Courtesy of the Corcoran Gallery of Art
Sarah Cash discusses the making of a great collection of American art.
Sarah Cash: The Corcoranâs collection is outstanding. It gives me a special charge and special honor, really, to be the curator of this incredible collection, this really world-renowned collection of American paintings and sculpture, one of the best in the world. And it is at once challenging and fun, and all of the things that a great job should be. And I feel very, very honored and thrilled to have the stewardship of this great collection, and also to have learned so much about it. Last year we published our first ever catalogue of the collection of American paintings before 1945, both in book and online form. And I felt that that was so important to document this collection in that way, in a way that had never been done before. And also to publish a history of the Corcoran. And we have such a rich and fascinating history.
Jo Reed: That was the curator of the Corcoran Gallery's American Wing, Sarah Cash.
Welcome to Art Works the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
This week, we're celebrating the fourth of July with a visit to Washington DC's Corcoran Gallery of Art. The Corcoran is a major center of historic and contemporary American Art. Founded âfor the purpose of encouraging American Genius,â the Corcoran Gallery, and it's affiliated college of art and design, presents and preserves artwork while educating and nurturing the artists of the next generation.
The museum possesses a fine collection of European art and actively acquires and shows contemporary art from around the world. But the jewel in the Corcoran's gallery is its American wing, an extensive collection of 18th, 19th, and 20th century work that represents America's most significant artists.
Sarah Cash has been the Corcoranâs Bechhoefer Curator of American Art since 1998 and clearly the ideal guide to the museum and its American Art collection. I spoke with Sarah at the Corcoran. I began our conversation by admitting that I had only recently discovered that the Corcoran Gallery was, in fact, the first dedicated art museum in the United States.
Sarah Cash:Â That's right. I think it's a fact that not many people realize, that we are actually founded in 1869, and construction began on our first museum building even before that. It began just before the Civil War. So we were founded, for example, before the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. And I think it's quite significant that we were founded as early as we were. There were, of course, art academies, and athenaeums, and an athenaeum is essentially a built on European model, an amalgam of books and printings and paintings and sculpture together in a kind of rarified learning and aesthetic environment. And there are athenaeums that exist in Boston, and in Hartford, and there are art academies in Philadelphia, for example. But we were the first museum founded as an art museum. And that was a significant fact, not only for Washington, and today, of course, for the Corcoran Gallery of Art, but for William Wilson Corcoran, who was incredibly patriotic man, in the mold of a great mid-19th Century patriotic American, who actually called his museum âour country's first national gallery.â And he added to it, specifically added portraits of great Americans to his holdings because he was very interested in having his museum, not only seen as, but understood as the country's first national gallery.
Jo Reed: His interest was always first and foremost in American art?
Sarah Cash: Well, I believe Mr. Corcoran's interest was always in American art, and he actually was collecting contemporary American art, which we now see as 19th Century Landscape painting, for example. But in his time it was contemporary. He was always interested in collecting contemporary American art, and some historic American art. He also collected some European art. Although he was one of the pioneering collectors of American art in this country, he mixed it up a little bit. He collected European art, because he was looking to the example of---sometimes of fellow-- his fellow American collectors. And he knew that to learn about art, and to see art, he had to travel to Europe, he had to work with friends who were traveling to Europe, who helped him form his collection. But he really was very strongly interested in American art, in the same way that he was strongly interested in having American's first national gallery.
Jo Reed: The gallery had this great foundation of the collection of William Corcoran, but then obviously, you add to it throughout the years. How do you go about adding to a collection, creating a great American art collection?
