|“The decision to purchase the Homer was meant to be a major statement by the museum that they were going to prioritize American artists; that they firmly believed that American painters were as good or better than their European counterparts.”
Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art
American Doggedness and the Carnegie International
By Justin Hopper
At times both a reflection of and the result of turbulent times, the acquisitions of the early Carnegie Internationals triumphed through determination.
Standing on a rock cropping out between the brown grass of a balding, wintery New England coastline, a seaman waves frantically to unseen compatriots. Behind him, already wet from the whip and spray of the Atlantic, a lifeboat crew pushes its rescue vessel across the muck and over a dune, slogging towards a cause no one is yet prepared to declare lost.
It’s little wonder that Winslow Homer’s The Wreck found favor among the curators, judges, and audiences of the first-ever Carnegie International, held in 1896. The painting won the exhibition’s top honors, and earned Homer $5,000 in prize money, the most he ever received for a single work in his lifetime. But more than just a supreme example of late 19th-century American painting themes and techniques, The Wreck was something of a raison d’etre for the Carnegie International—particularly in its first few decades of existence, when the exhibition, like the artistic and cultural world it represented, was fraught with turbulence and growing pains as much as it was marked by dedication and conservatism. It also began a tradition at Carnegie Museum of Art of building an esteemed contemporary art collection through acquisitions from each exhibition.
Louise Lippincott in front of Winslow Homer’s The Wreck.
Like the fate of the subjects in the stormy The Wreck, the survival of the early Internationals was never a certainty. It hardly helped that its host city had no real foundation on which to build an appreciation for contemporary art. So in its earliest years, the International was an exhibition that sustained itself on a near-religious sense of mission. Part of that mission was to introduce the art world to the art of America.
“The decision to purchase the Homer was meant to be a major statement by the museum that they were going to prioritize American artists; that they firmly believed that American painters were as good or better than their European counterparts,” says Louise Lippincott, curator of fine arts at Carnegie Museum of Art. “Beginning in the 19th century, most serious American artists had to solve a basic problem: How do they demonstrate that their abilities and talents were equal to anything in Europe, still seen as the highpoint of civilization, and how would they also create a kind of painting that’s [distinctly] American; creating a national identity in competition with the European model.”
That struggle is one that would pervade much of the early period of the Carnegie International, just as it would much of that period in American painting. Because while Europe wrestled with abstraction and modernism, nationalistic fervor, and the consolidation of power that lead to two world wars and the rise of fascism, a still-young America battled to simply find its place in the crowded cultural world.
In the far, fifth room of the Scaife galleries, violinist Señor Pablo de Sarasate, shrouded in black-hole darkness, stares across the room towards Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, a painting that’s all halos of golden light and classical composition. Even today, it seems surprising to see that two such contrasting artworks were added to the collection around the same time by the same director, John W. Beatty. Another imperative with which any International curator is tasked: To build a show that will both appeal to and culturally educate the people of Pittsburgh, a task which both Whistler’s Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate and Dagnan-Bouveret’s Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus fulfilled with fervor.
Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, 1896-1897, Gift of Henry Clay Frick.
Beatty served as the museum’s director of the department of fine arts from 1896-1921, during which time his job consisted largely of organizing its Annual Exhibition, the name of the Carnegie International until 1950. American art was solidifying itself as a cultural force, European art was moving in wild new directions—among them, Impressionism and the abstract nature of Modernism. But in Pittsburgh, Beatty—a local artist himself, not exactly given over to the avant-garde—had to contend with finding balance between building a relevant collection and pleasing a conservative audience.
“Both Beatty and [his successor, Homer] Saint-Gaudens were interested in presenting a report on contemporary art from around the world,” says Vicky Clark, writer and editor of the Carnegie International history, International Encounters: The Carnegie International and Contemporary Art, 1896–1996. “They were trying to be fairly broad-based, and none of them really talked about the avant-garde. They wanted to start in 1896 and really move the collection onwards from there, very much in the spirit of progressive American idealism. But that’s not to say they meant Picasso.”
James Abbott McNeill Whistler, American, 1834-1903, Arrangement in Black: Portrait of Señor Pablo de Sarasate, 1884, Carnegie Museum of Art.
|With Whistler’s Sarasate, Beatty certainly acquired a painting that fulfilled his “old masters of tomorrow” requirement, set out by Andrew Carnegie himself. The second purchase through the International, after Homer, was Whistler’s black-on-black portrait, which has the kind of radical simplicity and inherent dramatic depth that one might expect of a painter living among the artistic elite of Europe. By the time it was shown in the 1896 International, Whistler was known as a master American ex-pat painter—yet Pittsburghers didn’t exactly flock to see his dark painting of the Spanish violin virtuoso.
