Editor's note: The following text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 25, 2008 with permission of the Westmoreland Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Westmoreland Museum of Art directly at 221 N. Main St., Greensburg, PA 15601 or through either this phone number or web address:


Treasures from the Westmoreland Museum

by Judith Hansen O'Toole & Carla S. Herling


The Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania (near Pittsburgh) is currently under construction to improve the building's public accessibility and use. Renovations include the installation of a visitor's center in the lobby, an expanded museum shop with the addition of a small café, a studio classroom, lecture/conference room, and children's interactive gallery. Additionally, the permanent collection will undergo a major reinstallation in its newly remodeled galleries. Until renovations are complete, the Westmoreland Museum is grateful to The Woodmere Art Museum to temporarily carry out its mission to enrich and inform the public through its extensive collection of American art.

The Westmoreland Museum of American Art was opened to the public in 1959 with the gift of the building, designed as a museum, but without a permanent collection. In deciding a direction for the future collection, the founding directors chose to concentrate on American art at a time when it was affordable. This established the beginning of an important collection at the only institution in Western Pennsylvania dedicated to American art. Founded as the Westmoreland County Museum of Art, the museum's name was changed to incorporate the word "American" in 1996. In addition to its national collection, the museum has a special interest in artists of Western Pennsylvania.

The first piece acquired by the Museum was Rembrandt Peale's Portrait of George Washington. Rembrandt Peale (1778 - 1860) was the second son of the patriarch of Philadelphia painters, Charles Willson Peale, and studied at his father's knee. Later, the younger Peale traveled to London and Paris to pursue additional training in the arts, returning to the United States to accept his father's deference as Philadelphia's preeminent portrait painter. He followed his father's footsteps once again when he established a museum in Baltimore (the elder Peale dedicated his later years to his museum in Philadelphia). Rembrandt served as President of the American Academy of Art in New York and then spent the remainder of his life in his home city of Philadelphia.

The artist's first sitting with Washington was granted in 1795, beginning a lifelong struggle to produce the most fitting image of the nation's first president and have it accepted as the official likeness. In 1823, he was stimulated by an important exhibition opportunity to produce just such a piece in the "port-hole" portrait which the artist referred to as his Patriae Pater. Using the oval stonework frame employed in European and American prints to signify important figures in history, Peale chose the heroic pose and uniform of a military leader of his country (although when he copied this portrait he did make some versions with Washington in the dark suit of a statesman).

During the 1840s - 50s, Peale made over seventy replicas of his porthole portrait at the demand of citizens desiring a portrait of the father of their country. These provided a continuous income for the artist who also lectured around the country on "Washington and his Portrait." The example owned by the Museum was exhibited in the Peale Memorial Exhibition in 1923 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia and in the Bicentennial Exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1976.

Another piece in the classical tradition is the mythic Ceres by Adolph Ulrich Wertmuller (1751 - 1811). Born in Sweden and trained in Paris, Wertmuller gained European prominence and was elected as an academician at the Royal Academies of both cities. After coming to the United States briefly in 1794, he returned in 1800 after he lost a family fortune during the French Revolution. He eventually settled on a farm below Wilmington, Delaware after marrying Philadelphian, Elizabeth Henderson, the granddaughter of the painter Gustaf Hesselius who was also of Swedish descent. Wertmuller became well known as a painter of portraits and mythological subjects.

Ceres shows the Roman goddess of agriculture and the harvest with her traditional symbols of a scythe and wheat. She gazes over her left shoulder with lips slightly parted in an almost alluring pose, which is unlike most typical images of this goddess. The finish of the painting is mirror-like with no trace of the artist's brush, and therefore no trace of the artist's personality, as was the neo-classical tradition.

Wertmuller studied in Paris with Joseph-Marie Vien who was also the teacher of the famous French neoclassical painter, Jacques-Louis David. The revival of classical literature, among other ties to antique sources, stimulated a return to control and reason rather than fancy and imagination. This was manifested in both the controlled, subdued style adopted by these artists and their subject matter.

Bass Otis (1784 - 1861), a self taught portrait painter, was born in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. His father was a blacksmith, a trade which may have influenced Otis' artistic and employment history. In addition to his painting career, Otis was apprenticed to a scythe maker, a practice that was common among his contemporaries in American painting. These early painters were seen more as craftsmen than artists, and thus often took up trades as primary means of earning income. In the early 1800s Otis worked in the studio of painter John Wesley Jarvis, whose influence, according to many critics, can be seen in many of Otis' works. Otis was a prolific portrait painter who was rumored to have painted as many as 200 works in a year, including such famous sitters as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He became a member of the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts in 1824.