Sarah Cash: Well, based on William Wilson Corcoran's original collection, the Corcoran really prides itself in having continued since our founding to collect lots of different things. But most importantly, in my opinion, we've added many examples of contemporary American art, the same way Mr. Corcoran collected those examples. And that's been done in a number of different ways. Of course, through gifts, and through purchases. But in 1907, the Corcoran initiated its first biannual exhibition of American art, which technically started as an annual exhibition. And I like to say that the curators decided that was a whole lot of work, and so they quickly turned to having a biannual exhibition. And from that biannual exhibition founded in 1907, begun in 1907, many, many important examples from our American collection have been purchased. Our great Winslow Homer painting, our great Mary Casatt painting. Many, many examples that you see on the walls of the Corcoran were purchased from those biannuals. Of course, we build the collection in other ways, too. I have, over the years that I've been at the Corcoran, worked on and refined my wish list of works that I would like to add to the collection, both paintings and sculpture, and to some degree, works on paper. And I look at the collection, I think about what our goals are in what we want to preserve at the Corcoran, what we want to interpret to the public, and think about what the gaps are in our collection, and what I really would love to strive for. And there are, of course, there are gaps in probably all collections in the world. And I know what our strengths and weaknesses are. And so I try to keep my eye open on the art market for things that I can add to the collection. Another way that we add to the collection very significantly here at the Corcoran is since we know we're the stewards of one of the world's greatest collections of American art, and American painting, in particular, we always want to make that collection look its best. And so often throughout the history of American art, frames have been changed. Not necessarily in recent history, but over our long and distinguished history. Frames have not always been valued as much as they are today. So while we are fortunate to have many original frames on our paintings, many, many, some paintings do not have those original frames. And we try our best when funds allow, when we can raise money, to purchase period frames that are similar to what we often know to have been the original frames. And frames are really works of art in and of themselves, which is a wonderful thing for me as a curator to learn more about. And we've reframed several paintings in recent years, including John Singer Sargent's painting called, "En Route pour la pÃªche," which is the focus of my exhibition, "Sargent and the Sea," for example.
Jo Reed: I know as with every museum, you also acquire works in very interesting ways. And I know that that there's a backstory about the acquisition to "Niagara."
Sarah Cash:Â Yes, the story of the acquisition of "Niagara," is really a wonderful one, and it's tied up in the Corcoran's history as the earliest art museum in America. Frederick Church's iconic and majestic painting, "Niagara" from 1857, was acquired by the Corcoran in 1876, our country's centennial year. And it was very significant acquisition for both Church and the Corcoran, because it's one of Church's great paintings. Made him quite famous overnight when he painted it, and later when the Corcoran acquired it. And we acquired the painting at auction, as I mentioned, and we had tried to acquire another Frederick Church painting called "The Heart of the Andes" a few months before we acquired "Niagara," but we were outbid, the Corcoran was outbid at auction by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which now owns that great painting. And when "Niagara" came up at auction, the trustees of the Corcoran were convinced that they should authorize the bidders for the Corcoran to spend as much as they needed to spend to get the painting-- to "purchase the painting at any cost," I think were the words that they used-- which was a great thing that we were able to do.
Jo Reed: Let me ask you, how often does a curator hear the words, "acquire it at any cost?" <laughs>
Sarah Cash:Â Yeah, <laughs> a curator does not hear those words very often. Especially not in today's art market. I would have loved to have been the curator at the Corcoran when we acquired "Niagara."
Jo Reed: The Corcoran owns several paintings by Albert Bierstadt including probably his most well known, âThe Last of the Buffalo.â But thereâs also a landscape that he painted which is owned by the Corcoran and Bierstadt was quite strategic in bringing that painting to the Corcoranâs attention.
Sarah Cash: Well thatâs right. âThe Last of the Buffaloâ came to our collection in the early 20th century as a gift of Bierstadtâs widow, but we do own several other great Bierstadt paintings. Among them, a painting that was painted in about 1877 that is on the cover of the American painting catalog, just published last year--a painting that Bierstadt showed in New York under the title âMountain Lake.â And one year later, immediately after Bierstadt and many others found out that the Corcoran Gallery of Art had acquired Frederic Churchâs âNiagara,â Bierstadt decided in essence that he wanted a piece of that. He knew Mr. Corcoran was a wealthy collector, and so he sent the painting called âMountain Lakeâ to Washington, and when it arrived at the doorstep of the Corcoran Gallery of Art then located at 17th and Pennsylvania in whatâs now known as the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian the painting was no longer called âMountain Lake,â it was called âMount Corcoranâ in a shameless and a wonderfully 19th century transparent appeal by Bierstadt to Mr. Corcoran, Mr. Corcoranâs vanity. And Mr. Corcoran, of course was, Iâm sure, thrilled and immediately wanted to add the painting to the collection. Well when the curator of the Corcoran in the late 19th century said, âWell I donât think thereâs really a mountain named Mount Corcoran anywhere.â Bierstadt immediately produced a map from the war department where he had gone to apply to have a mountain in the American west named Mount Corcoran, which you could do in those days kind of like naming a star today. And when the curator at the Corcoran looked at the map that Bierstadt presented, he looked at him and he said, âHm. This is a little suspect. It looks like the words Mount Corcoran have been written in by hand.â And then he said in classic 19th century prose, âThis looks like sharp practice on the part of the artist.â And so although the curator and the board didnât necessarily want to acquire Mount Corcoran, they saw what Bierstadt was doing. Mr. Corcoran, of course, was the person who wrote the checks for the acquisitions of what we know of both his own collection and the Corcoran Gallery of Art. And so the painting joined our collection and makes a wonderful counterpoint to Frederic Churchâs âNiagara,â acquired right about the same time. The two, of course, were really arch rivals when it came to patrons and American landscape painting. Church painting primarily in the east, but also South American and the Middle East, and Bierstadt having made his name as the painter of the American west for all those armchair travelers who couldnât necessarily go to the American west as Bierstadt had.