“Whistler was really upsetting people in the 1870s,” says Lippincott. “By 1896, people know he’s important, but they’re still not sure about it—whereas Homer was a real hero. People had mixed feelings about [the] Whistler.
“What Pittsburghers really liked was the Dagnan-Bouveret [purchased by Henry Clay Frick for the museum],” she notes. “Pittsburgh still loves this picture. This was a conservative, religious city, and this is conservative, religious art.”
A Changing World
In the 1898 International, that traditionalism was questioned by Beatty’s inclusion—and, the following year, acquisition—of Alfred Sisley’s Saint-Mammès on the Banks of the Loing. By that time, Impressionism was safely embedded in the European art world but was still less common in American shows such as the International. For most Pittsburghers, Sisley’s Impressionist landscape might have been the first glimpse of French modernism.
“They would have heard of Impression-ism,” says Lippincott, “and the more sophisticated and well-traveled viewers may well have seen it in some New York galleries; or, for a certain Pittsburgh elite, on their annual trips to Paris. But the purpose of the International was to show this work to everybody, and for the majority of the people—who couldn’t afford a six-month trip to Europe—Sisley was their first shot at this modern stuff.”
As Lippincott points out, throughout Beatty’s career as director of fine arts and curator of the International, “avant-garde art moved on, but John Beatty did not. So we were buying first-class American paintings, and first-class European conservative art, continuing this restrained, realistic form of late impressionism. It’s the sort of art just now making a comeback in terms of acceptable taste, which I’m thrilled about because we have a lot of it. It’s technically very accomplished, and really beautiful painting, but you have to judge it on its own terms and not on modernist terms.”
Beatty’s successor, Saint-Gaudens, had something besides his own and the city’s conservative tastes to contend with in pushing the International’s European collection forward: Global turmoil. Within a few years of his ascension to the directorate, Saint-Gaudens was faced with the Great Depression, the rise of European fascism, and eventually a World War. Indeed, the logistics of geo-political strife often made the organization of America’s only annual “international” art show a less-than-vital ordeal in both Beatty’s and Saint-Gaudens’ eras. By the outbreak of the second World War, the exhibition became a purely American affair.
“World War I and the following influenza epidemic were just shattering,” says Lippincott. “It was not easy to travel, people had no way to see new art, and there was just very little cultural communication.”
Ten years later, Saint-Gaudens began struggling with not just the obvious logistical nightmares, but the moral and political problems of fascism. “Some artists he couldn’t get to, some he couldn’t support. The artists the European governments were pushing on him he didn’t want to support, and in some cases the representation of European artists in the Internationals is as much about politics as it is about the artwork,” Lippincott says. “We can look back now with 20/20 hindsight and say, well, why didn’t Saint-Gaudens buy 25 Matisses, and 30 Picassos; and why isn’t early [Joan] Miró here? It was just difficult. The result is that the American art purchased in the ’30s is much better than the European.”
Edward Hopper, Cape Cod Afternoon, 1936, oil on canvas, Patrons Art Fund, 38.2 1937 Carnegie International.
Perhaps most illustrative of that is Edward Hopper’s Cape Cod Afternoon, painted in 1936 for an exhibition in Washington, D.C., but shown in the 1937 International and purchased shortly after. Hopper’s crumbling New England house evokes the International’s first purchase—Homer’s The Wreck—but in a new, more tenuous light. If Homer’s painting was inching towards an American stylistic triumph, Hopper’s attains it—placing the picturesque ruins of Americana within a subtly cubist framework. As critic Donald Kuspit has said of Hopper’s buildings, “…Hopper displaced Cubism into the familiar life world, with its familiar structures, experiencing them as abstract constructions to convey the sense of alienation implicit in Cubism.”
Cape Cod Afternoon could be seen as an artistic rendering of the Carnegie International’s early attitude: an American work ethic and optimism tempered and challenged by the troubled realities of the world.
“I think there’s a doggedness to pursuing the International,” says Vicky Clark, “and there has been from the very beginning.”
Clark refers to notes she’s found from throughout its history written by frustrated curators and expressing similar thoughts. “It takes up all my time, all our money,” one reads. And that was without the fax machine, without email, she notes. “The shows then were put together by travel and through the mail, and yet they put it together year after year. It’s astonishing.”
Richard Armstrong, The Henry J. Heinz II Director of Carnegie Museum of Art, is a four-time veteran of Carnegie Internationals, having organized the 1995 show as curator, then assisting as director during three subsequent shows, including the current Life on Mars. He says, “While it’s true that the show taxes the staff mightily, it’s also so invigorating. I consider its frequency and ambition a gauge of the institution’s pulse.”
The museum now has a collection with more than 300 pieces of art from past Internationals to show for all its astonishing perseverance. It will have even more when yet another Carnegie International wraps up next January.