How do museums care for art collections?

In the 1983 film “Sesame Street at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Cookie Monster has to resist eating delicious looking pictures. [Image: http://muppet.wikia.com/wiki/Don%27t_Eat_the_Pictures] (c) Sesame Workshop
Museum professionals work hard behind-the-scenes to make sure unique collections and cultural heritage survives for future generations to enjoy. The ways in which we store, handle, and light art objects are key to preventing damage and slowing deterioration over time. The professional term is preventative conservation, and it is the unsung hero of museum collections care.

You may have noticed that most museums are extremely vigilant about preventing visitors from touching the artwork.

Dirt and oils from hands can add up to damage over time. Cracking in painted surfaces is inevitable, as the different natural and man-made materials that make up canvas and paint expand and contract over time. But, pressure – from a hand or pointing finger, for instance – can result in extensive cracks that may not show up until later.

Details from: John Frederick Herring, Sr., The Start of the Derby, 1845, oil on canvas, 28 x 48 inches, Bequest of Elizabeth D. Clark, 2017
Concentric circles or bullseye cracks can develop from pressure (like a finger poke) that has been applied to a painting canvas.

And a careless gesture too close to a painting could result in more immediate (and very expensive) damage – like this $40-million Dollar Elbow.

Physical damage can also be caused by the environment. If you have ever hung a photograph in your home where it is hit by direct sunlight, you may have made the sad discovery that your picture has started to fade away. Works on paper – such as pencil, ink, watercolor, and especially photographs – are particularly sensitive to light damage. In the museum we monitor light levels carefully and use window coverings to filter out harmful UV light from the outside.

Routine cleaning and treatments also help prevent damage. We enlist professional conservators to combine science and chemistry with art to do so.

Sculpture conservator Andrew Baxter prepares wax to protect the bronze sculpture of a filly, Darn That Itch by Jean Clagett, on the NSLM campus.
Tools of the trade: The sculpture conservator uses wax tinted with different types of pigments to create a protective layer over the bronze.
A pre-treatment photo of the NSLM’s Sea Hero statue. Note the greenish hue, particularly on the base.
After annual cleaning and re-waxing, the green discoloration is gone and rain water beads and pools on the base of the bronze.

To learn more about the treatment of outdoor bronze sculptures and our Sea Hero statue, read this past blog post, Bath Time for Bronze Horses.

When damage does occur, whether naturally or by accident, conservators also help us repair and restore works of art. A large, four-paneled, 18th century sporting screen in the permanent collection is currently undergoing treatment by a conservator. In the photos below, you can see the progress so far. The left photo was taken before any cleaning or treatment. The right photo was taken during the treatment process after yellowed varnish and old discolored repairs have been removed. The bright white areas are filled-in repairs that will eventually be repainted.

Details from: (after) James Seymour, Four-paneled Sporting Screen, mid-18th/19th century, hand-colored engravings mounted on canvas, and oil on canvas mounted on a wooden frame, each panel 81 ½ x 27 inches, Bequest of Sonia Phipps Seherr-Thoss, 2006
On the left, photos taken before treatment show cloudy, yellowed varnish and old, discolored past repairs. On the right, photos taken during treatment show brighter colors and details. The areas of bright white are newly made repairs to old damage.

Once cleaning is complete and all repairs have been finished, the screen will be re-coated with a thin layer of protective varnish and can then be put back on view in the galleries.

It takes consistent care to keep these objects looking their best. If you want to help support the ongoing conservation efforts here at the NSLM, please consider making a donation!

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There are five striking oils depicting foxhunting painted entirely in black and white in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s permanent collection. The technique is called en grisaille (pronounced “ohnˈ griˈzɑ yə”), a French term meaning in gray tones. Created with mixtures of black and white pigments, these types of paintings date back to the Middle Ages.

George Wright (English, 1860-1942), A Treed Fox, oil on canvas, en grisaille, 17 x 25 inches, Gift of Mrs. Felicia Warburg Rogan, 2008

Created by George Wright (1860-1942), the paintings were among fifteen important British sporting artworks donated to the NSLM by Felicia Warburg Rogan in 2008. Surprisingly little is known about Wright’s life and teaching. The artist, however, left behind a considerable body of work and was acknowledged as one of the top sporting artists of his day by circa 1900.