Jo Reed: How do you put together the collection that public sees? Because what the Corcoran has is so massive, obviously, we can't see it all at once.
Sarah Cash: Right, right. Well, I think, probably the frustration of many curators is that they never have quite enough room to show all the works of art that they would like to show. I think it's also important to remember, however, in this day-and-age, when we read a lot about museums not being able to show very much of their collections, that museums exist not only to show art, and to interpret art, but also to preserve art, art museums that is, and museums, in general, preserve their collections. So many of our collections, although they may not be seen on a daily basis at the Corcoran, are used for research, or used for study by me, by visiting scholars. And we do rotate collections throughout the galleries. Deciding what to install in our permanent collection galleries is a challenge when one does not have unlimited space, which no curator has. And I know, for example, that I want to hang many of the largest and most iconic paintings in our collection, and sculptures in our collection, like Frederick Church's "Niagara," like Albert Bierstadt's "Last of the Buffalo," like Samuel F. B. Morse's "House of Representatives." And those often anchor, in a sense, both intellectually, aesthetically, and physically, they anchor my decisions about how to install other works in the collection, and where to install them. And I'm about to embark on a reinstallation of the American collection which will be roughly chronological, but will also be thematic, in that I will think deeply about the importance of place in the history of American art, and the way different places in our country's history, and the history of our American artist's were important to those artists. Whether those places are the American West, for example, or Paris and France as a training ground for American impressionists, or New York as the center of the art world in the early 20th Century. So being a curator is never really a static position, even if you're not actively working on an exhibition that's opening imminently, you're always sort of rethinking and musing over your collection and thinking about how best to interpret it for your public.
Jo Reed: A long, long time ago, Walter Benjamin wrote a really interesting essay, "A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," which I think about a lot as we're now sort of in the third iteration of that. What is significant about seeing an original work of art in a museum, when we can bring it up so brilliantly on our iPad.
Sarah Cash: Well, I think probably one of the words you used, âbrilliantly,â is a key word there. When we see a work of art on our iPad, or some other electronic device, it can often be really bright, as if it's backlit by something. And it's also never the size, unless you're looking at a miniature, it's never the size of an actual work of art. And no matter how good our reproductions are these days, and many of them are very, very good, you're still never seeing the actual palette, if it's a painting, or patina, if it's a bronze, of the actual work of art. And you're never seeing the texture, you're never getting the idea of the size, and you can never see the application of brushstrokes, if it's a painting, or the modeling, if it's a sculpture, that you can see when you're really up-close to an object. although it's fantastic, we have so much access to images these days, there's a kind of impersonality that you that is not there when you're making a real personal connection with a work of art, and also with the artist who made the work of art. Because you can usually see the hand of the artist in some way or other.
Jo Reed: A lot of people when they come to museums in some ways approach it as though they're walking into a church. There's a sense of reverence that can be off-putting in some way to actually taking in art. As a curator, as somebody who shepherds the American art collection, how do you try to counterbalance that?
