to sculpture have been mandated. These specialized compilations are part of the growth of interest in American sculpture that began with the publication of Wayne Craven’s Sculpture in America in 1968 and William H. Gerdts’s American Neo-Classical Sculpture: The Marble Resurrection in 1973. As this resurgence reached its peak during the 1980s and early 1990s, it saw the publication of monographs or catalogues raisonnés for sculptors such as Hiram Powers, John Quincy Adams Ward, Vinnie Ream, and Harriet Hosmer; thematic appraisals of broader, sculpturally related issues by scholars such as Vivien Green Fryd and Joy Kasson; and new considerations of public sculpture by George Gurney, Michele Bogart, and Kirk Savage, among others. Together with these authors, the editors of and contributors to the catalogues of sculpture collections published during the last fifteen years provide a “Who’s Who” in the scholarship of American sculpture.

One of the first and most impressive of these recent catalogues came from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1986. That volume’s introduction, written by Jonathan L. Fairbanks, gives a brief history of American sculpture from 1830 to 1930, the period covered by the publication. It is followed by object entries by Kathryn Greenthal, Paul M. Kozol, and Jan Seidler Ramirez. Ten years after this publication, an equally significant—and equally weighty—catalogue of the American sculpture collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts appeared; it was written by Susan James-Gadzynski and Mary Mullen Cunningham. In 1997, the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia, published a catalogue of the James H. Ricau collection of sculpture that had recently become part of that museum’s holdings. Ricau had the most important private collection of American neoclassical sculpture ever assembled, and its formation and subsequent acquisition by the Chrysler Museum is a milestone in the history of art patronage in this country. Impressively, the Ricau/Chrysler catalogue is the work of one person—H. Nicholas B. Clark. An added feature of the book is a fascinating—and very personal—introductory essay by William H. Gerdts, a long-time friend and adviser to Ricau. Gerdts tells the story of a group of collectors, based in and around New York City, who pioneered the collecting of nineteenth-century American art during the 1950s.

Most recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has produced the first of two volumes of its catalogue of American sculpture. It is a revision, to put it mildly, of the previous catalogue of that collection, compiled by Albert TenEyck Gardner, a pioneer in the study of American sculpture, for publication in 1965. A comparison of Gardner’s catalogue with the recent one dramatically indicates the change of attitude and explosion of interest in American sculpture that occurred between their publications. Gardner’s book, which consists of just under 190 handbook-size pages, is little more than a checklist. It contains very brief biographies of the artists, from Horatio Greenough (1805-52) to William W. Swallow (b. 1921), and only basic information on the works themselves. Some—but by no means all—of the sculptures are illustrated with small black-and-white images.

By contrast, the Metropolitan’s new catalogue is a hefty, coffee-table-size book with 451 glossy pages that measure twelve by nine inches each. In addition, as mentioned above, this is only the first of two volumes and includes only those artists born before 1865—Greenough is again the first sculptor listed, but Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926) is the last. The book is exactly what Philippe de Montebello, in his foreword, declares it to be: “a thorough scholarly and photographic reexamination of American sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum.” (Most of the superb photographs are by Jerry L. Thompson.)

Like most such projects, this catalogue was a long time coming. Lewis I. Sharp, former curator and administrator of the American Wing at the museum, began the project in the early 1980s; he was assisted by Lauretta Dimmick and Joan M. Marter, both of whom were writing dissertations on American sculpture. When Sharp left the museum in 1989, the project was taken over by Donna J. Hassler, a member of the Metropolitan’s curatorial staff who had already been researching the collection. This first volume of the catalogue was finally made a reality under the “rigorous stewardship,” as de Montebello calls it, of Thayer Tolles, an assistant curator at the Metropolitan, who appears on the catalogue’s title page as its editor. With so many changes of leadership, the project might easily have foundered or gone into a long period of dormancy. Tolles is due special credit for shepherding this very useful and beautiful book through its final stages to completion.

While Tolles, Hassler, and Dimmick are responsible for the object entries that make up the bulk of the Metropolitan’s sculpture catalogue, Tolles is the author of the compelling history of the museum’s American sculpture collection, beginning in 1870, that acts as its introduction. This essay is recommended reading for all scholars of American art, especially those interested in the growth of collecting in the nineteenth century. In fact, with Gerdts’s introduction to the Chrysler Museum’s catalogue, mentioned above, it should be added to any bibliography that deals with the history of collecting in the United States. As Tolles states, the story of the formation of the Metropolitan’s collection is “a lesson in the evolution of taste of artists, curators, and collectors.” A notable aspect of this history is the seminal role played in it by practicing sculptors John Q. A. Ward and Daniel Chester French. Much of the collection, then, is a reflection of the taste, not only of major art patrons, but also of artists.

Speaking of patrons, one of the most interesting aspects of collection catalogues are those sections that list or discuss provenance. Such listings in the Boston museum’s catalogue, mentioned above, for example, make it clear that that city was a major source of patronage of American sculptors, especially those of the neoclassical era. But New York also had its supporters of the genre. In the Metropolitan’s catalogue, provenance is discussed in the entries on the individual objects, rather than presented as a list, but it nevertheless suggests a kind of six-degrees-of-separation of who owned what when, and how it got there. Among the most significant of these were men like Hamilton Fish and Marshall O. Roberts, both of whom owned a number of major sculptures, some of which found their way into the Metropolitan’s collection. Fish is especially noteworthy here. He bequeathed four neoclassical marbles to the Metropolitan, some of which were among the best known sculptures of their day: Erastus Dow Palmer’s Indian Girl and The White Captive; Hiram Powers’s Fisher Boy; and Thomas Crawford’s Babes in the Wood are in this group. One of my few quibbles with the catalogue in this regard is the lack of an index of patrons and former owners. Such an index is a feature of the Metropolitan’s three-volume catalogue of its American paintings, and a similar one here would be very useful.

My only other complaint—and it is a minor one—is the tendency by some of the contributors to use to excess the word “must,” as in “Ball must have seen the portrait of Clay by Hart” (80, no. 4), “Nydia’s head must be based on Niobe and Her Daughter” (118), and “The Daphne must have been the one that went to Mrs. Samuel Appleton of Boston” (133). To be so definite about unproven possibilities, it seems to me, invites outside forces—fate, Karma, a younger scholar—to prove one wrong. Phrases such as “might have” or “it seems likely that” are safer.

But I am being ungrateful. Thayer Tolles and her colleagues deserve much credit for producing a book that, besides being a pleasure to look at and read, is a lasting reference tool that will be very useful for years to come. I look forward to volume two.

David B. Dearinger
National Academy of Design