Many of Wright’s en grisaille subjects are believed to have been produced early in his career for reproduction as illustrations. Working in gray tones was a practical choice for these types of works. There was no need to use expensive color pigments if they were not intended to be seen. Painting in grayscale also allowed for better control of contrasts, shades, and tones. As an example, NSLM has a sixth painting by George Wright done in color that is an almost identical scene to the monochromatic A Treed Fox. This allows the opportunity to make a direct comparison of Wright’s color and black and white techniques.

George Wright (English, 1860-1942), A Treed Fox, oil on canvas, 13 1/2 x 20 inches, Gift of Mrs. Felicia Warburg Rogan, 2008
Left: Detail of Treed Fox, color version; Center: Detail of Treed Fox, color version converted to grayscale; Right: Detail of Treed Fox, en grisaille painting

On the left is a detail of the color painting; in the center is the color version converted to grayscale; and on the right is the actual black and white work. The composition in color is more painterly with a nuanced palette and brushstrokes. Reproduced in black and white though, it becomes muddy, and the details are difficult to see. Where the reproduction fails, the painting on the right succeeds; it has a refined illustrative quality with crisper lines and higher contrasts.

The obvious and purposeful difference between the way Wright painted the two versions reinforces the idea that the en grisaille works were intended for reproduction. To-date NSLM’s compositions have not been found reproduced, but they tell stories in their own right. Two are the same size and bear inscriptions on the bottom left corner, “In at the Death” and “The Kennels.”

George Wright (English, 1860-1942), In at the Death, oil on canvas, en grisaille, 18 x 27 inches, Gift of Mrs. Felicia Warburg Rogan, 2008

In the first, the huntsman presents the brush (fox’s tail) to the lady wearing a bowler hat and riding aside. The recipient of the trophy was chosen by the Master of Foxhounds to reward participants who were skilled riders and kept at the head of the hunt field. The tradition of presenting the fox mask and brush has today become censured, but it is worthy to note that it was done with a sense of deference to the fox.

“Poor Reynard [“reynard” is French for “fox”], his day is done! No more wild raids on the sleeping countryside; no more slaughter in hen house or rabbit warren…Off from your horse, Mr. Huntsman, for the trophies of so gallant a beast are worth the saving,” wrote B. Fletcher Robinson in Sporting Pictures to describe a painting titled Killed in the Quarry by George Wright. (This 1902 folio sized art book held in the NSLM’s F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room was published in celebration of English country sports with works “reproduced in colour by the newest and most perfect process of chromo-lithography.”)

George Wright (English, 1860-1942), At the Kennels, oil on canvas, en grisaille, 18 x 27 inches, Gift of Mrs. Felicia Warburg Rogan, 2008

The second en grisaille painting in the NSLM’s pair, “At The Kennels,shows the hounds obediently following the huntsman to the kennel gate, as the Master looks on and a groom has charge of the horses. The likeness of the huntsman is similar to the one depicted in The Treed Fox discussed earlier and two other en grisaille works in NSLM’s holdings. These all show instances in which the fox is just out of reach of the hound pack.

George Wright (English, 1860-1942), Out of Reach, A Fox at Bay on a High Wall, c. 1884, oil on canvas, en grisaille, 16 x 24 inches, Gift of Mrs. Felicia Warburg Rogan, 2008
George Wright (English, 1860-1942), Closing In, c. 1884, oil on canvas, en grisaille, 16 x 24 inches, Gift of Mrs. Felicia Warburg Rogan, 2008

Wright is believed to have hunted with the Surrey and Old Burstow, and it is quite evident from his works that he had an intimate understanding of foxhunting and its human, equine, and canine participants. Whether or not he intended for the figures to be likenesses of recognizable individuals is unknown. He included them in other hunt scenes over time. The allure of George Wright’s en grisaille compositions evoke nostalgia for a bygone era and a sport that at the same time remains universal and timeless for those who still participate in it today.


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

Today we will take a break from writing about the Annual Auction and featured Spring exhibition to cast a spotlight on a subject we haven’t discussed in awhile: The Horse in Ancient Greek Art. Yes, it may seem like ancient history by now, but even though the exhibition left Middleburg in January, it continues to engage and inspire viewers across the state and around the globe.

