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Michael Nieland calls Carnegie Museum of Art “an extension of our living room,” and not just because of the museum’s close proximity to the Squirrel Hill home he shares with his wife, Lilli, an artist. A number of the retired dermapathologist’s most prized possessions —including a rare collection of European bronze sculptures—are now on view in the museum’s Scaife Galleries, a gift from the skilled art and antiques collector.
“I’m thrilled to share the work with the public,” says Nieland, who in 2016 donated 21 artworks to the museum, including a gorgeous gilt bronze door knocker crafted in 1900 and other decorative arts objects. “I think the sculptures are a revelation. Many people don’t know such beautiful objects exist. It’s not common to see studio works in a museum.”
That’s partially what makes Nieland’s gift so meaningful. Seven of the Victorian-era sculptures are now on view in Gallery 7 as stunning examples of “New Sculpture.” Begun in the late 1870s, it was a radical new approach to sculpture known for producing more naturalistic and glorified renderings of the human body and embracing the sensuous medium of bronze. It coincided with the revival in England of bronze casting, which allowed sculptors to make multiples of a single design, and at a more intimate size suitable for homes.
Among the most unique works from Nieland’s donated collection is Stone Thrower, made by Hamo Thornycroft in 1880, one of only two known castings. The most well-known artist represented is Lord Frederic Leighton, a painter and sculptor who helped ignite the movement.
“These works filled an important gap in the museum’s collection,” says Akemi May, assistant curator of fine arts. “Prior to this gift, we had only one other example of British sculpture made before 1900. We’re thrilled to be able to display the statuettes. They really forefront the beauty of the figure in motion.”
It’s exactly that sensual, figurative beauty that first drew Nieland—a longtime ceramics and Art Nouveau collector—to the medium about 20 years ago. Much of the work the Boston native collects are nudes, including the large assortment of American figurative sculpture of the late 19th century and early 20th century that he gifted to the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in 2014.
His home, designed in 1925 by Henry Hornbostel—the architect who imagined Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum and who Andrew Carnegie selected to create Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University)—is beautifully adorned with vividly-colored porcelain and pottery figures, boxes, and jugs, as well as an enclosed porch dedicated to figurative sculpture.
“ Our fine arts department was formed by collectors like this who don’t buy the perfect masterpiece every time but collect a group of objects that are meaningful and significant as a group.” – Louise Lippincott, curator of Fine Arts, Carnegie Museum of art
“I’m interested in the essence of the body, what it looks like without all of the disguise,” says Nieland, noting that his career in dermapathology required him to think three-dimensionally. “The body is nature’s most perfect creation, not only in terms of aesthetics but what the body can do. As a physician, I don’t have any hang-ups or inhibitions about nudity. I think that’s the way human beings are put together. We have an interest in the figure.”
While Nieland’s professional world influenced his collecting, for Rolf and Magda Loeber, partially retired and retired University of Pittsburgh psychologists, amassing old master prints and rare books has long been a welcome diversion from the high-pressure work of their day jobs studying delinquency. It’s a way to help balance fun and work.
Self-described “homespun collectors,” the pair say they didn’t set out to create a specific kind of collection, or to collect at all, really. “The word collecting is a heavy word,” says Magda. “What we did was buy things we liked, that interested us. It wasn’t meant to form a collection. We weren’t working toward a goal.”
Today, a “well-exercised eye” and plenty of deep, passionate research—particularly in Irish literature and art from the 18th and 19th centuries—has paid off for the couple and, by extension, Carnegie Museum of Art. In 2006, the Loebers gifted to the museum a significant group of mezzotints—engravings widely used in the 18th century to reproduce paintings, made all but obsolete by the advent of photography—which later resulted in a beautiful Gallery One exhibition. Last year, the couple donated another 200 prints, about 20 of which will be featured in the spring 2018 exhibition, The Enlightened Eye: visions of order and chaos 1750–1850, featuring both fine and decorative arts from the museum’s collections.
Simply put, the Shadyside couple wants others to benefit from their collecting, much the same way the pair made sure the data they collected from decades of longitudinal studies on the development of young people is accessible in the National Archives.
Having grown up with 17th-century Dutch engravings in his family home in the Netherlands, Rolf became interested in work by Dutch printmaker and painter Abraham Bloemart, marking his first purchase. He also spent a lot of time in museums and hunting for prints while traveling professionally.
The couple’s latest donation to the museum is heterogeneous, made up of everything from 16th-century Dutch mannerist prints to 10th-century topographical architectural renderings.
“There are some really wonderful rare things—a set of three prints by Hendrick Goltzius that are just spectacular,” says Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts. “The prints that will go into The Enlightened Eye are unusual. The one that I really love is not some famous masterpiece by a well-known artist, but a big view of the ocean and a ship in serious distress in the middle of a big storm. It’s this gorgeous, romantic image by William Daniels, and when you look at it you’re just riveted by what’s going on and how beautifully and subtly it’s drawn.”
The collection includes some classic old masters, she adds, but also some little-known prints that have interesting stories to tell.
“It’s a wonderful collection put together with a very particular point of view and knowledge,” says Lippincott. “Our fine arts department was formed by collectors like this who don’t buy the perfect masterpiece every time but collect a group of objects that are meaningful and
significant as a group.
“Collectors are vital to the museum,” Lippincott adds. “The really serious collectors become experts in their own right and as they develop knowledge and experience and skills we actually draw on them for advice and guidance.”
Rolf says of building a collection, “It has to be done with curiosity and passion, or I don’t think you’d get anywhere. Finding an angle that makes your heart beat faster—it’s interesting, and often a lot of fun.”
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