The diagonal composition of Portrait of a Seated Boy and its architectural elements are reminiscent of earlier European works. Otis' use of the brilliant blue hue directs the viewer across the canvas, sweeping up from the floor tiles, through the ornate chair, and into the sky framed by the Roman archway. The success of his perspective can be attributed to his innovative development in 1815 of a "perspective protractor." Otis created this device to assist portrait painters in maintaining proportionality of a figure and his or her surroundings.

A significant painter who also drew from classicism is Benjamin West (1738 - 1820). The abundance of apocryphal information about this artist makes it difficult to extract the facts. Scholars do know, however, that he was born in Pennsylvania in 1738, close to the area where Swarthmore College is now located. There are stories of young West learning pigment-making from the Native Americans and demonstrating his ability to draw before he could even talk.

Although West is classified as an American painter, he left for England in 1763, after a brief sojourn in Philadelphia, and remained an expatriate throughout his life. He was, however, the first "native" American artist to gain fame on an international scale. West became the official historical painter to King George III in 1772 and was instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts, eventually becoming its president. While in London, he influenced generations of American painters who came to study with him including Gilbert Stuart, Thomas Sully and Rembrandt Peale among others.

Benjamin West's King Priam portrays mythological drama on an epic scale. The grand canvas illustrates the scene from the Trojan War in which King Priam is told of the fate of his son Hector who was dragged to death behind the chariot of Achilles. An angelic Iris, messenger to Zeus, hovers by the King's side informing him of the events that have passed. She symbolically brings the death with her in the miniature image of Hector's demise rendered at her left. The severity of the event is illustrated in the sorrow of a warrior to the King's right.

A student of West, Thomas Sully (1783 - 1872) was born in Horncastle, England. His parents, both actors, moved the entire family to Philadelphia when Sully was nine years old. When a career in insurance failed to capture his interest, Sully turned to painting and studied with his older brother, Lawrence, who was a miniaturist and an effective teacher. Thomas moved with his brother's family to Virginia in 1801, the same year he began to paint. Lawrence died just two years after the family's relocation and Thomas took to caring for his deceased brother's family, marrying his widow two years later. In 1810, Sully returned to Philadelphia to focus more attention and time on his artistic career. He remained in Philadelphia the balance of his life, painting and teaching at the Pennsylvania Academy where he was the Director for fifteen years and intensely involved with the instruction of emerging artists.

Sully's portrait, Mrs. McMurtrie and Her Son William, took two years to complete according to artist notes. Mrs. McMurtrie was the wife of a highly influential early art patron in the United States, James McMurtrie. The work's romantic style bears little resemblance to a typical portrait of mother and child and is instead reminiscent of a mythological scene. Mrs. McMurtrie reclines in a classical pose, framed with a drape of Roman patterned fabric. Her rosy-cheeked, cherubic son rests on her lap, calmly sleeping. By contrast, the surrounding darkened landscape heightens the already radiant quality of the two figures. Their faces have a creamy luster, further connecting them with the idyllic realm of gods and goddesses. Sully was well known for painting "pretty" faces in all of his portraits, enhancing the natural (or absent) beauty of most of his subjects.

Another Englishman, Robert Edge Pine (1730 - 1788) was born in London, but moved to the United States in 1784 due to his sympathetic feelings towards the American cause. He arrived intending to paint portraits of Revolutionary War heroes, as well as great scenes of triumphant historic events from the war and the new nation. Pine had won prizes for his narrative paintings in England, but found that it was significantly easier to sell portraits in the American art market. He switched his subject, and thus became a highly sought after portraitist. After his early death at fifty-eight, many of his works were sold at public auction including a large block of paintings purchased by the Columbian Museum in Boston. Unfortunately, a fire in the museum in 1803 destroyed most of the museum's examples of Pine's work.

Pine's painting, Portrait of Charles and John Vaughn shows the leisurely life of two children of the Vaughn family. Little is known about the family, although one can ascertain from the painting that they were wealthy. The size of the painting itself, along with the more formal play attire worn by the two boys clearly displays the family's social and financial status. Pine's attention to the facial expression and costume of the boys is exceptional.