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Attributed to the Sappho Painter, Greek (Attic), Black-Figure White Ground Lekythos, ca. 510 BCE, Terracotta, Private Collection

In fact, the exhibition was just named the 2017 New Tourism Event of the Year by Visit Loudoun. The award goes to organizations that demonstrate exceptional work in bringing cultural and economic value to the area. The Horse in Ancient Greek Art was Loudoun County’s first exhibition of ancient artwork. During its 16 week stay in Middleburg, the exhibition was seen by visitors from 211 different zip codes, including 30 states and 9 foreign countries.

 

For many visitors, this was their first introduction to NSLM, and their first introduction to sporting art. When planning the exhibition, the idea of interpreting ancient artwork in an organization whose oldest artifact dates to 1523 was daunting. However, the comparison between ancient and modern equestrian imagery connected visitors to the artwork in fascinating ways.

 

Though separated by tens of thousands of miles and thousands of years, the people, animals, and places shown on ancient Greek pottery are familiar to anyone visiting hunt country today.

 

The Horse in Ancient Greek Art is now on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia. Between visitors at NSLM and VMFA, the show has been seen by nearly 75,000 individuals since September! In Richmond, the show is on view near the other ancient art galleries. Understanding Greek pottery within the context of other ancient Mediterranean cultures adds a new layer of interpretation to the exhibition. The Horse in Ancient Greek Art has been featured in The Wall Street Journal and has been called a “must-see” event.

 

Can’t wait to visit? Join NSLM on a special “Site-Seeing” trip to visit Agecroft Hall and The Horse in Ancient Greek Art at VMFA.


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Anne Marie Paquette is the Clarice & Robert H. Smith Educator at the National Sporting Library & Museum (NSLM). Her passion for museum work began shortly after graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in History from James Madison University. Between her expeience working at the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center and the Washington Heritage Museums, she has done everything from designing summer camps to formulating major fundraisers. Have a question? Contact Anne Marie by e-mail

The changing exhibitions displayed in the Museum give us the opportunity to see works of art in a new light. We can reunite works that have long been separated in different collections, or juxtapose objects which are not normally displayed with each other, or gather together multiple works by the same artist.

In the case of our current exhibition, A Sporting Vision: The Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, on view through July 22, 2018, we have the opportunity to view works of art by British sporting artists Benjamin Marshall, John Ferneley, Sr., and Sir Francis Grant, and compare them with works by the same artists in the NSLM’s permanent collection.

Benjamin Marshall (English, 1768-1835), Mr. Thomas Willan of Marylebone Park and Twyford Abbey, 1818, oil on canvas, 34 x 40 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Kathryn James Clark in memory of Stephen C. Clark, Jr., 2013

The more time you spend looking at works of art by the same artist, the more you begin to recognize that artist’s style, or “hand,” as art historians often like to say. This portrait by Benjamin Marshall, which is part of the NSLM permanent collection, shows a gentleman named Thomas Willan on his hunt horse. Willan owned a large farm in Marylebone Park, which is located in the present day area of Regent’s Park, London. His gothic-style manor house and gardens were known as Twyford Abbey. While the man and his horse are painted in glossy detail, the thinly-painted background is hazy and indistinct. There is a glimpse of fence line and gate on the viewer’s right and the hint of a waterway on the left. If the manor house is there, it is lost in the muted tones of the loosely painted landscape.

Benjamin Marshall (English, 1768-1835), Noble, a Hunter Well Known in Kent, c. 1805-1810, oil on canvas, 40 ⅛ x 50 inches, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Paul Mellon Collection, 99.80. (c)Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Other works by Marshall now on view in A Sporting Vision show a similar treatment of background and subject. In the portrait of Noble, a Hunter Well Known in Kent (where the horse is actually the “sitter”), the landscape is made up of loose brush strokes, with lots of sky and indistinct features. Hounds and huntstaff are shown faintly in the background.

Benjamin Marshall (English, 1768-1835), Colonel Henry Campbell Shooting on a Moor, ca. 1806, oil on canvas, 33⅞ x 40⅛ inches, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Paul Mellon Collection, 99.81. Photo: Travis Fullerton © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

We see it again in Colonel Henry Campbell Shooting on a Moor. The more you look at Marshall’s works, the more you can recognize similarities in the way he paints his figures as well.

