I hope that officials of the Newark Museum of Art felt at least a twinge of seller’s remorse (if not a rush of shame) after reading the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s lavish praise (in Tuesday’s press release) of the painting that Linda Harrison, Newark’s director, had deemed expendable, monetizing it at Sotheby’s last month for a hammer price of $800,000 ($988,000 with fees), outstripping the $700,000 high end of the presale estimate of hammer price.
Placed on long-term loan at the Philadelphia Museum by the successful auction bidder—the Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen PhD Foundation—“The Arch of Nero” will be presented “in context with works by Cole’s Hudson River School peers and other important examples of mid-late 19th-century American landscapes that capture the romanticism of the age,” in the words of the PMA’s announcement.
Harrison had attempted to justify her museum’s widely deplored deaccession on the grounds that “the influence of Europe on American culture is an extremely well-told story at the Newark Museum of Art….I can assure you that we will still be able to share extraordinary examples and tell those stories going forward.” But unlike its neighbor to the north, the Philadelphia Museum apparently understands that an abundance of riches is not a redundancy of riches. Being able to “tell stories” adequately doesn’t preclude trying to tell them even better.
If there’s any place where “the influence of Europe on American culture” is already “an extremely well-told story,” it’s the Philadelphia Museum, which juxtaposed works by European artists and American artists from its own collection in Shipwreck—its 2012 dossier exhibition that I saw at its press preview.
That show was pegged to the PMA’s celebrated Winslow Homer masterpiece:
Here’s one of the European works in that show:
Until now, the PMA had “two early paintings by Cole, but no painting that represents his finest and most mature work,” in the words of the museum’s press release (linked at the top of this post). Beginning July 2, it will display in Gallery 208 a dramatic landscape that Cole painted “at the height of his powers…, drawing upon his memory and sketches made in Italy in 1832. A boldly composed image with Cole’s typically expressive handling, the subject focuses on a monumental arch, ravaged by the passage of time and seen against green hills and a bright blue sky with gathering clouds”:
In rationalizing the disposal, Newark’s Harrison had cited the “need to cast a critical eye on outdated and harmful narratives that have hung in our galleries without enough questions being asked” [emphasis added]. In rebuttal, William Coleman, the Newark Museum’s former Luce associate curator of American art, had argued that “this is a highly political painting that actually serves her [Harrison’s] desire for a revisionist, critical art history. Nero had the same associations in 1846 that he does now—the personification of late imperial decadence—and this was a transparent allegory of the fate of the American republic as the same cultural currents that continue to divide the nation loomed in Cole’s mind, two years before his own death.”
To further complicate matters, a revisionist assessment of Nero is being advanced in a current show at the British Museum (reviewed by Rebecca Mead in the June 14 issue of the New Yorker). It “questions the traditional narrative of the ruthless tyrant and eccentric performer,” in the words of the London museum’s description, “revealing a different Nero—a populist leader at a time of great change in Roman society.” Nero: The Man Behind the Myth (to Oct. 24), organized by the British Museum’s Thorsten Opper, Curator, Ancient Rome, invites us to “make up your own mind about Nero. Was he a young, inexperienced ruler trying his best in a divided society, or the merciless, matricidal megalomaniac history has painted him to be?”
All of which is to say: Scholarship and opinions of artworks and history are often in flux and prone to reassessment. Irreversible purges of long-held, museum-worthy works to pursue new priorities, while gaining short-term plaudits, are rarely a sound long-term strategy.
I’ve asked the Newark Museum for details, if available, on what it will be acquiring with its auction windfall. If and when I learn more, you’ll learn more.
A NOTE TO MY READERS: If you appreciate my coverage, please consider supporting CultureGrrl via PayPal by clicking the “Donate” button in the righthand column of the desktop version or the “DONATE” link in the menu at the top of the desktop and mobile versions. Contributors of $15 or more are added to my email blast for immediate notification of new posts.