Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on May 6, 2009 with permission of the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Bruce Museum directly through the following phone number or Web address:


Reflections of Taste: American Art from Greenwich Collections

by Hollister Sturges


A wonderful and unique sense of discovery accompanies every exhibition drawn from private collections. Even though individual works may be familiar to the viewer, the way the paintings enrich each other carries a unique and sometimes exhilarating sense of discovery. Individual American works take on new meanings and can reveal a new sense of history and significance when viewed in these newly revealed relationships.

Reflections of Taste: American Art from Greenwich Collections is just such an exhibition. Encompassing over sixty works from 1784 to the present, the works range from those which have a distinguished lineage in the annals of American art history to rewarding new finds. Together, they provide a satisfying and surprisingly comprehensive overview of American art. Collectively the exhibition provides a context to understand the power of the American artist to rapidly assimilate international influences while maintaining a meaningful connection to the American experience. Works were selected because of their intrinsic quality, their historic significance over a span of two centuries and, perhaps most importantly, their ability to communicate the spirit, values and taste of their age.

The genesis of the show was intriguing. Greenwich collections encompass a sweeping range in taste and an encyclopedic variety in types of collecting that included American, Asian, African, old master paintings, and modern European works. Because so many of the collectors concentrated on American art, which is also a primary focus of the Bruce Museum's permanent collection, it soon became apparent that an American exhibition would be timely and fruitful.

The resulting exhibition is organized historically and breaks down into seven broad categories: early American portraiture; Hudson River School and mid-nineteenth century art; Tonalism and Impressionism in American; turn of the century aesthetics, urban aesthetics, urban realities and the horrors of war; mid-twentieth century masters; Abstraction, Pop, and contemporary work.

The depth and quality of paintings from the Hudson River School of landscape represent one of the richest areas of works held by Greenwich collectors. America's discovery and celebration of its unspoiled wilderness and cultivated lands are seen in the lyrical hills and streams of Asher B. Durand, the panoramic vistas of Jasper Cropsey, and the breathtaking stillness of lakes by David Johnson and John F. Kensett.

No scene is more beautiful than Sunlight on the Marshes by luminist painter Martin Johnson Heade. An exquisite control and reserve are seen in the muted tones of the dominant mauve-grey sky. Beneath the flat, low horizon line, very much in the Dutch tradition, the land is carefully punctuated by the measured intervals between haystacks and cattle. The golden light, long afternoon shadows, and smooth glassy surface of the water contribute to the calm and mystery Heade evokes from the salt marsh.

Examples of tonalist and Impressionist painting continue the American fascination with the land and its depiction. Toward the end of the century the use of tonalism, a style which emphasized subtle tonal gradations to capture single-color moods of nature, and impressionism, which was brought to America from France in the late 1880s, continued the painterly obsession with landscape. These works show that American impressionism was built on the French tenets of broken brushwork, clear prismatic color and shimmering surface effects produced by changes of light. Many Americans were drawn to the new Impressionist style of painting out-of-doors from observable sources and freely adapted Impressionism to their own styles and their uniquely American sensibility.

William Paxton incarnates a languid beauty in the dreaming figure of Reverie. A femme fatale in the Pre-Raphaelite tradition with luxuriant auburn hair and long neck, she is seated on a richly gilded chair against a background of serpentine willow branches. While her eyes are averted, suggesting a moment of introspection, the twist of her body and the pose of her arched arms above her head convey a certain restlessness.

Repudiating academic ideals of beauty, a new generation of artists in the early twentieth century embraced the vitality of modern urban life with unflinching realism. Some of the most interesting discoveries found in Greenwich private collections are twentieth-century masters of figurative and genre paintings, including examples by Walt Kuhn, Morris Hirshfield, Thomas Hart Benton, Leon Kroll, Paul Sample, Norman Rockwell, Fairfield Porter and George Tooker.

Arguably America's most significant narrative painter, Thomas Hart Benton chronicled American life and customs in the great plains, the deep South, and throughout the land. In From My Mother's House, he employs powerful rhythms and subtle color harmonies to transform a patch of Martha's Vineyard scenery into a highly structured composition.

The selection of contemporary works from Greenwich collections underscores the diversity and complexity of art and society in our time. Ranging from the high-minded seriousness of Ad Reinhardt's abstraction to the ironic absurdities of Tom Wesselmann, the taste of collectors illuminates such contemporary concerns from the search for spirituality to the preoccupation with glamour and celebrity.

The pleasures of Reflections of Taste: American Art from Greenwich Collections are both in viewing fine individual works and in discovering, in the microcosm of these paintings, American life and values. The viewer can appreciate how the conventions and assumptions which are so effective in one age, are discarded and fresh approaches adopted in a different time. The renewal of tradition, the innovative discoveries each period offers, and the change of society's values are all evident in the span of this exhibition's two hundred years.


About the author

Hollister Sturges was formerly executive director of the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut; chief curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art; and director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts. He is an art historian with expertise in nineteenth-century painting and contemporary art. His exhibitions and publications include Art of the Fantastic: Latin America, 1920-1987.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on May 6, 2009, with permission of the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, Greenwich, Connecticut, which was granted to TFAO on April 30, 2009.

This article appeared in the February 1997 issue of American Art Review. It pertains to an exhibition entitled Reflections of Taste: American Art from Greenwich Collections, which was on view at the Bruce Museum January - March 1997.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Hollister Sturges; Anne von Stuelpnagel of the Bruce Museum of Arts and Science; and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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