John Ferneley, Sr. (English, 1781-1860), and Sir Francis Grant (Scottish, 1803-1878), The Hunt in Belvoir Vale, c. 1835, oil on canvas, 48 x 133 inches, National Sporting Library & Museum, Gift of Kathryn James Clark in memory of Stephen C. Clark, Jr., 2013

Works on view by John Ferneley, Sr., and Francis Grant are connected as well. Ferneley briefly tutored the younger artist and the two collaborated on The Hunt in Belvoir Vale, which is part of the NSLM permanent collection. This mural-sized group portrait from the mid-1830s shows gentlemen foxhunting near the town of Melton Mowbray, highly popular foxhunting territory outside of London. Thirteen of the riders in the foreground are identified portraits, including Grant at the far left side. The painting was commissioned by the Earl of Wilton (1799-1882), who is pictured leading the group.

Detail of The Hunt at Belvoir Vale showing the Earl of Wilton, who commissioned the painting, leading on the chestnut horse.
Detail of The Hunt at Belvoir Vale, with self-portrait of artist Francis Grant at left.

The Sporting Vision exhibition includes several works by Ferneley and one by Grant.

Sir Francis Grant (Scottish, 1803–1878), The Melton Hunt Going to Draw the Ram’s Head Cover, 1839, oil on canvas, 35 15/16 x 60 inches, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Paul Mellon Collection, 85.494.1. Photo: Katherine Wetzel © Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The Melton Hunt Going to Draw the Ram’s Head Cover was painted by Grant a few years after the NSLM painting. This group portrait features 36 identified figures riding with the Quorn Hunt, also in the Melton Mowbray area. The Earl of Wilton appears here as well, at center in the long grey coat, along with members of his family. The Countess of Wilton and her son Lord Grey de Wilton ride in the phaeton (a light-weight, four wheeled carriage) pulled by two palomino colored ponies. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1839.  Grant went on to a successful painting career and was President of the Royal Academy from 1866 to 1878.

When you are here at the Museum next, I hope you enjoy taking time to compare and contrast the wonderful highlights of British sporting art that are currently on view.

Mr. Paul Mellon (1907-1999), a revered philanthropist and sportsman, was a lifelong incurable collector. He and his first wife Mary famously purchased their first George Stubbs painting  in 1936 – Pumpkin with a Stable-Lad, 1774, now in the Yale Center for British Art collection.

Pumpkin with a Stable-lad
George Stubbs (British, 1724–1806), Pumpkin with a Stable-lad, 1774, oil on panel, 32 3/8 x 39 7/8 inches, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection [ image source: http://collections.britishart.yale.edu/vufind/Record/1667168 ]
At the height of his collecting, Mr. Mellon was acquiring in the neighborhood of 200 works a year. By 1955 he and his second wife Rachel “Bunny” Mellon converted the Brick House, a former residence on their Rokeby Farm property in Upperville, Virginia into a library and art gallery to house their growing British sporting art collection.

Another collecting interest that Mr. Mellon developed was in vintage and antique weathervanes. He loaned one of his early acquisitions, a 19th century stamped copper cow, to the Popular Art in America exhibition held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1939. “Mr. Mellon loved the sculptural form of the weathervanes,” noted Beverly Carter, his former administrative assistant in 2002. “He used most of these pieces in the same way that he used the sculpture from his collection, displaying them on tabletops or on freestanding pedestals throughout the Brick House.”

A Horse, with Left Front Leg Raised
A.L. Jewell and Co., Waltham, Mass., c. 1860, A Horse, with Left Front Leg Raised, copper, 18 x 20 inches, Bequest of Paul Mellon, 1999

In 1998 Mr. Mellon generously donated the first of several weathervanes to the National Sporting Library & Museum to adorn the main cupola of the current Library building, then under construction. Carter made arrangements to have the piece transferred from  the basement of the Brick House so that it could be installed while a construction crane was on site.