Sarah Cash: I think that trying to counterbalance, perhaps what we might call fear on the part of some people, a lot of people don't know how to visit art museums. They don't understand how to go in, what it is, how to look, how to learn. And even as a director of a college art museum, for example, there were members of the faculty of the college where I worked, who were a little bit intimidated by bringing their classes to the museum, not necessarily art professors, but other professors. So as a curator, I try my best with the resources that we have, to engage people in looking. And we, at the Corcoran, have been working on mobile website, and working on bringing the art in our permanent collection to the public using audio devices. We often do that in exhibitions, and many museums like the Corcoran are increasingly trying to incorporate more innovative ways for the public to view our collection. So, as a curator, when I write a label, an old-fashioned label, I think it's important for people to look at the painting, and not just look at the label, obviously, so I'm always trying to draw a viewer's eye to an object when I write a label. And I'm trying to also, in particular, with the Corcoran's American Collection, impart some knowledge of American history, but also engage people's own knowledge of American history. Everybody knows the Gilbert Stewart portrait of George Washington, because it's on the dollar bill in an engraved form. And so that's a way for me to draw people in, and in paintings like Morse's House of Representatives, people who come to Washington as visitors or who live here, most of them have visited the US Capitol, and so that's a way to engage people in their own experience of Washington. So it can often be a challenging thing. But I think it's really important for curators to wear an educator hat for a good part of what we do.
Jo Reed: Do you try to tell a story?
Sarah Cash:Â There are many stories that I try to tell actually in my installations. One of them is about the History of American Art, though again, very few museums in the world can tell a full history of American art, because they just--they don't have every object. But I try to impart some sense of the history of American art, but also a strong sense of American history, because that's so closely intertwined with the history of American art, and also the history of the Corcoran, because the history of the Corcoran is so deeply intertwined with the history of American art. Mr. Corcoran knew so many of these artists, and after he died, curators at this institution knew artists, and collected works of those living artists. So there are a number of overlapping and intertwined stories that I do try to tell.
Jo Reed: When we walk into the Corcoran and we're about to go up the stairs, there's a really interesting, and I know you said, very important sculpture on the left of the staircase as we go up. Tell us about that.
Sarah Cash:Â Yes, the sculpture by Hiram Powers called, "The Greek Slave," carved by Hiram Powers, an American artist living in Florence, and carved in the middle of the 1840s, stands at the base of the Corcoran's spectacular grand staircase in our 1897 Beaux Arts Building. And it is certainly the most important sculpture in the Corcoran's collection, and one of the most important sculptures in the history of American art. And was a sculpture that caused a sensation, really, when it was exhibited in the 1840s and the 1850s. It's a full-size sculpture of a naked woman. Actually, the first full-sized sculpture of a naked woman in the history of American art. It is an idealized body; there is no question that in Victorian America, the appearance of this sculpture on the scene caused a great deal of consternation amongst viewers. Mr. Corcoran purchased his version, the version that we own of The Greek Slave in 1851. There are five or six versions of the original, of the first Greek Slave, which is now in a collection in England, that were produced by Powers because the sculpture was so popular. And he produced them, and also was commissioned to produce them by a number of collectors in this country. The sculpture depicts a young, Greek girl who has been captured by the Turks during the Greek War for independence, and now appears to be about to sold on a slave market. However, her nakedness is mitigated somewhat---and Hiram Powers did this clearly on purpose knowing what his audience would be---by what he called her purity and her chastity, and the presence of a cross, for example, that hangs over her drapery, which is wrapped around a post on which she leans her right hand. It was a remarkable object to appear in the history of art. It also took on, as one can imagine, different meanings early in its history. In particular, it took on significance for those active in the abolitionist movement. If you visit Frederic Douglass' home in Anacostia, here in Washington, you can see actually a miniature version of "The Greek Slave" that he owned. It also became a popular image in popular culture. There was Greek Slave chewing tobacco, Greek Slave sheet music, poems written about this sculpture. It was just incredible phenomenon in the middle of the 19th Century.
Jo Reed: Impressionism had a great impact on American painting at the time, and the Corcoran collection reflects that.
Sarah Cash: Yes. The Corcoranâs collection is outstanding when it comes to many aspects, but particularly American impressionism. And I would say that one reason for that-- an important reason, but not the only reason--is the fact that the Corcoran began its biennial exhibitions of contemporary American art in 1907. And that was the period when American impressionism was really coming to the fore in this country, both in the works of American artists who both worked here in the US and also in France, for example, but also was the time when great collections of American impressionism began to be formed. Now, Mr. Corcoran of course had died in 1888, so he was no longer living when American impressionism really came to the fore. But very prescient, I think, curators at the Corcoran, and staff members at the Corcoran when they held these biennial exhibitions of contemporary art, purchased several works from each biennial and purchased amazing things from those biennials. Our Winslow Homer painting, our Mary Cassatt painting, Theodore Robinson painting, many of those works entered our collection as works of contemporary art, which is amazing to think about now because they are some of the icons of the history of American impressionism and American guilded age painting.
