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Now at the Met: Crystal Bridges-Owned Painting Sold in 1994 by the National Academy

The American Stories exhibition that opened today at the Metropolitan Museum is an astonishing display of the museum’s masterpiece-borrowing macho. Time and again I caught my breath at the audacity of the New York museum’s requests for other institutions’ signature works—Copley‘s Paul Revere from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and his Watson and the Shark from the National Gallery; EakinsSwimming from the Amon Carter Museum; Anshutz‘s The Ironworkers’ Noontime from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, just to name a few of the many icons. Only the Met (okay, also the Philadelphia Museum’s Joe Rishel) can call upon so many institutions to part with such key masterworks.

And then, there’s this painting:

Richard Caton Woodville, “War News from Mexico,” 1848, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

As CultureGrrl readers doubtless remember, this once belonged to the National Academy in New York, which sold it in the early 1990s—a precursor of last year’s sale of the Church and Gifford that got the Academy in big trouble with the Association of Art Museum Directors (because proceeds were used to pay for operations and reduce debt, not for acquisitions). The deaccessioned Woodville was acquired by Richard Manoogian, the major American art collector from Detroit. The Academy’s current director, Carmine Branagan, now tells me that 1994 was the year when her institution sold it (long before she arrived).

The real shocker is the Woodville’s credit line in the Met’s current show: It’s now owned not by Manoogian, but by Alice Walton‘s Crystal Bridges Museum, Bentonville, AR. Crystal Bridges announced this purchase on Oct. 1, four days before the press preview for the Met’s show. But Chris Crosman, Crystal Bridges’ chief curator, informed me that “War News” had entered his museum’s collection in late 2004. He declined to say whether Manoogian was the private collector from whom Crystal Bridges bought it. A second Crystal Bridges acquisition, also announced on Oct. 1, is also in the Met’s current show—Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait‘s The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix, 1856.

The most famous Crystal Bridges holding now on display at the Met (but not part of the new exhibition) is Asher B. Durand‘s “Kindred Spirits,” which was originally to have remained at the New York museum until last May, but now seems to be there indefinitely, while construction of Crystal Bridges continues. One of the Met’s curators for “American Stories,” Carrie Rebora Barratt, had once hoped her institution would have been given the opportunity to acquire that quintessentially New York painting from the NY Public Library. Instead, it was controversially sold to Walton for about $35 million at a sealed-bid auction conducted by Sotheby’s (in which a joint bid by the Met and National Gallery fell short).

Ironically, “American Stories” has on display another former NY Public Library work, with a credit line that demonstrates the sort of arrangement that, to my mind, should have happened with “Kindred Spirits”:

Eastman Johnson, “Negro Life at the South,” 1859, collection of the New-York Historical Society, on permanent loan from the New York Public Library

For more on “American Stories,” below is a new CultureGrrl Video starring Barratt, who co-organized the show with H. Barbara Weinberg, the Met’s curator of American paintings and sculpture. Barratt’s poised presentation is newsworthy because she got a big promotion last month from her post as curator of American paintings and sculpture. She’s now director Tom Campbell‘s righthand woman as associate director for collections and administration. Still to come, she told me, is another key appointment—associate director for exhibitions.

The painting you see behind Carrie, to the left, is George Caleb Bingham‘s The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846, on loan from the Manoogian Collection.

an ArtsJournal blog