A Horse Jumping a Post and Rail Gate
A.L. Jewell and Co., Waltham, Mass., third quarter, 19th century, A Horse Jumping a Post and Rail Gate with directionals, molded and gilded copper with ridged sheet copper mane and tail, 30 x 36 inches, Donated by Paul Mellon, 1998

When Mr. Mellon passed away in 1999, he bequeathed an additional eleven weathervanes that he had collected between 1973 and 1991, one of which was a life estate bequest. The latter and another weathervane bequeathed by Mrs. Mellon came to NSLM when she passed away in 2014, bringing the collection to a total of thirteen objects.  Hound Chasing a Fox adorned the Hunter Barn at Rokeby Farm, and is a little worse for wear. Remnants of gold leaf are still visible, however it is oxidized and has several holes that seem to have been the result of target practice!

A Hound Chasing a Fox
L.W. Cushing & Sons, Waltham, Mass., third quarter, 19th century, Hound Chasing a Fox with directionals (detail), copper with gold leaf, 22 x 52 inches, Bequest of Paul Mellon, 2014

Several of the weathervanes are on display in the Library and Museum, and the collection as a whole provides a significant overview of desirable forms, subject matter,  finishes, and sizes produced in the 19th century by a variety of manufacturers, some unknown. Not surprisingly there are five weathervanes that are equine-related, including the two previously mentioned, a mid-19th century trotter and rider, a full-body figure horse and jockey, and a highly-detailed child and pony cart manufactured by J. L. Mott Ironworks, NY, c. 1893. The three latter ones adorn the Library’s Paul Mellon Foyer.

Child and Pony Cart
J.L. Mott Ironworks, New York, c. 1893, Child and Pony Cart, sheet-copper and zinc, 16 x 24 inches, Bequest of Paul Mellon, 1999

Farm animals and wildlife subjects that Mr. Mellon added to the collection include a running fox, a small ram, a large ram, a bull, and the massive pig that adorns the stacks in the Main Reading Room. Mr. Mellon was particularly fond of the pig which he displayed on a table in the Abbey Room, the main library at the Brick House.

Main Reading Room
The Library’s Main Reading Room (prior to the recently completed book re-cataloging project)
A Pig
E.G. Washburne and Company, N.Y., late 19th century, A Pig, copper, 24 x 46 inches, Bequest of Paul Mellon, 1999

Another fine example is the 26-inch long copper and gold-leaf grasshopper that is on view opposite the NSLM Executive Director’s office. Mr. Mellon originally had it installed outdoors at his private airstrip for several years before having it regilt and placed on display at the Brick House as well.

A Grasshopper
American, 19th Century, A Grasshopper, copper with gold leaf, 11 x 26 inches, Bequest of Paul Mellon, 1999

In an interview “Paul Mellon on Collecting Art,” before his passing, Mr. Mellon was seated in the Brick House surrounded by the iconic collection he had amassed over several decades and planned to gift to several public institutions. Behind his left shoulder was his famed first Stubbs painting of Pumpkin and over his right – a horse weathervane with left front leg raised, most likely the one now in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s collection. When asked to give advice on collecting, Mr. Mellon said about his lifelong passion, “Immerse yourself in whatever you are interested in,” jokingly adding, “but if you’re very lucky, you won’t do it at all.”

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Newly designed sticker to be given to NSLM members as they join or renew and will be available for purchase in the Museum gift shop.

I will be adding this little gem to my sticker collection. The image is based on the outline of the weathervane which sits atop the NSLM’s Library building.  Since it has the distinction of being the only weathervane that Mr. Mellon gifted to NSLM during his lifetime, it is fitting that we introduce this graphic while we are the opening venue for  the exhibition of the Paul Mellon British Sporting Art collection traveling from Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Sporting Vision: The Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.


pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org

Spring has come, along with steeplechasing and flat racing throughout the Virginia Piedmont. The same springtime spirit can be felt across the racing community, and across the world. Few towns are held in as high sporting regard as Newmarket in Suffolk, England. First settled as a market town after the Norman invasion, Newmarket became a hub of horse racing culture in the reign of Charles II (1630 – 1685). Though James I built the first royal residence at Newmarket c. 1610 to pursue sport, it is only with the restoration of the Crown after 1660 that the town grew to become the international center of horse racing, a reputation that it still holds today.

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James Pollard (English, 1792-1867) Newmarket Races, 1909. Engraving from an earlier painting by James Pollard. Copyright Getty Images.

