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A Century of American Art

A handsome private collection starts its first public tour at the National Gallery

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IT might be called ``The Case of the Jolly Flatboatmen,'' since there is sometimes as much intrigue in the art world as in politics. This 19th-century American painting hangs in a place of honor outside the entrance to the new exhibition ``American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection,'' which opened recently at the National Gallery of Art here. The $6 million painting by George Caleb Bingham is now on loan from Mr. and Mrs. Richard Manoogian's collection. But the question of whether it will ever hang in the permanent collection of the National Gallery is as much of an enigma as the ``Mona Lisa's'' smile.

``The Jolly Floatboatmen'' floats in front of rooms full of American paintings by artists as diverse as Frederick Church, John Singer Sargent, Childe Hassam, and Maurice Prendergast. But these other paintings from the Manoogian collection, however treasured, are secondary to the extraordinary web of events which resulted in the ``Flatboatmen'' staying safe in the National Gallery harbor for now.

This ``American masterpiece,'' as National Gallery director J. Carter Brown describes it, was loaned to the museum in 1956. But in 1986 Mr. Brown suddenly learned that it was up for sale at a price beyond the gallery's funds and might disappear from public view into a private collection. He vaulted into action, he says, because ``it is a great piece of Americana. ... Bingham is very rare and very prized, and this is not one of the later representations of this theme, which tend to be a little more mechanical.'' Brown adds, ``I think anyone who's ever read `Huckleberry Finn' finds that it strikes exactly the note of American innocence in its heartland at the middle of the last century. It has enormous power compositionally, building in its apex like a Pouissant.''

What Carter Brown reportedly did was travel to Grosse Pointe, Mich., to see Richard Manoogian, a trustee of the National Gallery, and discuss the already scheduled Manoogian collection show. Mr. Manoogian, who is on the gallery's trustees' council, is an American industrialist whose Armenian immigrant father designed the Delta faucet.

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