Landscape painting is represented by William Russell Smith's Fishing Along A Creek. Smith (1812 - 1896), who was born in Scotland and came with his family to Pittsburgh in 1819. His father manufactured tools for the city's burgeoning industries. The young Smith showed talent as an artist and moved to Philadelphia in 1835 where he worked as a scenic artist for the Chestnut and Walnut Street theaters, becoming particularly adept at painting landscape backdrops. He excelled at painting dramatic vistas with atmospheric effects showing the grandeur of nature. A trip to Europe introduced him to the work of the Frenchman, Claude Lorrain whose vast landscapes dwarfed the human figures which populated them. Returning to the United States, Smith's accurate portrayals of architectural landmarks earned him work as a scientific draftsman for geological surveys in Pennsylvania and Virginia. His wife, Mary Priscilla Wilson, was a floral painter of note and their son, Xanthus also became an artist. Smith established the Mary Smith prize for paintings by female artists at the Pennsylvania Academy in memory of his daughter who was also an artist.

Fishing Along A Creek is a purely bucolic scene of a lone fisherman in a stream and is evocative of the Hudson River School in its celebratory homage to nature. The figure is overwhelmed by the surrounding landscape elements, in particular the dark, massive growth of trees which grow out of the rocky shoreline to the left of the painting. The leafy foliage is softly rendered giving a romantic atmosphere to the scene.

George Cope (1855 - 1929) was also an avid outdoorsman, spending most of his life in and around the Brandywine River Valley in West Chester, Pennsylvania. In 1876, Cope began his formal art training, studying with the German landscape painter Herman Herzog. Despite his intense study with this renowned landscape artist, Cope is best known for his still lifes using the trompe l'oeil technique. After the commercial success of William Harnett's still lifes, Cope, along with other artists, began painting trompe l'oeil works for the demanding art buyers. Cope began his foray into still lifes in 1887 and continued to work in that style, however not exclusively, for the remainder of his life.

Cope's painting, American Iron Mill, Pennsylvania clearly comes from the surrounding Pennsylvania landscape. Cope pays careful attention to the detail and atmosphere of the scene, skills perhaps honed from painting his numerous still lifes. The orange flame and the glow of its surrounding haze are repeated in the lights on in the row houses near the mill and in a small lantern on the right side of the piece. This painting is one of Cope's only two known night scenes.

Except for the Peales in Philadelphia, still life painting was not a significant genre in the United States until the mid nineteenth century when it was spurred on by the arrival of many German refugees who brought with them the European tradition of still life painting. The beginning of the Victorian era, an interest in scientific research including botany and species development, and a national pride in the natural bounty of the new land also combined to enhance interest in still life. An opulent example of midnineteenth-century still-life painting is Still Life with Fruit and Champagne by the immigrant artist, Severin Roesen (c. 1816 - c. 1872).

Little is known about Roesen's life except that he was probably trained in his native Germany as a decorative painter on porcelain and was well practiced in the rendering of fruit and flower compositions. He came to New York in 1848 with a wave of immigrants fleeing the political turmoil of their home land and worked in that city for almost a decade before leaving and eventually settling in the newly prosperous lumber town of Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Mysteriously, he left Williamsport in 1872 and no further information regarding his subsequent whereabouts is known.

Roesen's style is clearly evident in Still Life with Fruit and Champagne. The piece is overwhelming in its proliferation of objects arranged in various containers and laid directly on the marble ledges. Roesen used a brilliant palette and paid close attention to detail in each piece of fruit, achieving a highly finished paint surface with little trace of brush work. The glass of champagne is a characteristic element appearing in many of the artist's larger compositions and the bird's nest with three eggs practically substitutes as a signature. (Like many artists of the nineteenth century, Roesen was not in the habit of signing and dating his work.) A very prolific artist, Roesen was known to work on several canvases at once in order to enhance production.

Another important still life painter who spent his life working in central Pennsylvania is John Francis (1808 - 1886). Born in Philadelphia and possibly trained there, Francis was an itinerant portrait painter traveling in the 1830s and 40s through the small communities near Harrisburg, Pottsville, and Sunbury. His portraits were highly successful and are characterized by a soft, smooth handling of the paint which lent them a romantic flavor. Like many itinerant artists, he was known to have worked in his studio painting his figures on several canvases before going on the road and completing the heads later using a model. This practice sometimes caused a slight distortion in his portraits where heads seem to be awkwardly placed on their bodies.

In the 1850s Francis turned to still-life painting and by mid-decade was doing them almost exclusively. This change in subject matter may have had something to do with the popularization of the daguerreotype which was quicker, cheaper and recorded the sitter's image more perfectly than an oil painting. Francis became a master of the "luncheon" and "dessert" pieces despite the fact that he never gained critical acclaim during his lifetime. It is known, however, that he exhibited his still lifes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and sold many pieces through the American Art Union in New York until it stopped operating in 1852.