Among the earliest races established at Newmarket is the three-mile Newmarket Town Plate. Charles II founded the race in 1666 with the direction that it should be run in perpetuity. True to this charge, the race has been run for over 350 years. At first there were only two race meets, one in April, the other in October. By 1840 there were seven race meets: The Craven Meeting, the 1st and 2nd Spring Meetings, the July Meeting, the 1st and 2nd October Meetings, and finally the Houghton Meeting. Traditionally the first races of the year took place the week following Easter Sunday. Today the Rowley Mile and the July Course boast races and events every weekend from the Craven Meeting in mid-April to the final meet at the beginning of November.

George Stubbs, English, 1724 - 1806 (Artist); Hyena with a Groom
George Stubbs (English, 1724–1806), Hyaena at Newmarket with One of Jenison Shafto’s Stablelads, ca. 1765–7, oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 50 1/8 inches, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Paul Mellon Collection (image source: https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/6027262-132161010/)

The long history and distinctive style of Newmarket made it a popular subject for the burgeoning market of sporting artwork in the 18th and 19th centuries, and beyond. Many famous equine portraits are set at the stables in Newmarket, meant to commemorate distinguished careers at the capitol of English racing. This subject allowed artists like George Stubbs (1724-1806) and Benjamin Marshall (1768-1835) to demonstrate their skillful mastery of equine anatomy. Other images of Newmarket show frenetic energy and passion before race meets. This time of year it is easy to imagine oneself pressed in a crowd of spectators as jockeys in brightly colored silks line up for the race.

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Sir Alfred Munnings, P.R.A. (British, 1878–1959), Linin’ ’em Up, Newmarket, ca. 1940–53, oil on panel, 19 ¾ x 23 ½ inches, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Paul Mellon Collection.  (image source: https://www.vmfa.museum/piction/7898216-110496899/)
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Henry Koehler (American, b. 1927), Jockeys Between Races, Newmarket, 2009, oil on canvas, 12 x 16 in. Gift of the artist, 2012.

Springtime races, whether at Newmarket or in the foothills of Loudoun County, marry the traditions of country life with the perennial newness and passion of changing seasons. The brisk air and thundering hooves can be felt across times as old and new are blended together in our cultural landscapes and in the paintings of sporting artists throughout time.

Not able to make it to Newmarket this spring? You’re in luck! Some of these works and other stunning examples of sporting masterpieces are on view at NSLM both in the permanent collection and in Spring’s feature exhibition, A Sporting Vision: the Paul Mellon Collection of British Sporting Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, opening April 13, 2018.

 

 

 

 

Working as a professional portrait and animal artist in the 1800s was not an unusual occurrence, unless you were a woman. Mrs. Susan C. Waters (1823-1900) was among the first female painters in the United States to be successful supporting both herself and her husband during her lifetime.

When her female contemporaries were masking their gender by purposely signing their works with initials instead of first names, Waters preferred to sign her paintings “Mrs. Susan C. Waters” or “Mrs. S.C. Waters” in a legible, cursive hand. Her early portraits were signed on the reverse, inscribed with the names of the sitters, and the date. When she reemerged as an animal, landscape, and still life painter, the artist signed her paintings on the front for the rest of her career, a trailblazer making her mark during the birth of the women’s suffrage movement.

Waters sig comparison
Comparison of Susan C. Waters signatures: Left – b/w image of verso of portrait of Helen Kingman, 1845, #17 in 1980 exhibition catalogue for “Susan C. Waters, 19th-Century Itinerant Painter;” Right – signature on recto of Susan Catherine Moore Waters (American, 1823-1900), Chickens and Raspberries, c.1880, NSLM Collection, Gift of The Phelan Collection, 2012.

Waters was born Susan Catherine Moore in Binghamton, New York, in 1823 and lived in the Quaker community of Friendsville, Pennsylvania. At the age of fifteen she attended the local female seminary school there. Notably, Susan showed early artistic talent earning tuition for both herself and her sister by painting copies for the Natural History Department. Little is known about her formal artistic training, although according to her obituary, printed in  the Bordentown Register on July 27, 1900, “she was considered a prodigy by her teachers” at the seminary.

In 1841 Susan married William Church Waters, also from the Friendsville Quaker community, and they remained together for 52 years until his death in 1893. Her husband encouraged Susan to become an itinerant portrait painter. She produced numerous folk art portraits between 1843 and 1846, traveling throughout northern Pennsylvania and Southern New York with her husband. Several of her portraits show an early facility for portraying animals.