Jo Reed: The American art collection here at the Corcoran goes until 1945. Why that date?
Sarah Cash: Well thatâs a good question. I take care of the collection. Of course the word âcuratorâ has its roots in the Latin word which means âto take care of.â I take care of the collection of American paintings and sculpture, and works on paper to 1945, and that is a cut-off in the Corcoranâs collection. It doesnât signify the end of our American collection because, of course, we collect art all the way up to the present day. My colleague, Sarah Newman, in the Contemporary Art department takes care of the post-1945 collection, but that date is a cut-off roughly because in many museums it is a way to organize curatorial responsibilities. Of course, 1945 was the end of the Second World War and was a time when American art changed so dramatically that sort of both in American art and American history, it serves as a good stopping point. We do have fabulous examples of American paintings and sculpture in the 20th century both works not only by American realist painters such as the members of the group called the Eight and the Fourteenth Street School. And we also have works that are quite different from those realist works--works from between the two World Wars essentially. Works primarily after 1913, which is a watershed moment in the history of American art. It was the date of the International Exhibition of Modern Art-- better known as the Armory Show-- where so many artists saw for the first time, experienced for the first time modern movements in European art, and were quite influenced by them.
Jo Reed: I donât want to go too far off track, but I think itâs really hard for us now in the 21st century to try to really get the significance of what it was like to walk into that Armory Show, and what a sea change that was for art.
Sarah Cash: It must have been quite an incredible experience. But it must have been quite remarkable. Of course, some artists have travelled to Europe and were aware of these movements, and knew about things through reproduction. But getting back to our very first, our earlier part of this discussion about how seeing a reproduction of a work of art is never the same as seeing the real thing, that came into play so strongly with the Armory Show and with artists who were seeing works by Picasso, works by cubists, works by futurists, works by Deschamps--the most famous painting in the Armory Show, of course, âNude Descending a Staircaseâ--and works by lesser known artists, but also works by Cezanne. It must have just been this incredibly overwhelming experience. It really just must have been a total immersion really into these objects that now we take, in a sense, so much more for granted.
Jo Reed: Itâs like Beethovenâs Fifth. Dot, dot, dot. But what was like to sit there and hear that for the first time?
Sarah Cash: Yeah. No, I always think itâs important-- as I always tell visitors to our collections--to try to cast oneself back into the time that works of art were painted, whether itâs in the 19th century when youâre looking at landscape painting through the eyes of an 19th century American who saw and thought so much about the presence of God in nature, and about manifest destiny, and about things that were so important to 19th century Americans. But in the same way that we might do that when looking at works of the 19th century, it is important, as you say, to think about what it must have been like to experience this kind of thing in 1913 and afterward. And now we can walk into the Museum of Modern Art and see Picassoâs âDemoiselles DâAvignon,â for example, or Matisseâs âDance,â and see them, and see how beautiful they are, but to really channel the experience of an artist in the early 20th century is a really important thing to try and do.
Jo Reed: Sarah, let me ask you the big question. Is there anything distinctively American about American art? Or is the country so vast and so diverse, itâs simply geographic?
Sarah Cash: Well thatâs a very difficult question, and one thatâs been debated since the middle decades of the 20th century, or early decades of the 20th century, I would say. I prefer to see the American art and what is American about American art in not so prescribed and concrete a fashion. I prefer to see it, I think, more as the other way that youâve described it-- as American art representing the vast geographical expanse, and the vast history of our country in so many different aspects. And American artists were responding so strongly to their sense of place and to their sense of place in this country-- whether it was the expansive American west or to the city, when so many artists flocked to New York in the early 20th century. But I think the idea of subject matter and really the great diversity represented in American art in a collection like the Corcoranâs is an important thing to think about.
Jo Reed: Thank you so much. Thank you for your time.
Sarah Cash: Thank you.
Jo Reed That was Sarah Cash, she's the curator of American Art at the Corcoran gallery in Washington DC.
You've been listening to Artworks produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from âSimple Gifts,â arranged by Ben Brussell. Performed by the Luna Nova Quartet:
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To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.