Fruit and Wine is a fine example of Francis's style showing a table laid with a starched cloth and strewn with various fruits, nuts and glasses containing different beverages. As was often the artist's habit, the right side of the background opens into a window with a long distance view into a mountainous landscape with forested, rolling hills reminiscent of central Pennsylvania. The pleasing chaos of food and glassware is actually quite ordered and has the air of a luncheon party recently interrupted.

William Michael Harnett (1848 - 1892), the American master of trompe l'oeil was born in Cork, Ireland. Before his first birthday, however, Harnett's family moved to Philadelphia, where he would spend most of his life. After the death of his father, Harnett was forced to drop out of school and work as an engraver to help support his family, yet, he found time to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. In 1871, Harnett moved to New York where he continued both his artistic studies and his engraving work. By 1874, he was able to devote himself full time to painting. In 1876, he moved back to Philadelphia where he initiated a period of painting small still-lifes of tabletop scenes. In the early 1880s, Harnett began to increase the size of both his canvases and his subjects. Despite his short life of only forty-four years, Harnett was credited with painting over 500 canvases. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of his works have been lost.

Harnett's painting, Philadelphia Public Ledger, is a prime example of his expertise in painting trompe l'oeil. The objects in the painting, seem incredibly real, as if the viewer can reach into the painting to extract them. Harnett's attention to detail creates the illusion of incredibly lifelike objects that demonstrate both his abilities with the brush and his acute powers of observation. He paints the mug with the right heft and texture, the pipe appropriately delicate, and creates a worn line on the book showing its age and use. The bits of ash and used matches make the scene less contrived, giving the arrangement a sense of the human touch that went into creating it. Harnett would have you believe that the owner of the objects left the scene a mere moment before he started painting it. In doing so he composes a near portrait of the person who owns the objects, in this case most likely a businessman.

Another important still life in the museum's collection was painted by Levi Wells Prentice (1851 - 1935). The artist was born in Lewis County, New York, surrounded by the majestic Adirondack mountains and the lakes they encircle. It was this landscape that he chose as his first subject matter. His views of the Adirondacks show a heightened attention to detail and texture evoking a sharp realism while at the same time having a somewhat primitive air. In 1883, Prentice moved to Brooklyn, New York and turned to painting still lifes, concentrating on simple tabletop arrangements or depictions of fruit in out-of-doors. Apples in a Brown Hat falls into the latter category and employs a subject matter which was preferred by Prentice who used them in many different arrangements and environments. The high illusion of three-dimensionality connects Prentice with masters of the trompe l'oeil still life tradition including his contemporaries William Michael Harnett and Frederick Peto. The vibrant colors, hard edged forms, and sharply focused, meticulous details are stylistic components that together form Prentice's trademark and, as with his landscapes, lend his work a curiously contemporary air.

A favorite piece among visitors to the WMAA is the epic painting, Death of Elaine by Thomas Hovenden (1849 - 1895). Born in County Cork Ireland, Hovenden was twenty-three years old when he came to the United States and became an illustrator for magazines including Harper's. He later traveled to Europe to study in Paris where he remained for six years. He married a fellow student, Helen Corson, in Brittany in 1881 and their only child, a son, was born there the following year. Hovenden was an exceptionally generous man and was well liked by his contemporaries. He died tragically near his home at Plymouth Meeting at the age of forty-six trying to save the life of a young girl involved in a train accident.

Hovenden's work was almost always narrative and anecdotal, drawing from history, literature, and contemporary events. Death of Elaine was inspired by a scene from Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King based on the legend of King Arthur. Painted in Brittany the same year as the birth of his son, the picture is ambitious in scale. In 1882, the same year that it was painted, it won chief "Place of Honor" when it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York.

Hovenden used friends and family to pose for the piece and his young wife appears both as Elaine and Queen Guinevere. The staged nature of the scene is enhanced by the spotlight which falls on Elaine and leaves the perimeter of the painting in semi-darkness. A lily laid on the floor in the foreground symbolizes the purity of Elaine's love. The painting was the culmination of three years of research and careful sketching by the artist.

Another Philadelphian was Thomas Anshutz (1851 - 1912) who moved from Kentucky with his family when he was nineteen. He studied at the National Academy of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, eventually becoming apprenticed to the influential and controversial teacher, Thomas Eakins. Anshutz's work reflects that of Eakins in the use of a dark palette and realist approach. He eventually succeeded his teacher when Eakins was dismissed over his use of nude models in classes with female students. In doing so, Anshutz became the teacher of Robert Henri and John Sloan who later became leaders of the Ashcan School in New York. Anshutz became Head of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1909

Portrait of the Artist's Mother reveals the artist's strong interest in life drawing. The sitter is rendered without romanticism and with an emphasis on solid form with little use of color to distract the eye. As with most good portraits, the emphasis is on the sitter's expressive face and hands which are bathed in light and stand out against the dark palette used in the majority of the painting. Anshutz is perhaps best known for his influence as a teacher, carrying through the principles taught to him by Eakins, but this portrait shows him to be a very intuitive painter.