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Susan Catherine Moore Waters (American, 1823 – 1900), Brothers, c. 1845 (and detail on right), oil on canvas, 44 x 34 15/16 inches, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch
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Susan Catherine Moore Waters (American, 1823 – 1900), Henry L. Wells, 1845 (and detail on right), oil on canvas, 45 1/4 x 28 3/8 inches, National Gallery of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch

The last known portrait during this early phase of Water’s career is dated 1846. Her husband William’s failing health began to impede their travels. With the rise of photography people were also beginning to turn away from commissioning portraits and towards sitting for photographs. Mr. and Mrs. Waters capitalized on this by becoming ambrotype and daguerreotype photographers for the next decade.

Susan also taught painting and drawing, but her focus returned to her own work. A revealing letter she wrote from Friendsville in 1851, to the Honorary Secretary of the American Art-Union in New York requesting a reference, provides a glimpse into the couple’s circumstances and her goals for her career. She noted:

Owing to my husband’s ill health I am prevented from following my usual occupation. (i.e. teaching painting) therefore I am obliged to seek some other way of turning my time to profit, in order to keep up with our expenses…by the sale of oil paintings.

Susan made no mention of her time as an itinerant painter but instead referred to two landscapes she had “sketched from nature” to submit to the Art-Union. There is no record of her works having been accepted, but landscapes that Waters painted and sold during this time set the stage for her artistic transition.

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Susan Caroline Moore Waters (American, 1823-1900), Landscape with Cows and Stream, oil on canvas, 29 3/4 x 41 1/2 inches (sight size), signed Mrs. Susan C. Waters, lr [image source: Cowan’s Auctions on-line catalog, Fine and Decorative Art: Live Salesroom Auction, 3/10/18, lot 10]
The Waters required additional income to complete a home they were building in the early 1850s in the Quaker community of Bordentown, New Jersey, although they did not settle there until over a decade later in 1866. It is here where Waters became known for her paintings of sheep, other domesticated and wild animals, and still lifes with the constant encouragement and support of her ailing husband. She kept her studio in Bordentown for the next thirty years. It is also here that she became active with the New Jersey Woman Suffrage Association, of which she was elected recording secretary in 1871.

In 1876 Waters continued to blaze new trails as an exhibitor at the prestigious International Exhibition held in Philadelphia that year in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Her oil painting, Still Life – Mallard Ducks, is listed as no. 1075 in the catalogue with an asterisk next to the title indicating the painting was for sale.

1876 catalog page with cover and gallery pic
Official Catalogue of US International Exhibition 1876 published by John R. Nagle and Company. Left: Cover; Right Top: Dept. IV. – Art – United States. p. 47 and detail; Right Bottom: “Art Gallery, Or Memorial Hall” illustration, frontispiece for “Part II. Art Gallery, Annexes, and Outdoor Works of Art.” [ source: https://archive.org/details/officialcatalogu00cent ]
The National Sporting Library & Museum’s oil painting, Chickens and Raspberries,  c. 1880 shows how refined Waters’ technique had become.

Susan Catherine Moore Waters (American, 1823-1900), Chickens and Raspberries, c.1880
oil on canvas, 24 x 16 1/2 inches, NSLM Collection, Gift of The Phelan Collection, 2012

Mrs. Susan B. Waters – artist, wife, and suffragette – died in 1900 at the age of 77 after a long and storied career. She continued to paint until a few months prior to her passing. “Her character was as beautiful as her paintings… her talent she could not bequeath,” noted her  July 27, 1900 obituary.  Waters left behind a body of work, a reputation, and a legacy that made her an icon ahead of her time as well as a noteworthy figure in women’s history and art history.

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Mrs. Susan C. Waters, c. 1880, Bordentown Historical Society, Bordentown, NJ. [ image source: https://www.mullenbooks.com/pictures/6756_3.jpg?v=1487612703 ]

pfeifferClaudia Pfeiffer has been the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Curator of Art at the National Sporting Library & Museum since the position was underwritten by the George L. Ohrstrom, Jr. Foundation in 2012. Her primary focus is the research, design, interpretation, writing, and installation of exhibitions. E-mail Claudia at cpfeiffer@nationalsporting.org