Stylistically different from Anshutz, his contemporary Mary Cassatt (1844 - 1926) worked in an impressionist style. She has become one of the most recognized of women artists in American art . Cassatt was born in Allegheny City, Pennsylvania (now part of Pittsburgh) but spent most of her life as an expatriate. As a child, Cassatt's family briefly lived in Europe before settling in Philadelphia. She studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts until 1866 when she convinced her parents to send her to study in France. Cassatt returned to the United States during the Franco-Prussian war, returning again to Europe at its completion to study in Italy, Spain and the Netherlands.

In 1874, after several years of traversing Europe copying great works of art, Cassatt decided to settle permanently in Paris. In 1877, she was invited by her friend Edgar Degas to join his artistic group, the Independents (now known as the Impressionists). As Cassatt grew older she began to have increasingly diminished vision. She experimented with a variety of media, attempting to continue her art as long as possible. In 1914, however, her vision failed completely and Cassatt was forced to give up her art work completely.

Mary Cassatt's tondo painting, Mother and Two Children, shows a theme favored by the artist. Beginning in the 1880s, she explored the subject of mother and child, using various compositions and media. This particular piece was originally produced as part of a mural competition for the Statehouse in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Frustrated with the state of government, however, Cassatt withdrew her work from the competition. The tondo shape of the painting gives a heightened sense of closeness to the scene, as if the viewer were peering through a keyhole. The scene appears quite intimate despite the viewer's inability to see the mother's expression. The closeness of the figures to one another as well as the softness of the brush strokes creates a feeling of intimacy and domestic serenity.

Representing the next generation of artists, Robert Henri (1865 - 1929) was the charismatic leader of an early twentieth movement away from traditional, academic art and towards realism. Originally drawn to Impressionism, Henri came under the influence of Eakins and Anshutz while studying at the Pennsylvania Academy and adopted a more somber palette of earth tones in addition to a more realistic style. He chose his subject matter from the teeming life of the city around him, ordinary people eschewed as insignificant by the prevailing school of art. Using a broad, vigorous brush stroke, he liked to finish a painting in one sitting. Henri worked to open exhibition opportunities to artists whose styles differed from that sanctioned by the juries of the National Academy of Design.

Picnic at Meshoppen, Pa., July 4, 1902 reveals the artist's transitional style of the early to mid-1900s. Having studied in Paris in 1888, Henri's painting technique was still influenced by the French Impressionists when this canvas was completed. The subject is certainly a theme favored by the Impressionists and the painting is executed in similar style with the paint laid on in quick daubs and dashes. The scene is brightly lit by the sunshine of a summer day and the piece was probably completed out-of-doors. But the range of color is limited and earth tones tend to prevail -- a harbinger of the rich, dark palette that would characterize his mature style

Following the current exhibition at The Woodmere Museum, the collection will return to the Westmoreland Museum in May to be installed in the newly renovated galleries. A separate works on paper gallery will house the museum's important holdings in this area. The renovations are part of a three-year campaign called Enriching the Public Experience funded by private, foundation, federal and corporate dollars. The Museum has received tremendous support for both its current renovations and its general mission. With its enhanced facilities, the Westmoreland Museum of American Art will increase its ability to reach and educate Pennsylvanian and national audiences.

About Judith Hansen O'Toole

Since 1993, Judith Hansen O'Toole has been director/CEO of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, where her expertise in nineteenth-and twentieth-century American art is reflected in the museum's collections and exhibitions. She was director of the Sordoni Art Gallery and an associate professor at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, from 1982-1993. She has organized exhibitions on artists and artist groups including the early twentieth century artists George Luks and Carl Sprinchorn, American still-life painting, the Ash Can School and the Hudson River School. She is widely consulted as the authority on works by Severin Roesen and Luks.


About Carla S. Herling

Carla S. Herling worked most recently as communication and programs coordinator at Terrace Hill in Des Moines, IA. Prior to her tenure at Terrace Hill she was education coordinator at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensberg, PA. She holds degrees in art history from Drake University and the University of Iowa.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on August 25, 2008, with permission of the Westmoreland Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on March 5, 2008. The text pertains to a special exhibition, A Feast for the Eyes: Treasures from the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, that was on view through March 28, 1999, at the Woodmere Art Museum, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This text was also published in the January - February 1999 issue of American Art Review,.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Judith Hansen O'Toole and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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