Gift brings ‘transformative’ collection of Hudson River School art to the Crocker

Severin Roesen’s “Still Life with Fruit and Wine.”
Severin Roesen’s “Still Life with Fruit and Wine.”

I can’t think of a better way to spend the day after Thanksgiving than going to the Crocker Art Museum to see “American Beauty and Bounty: The Judith G. and Steaven K. Jones Collection of Nineteenth-Century Paintings.”

Featuring 27 works from a private collection that are promised gifts to the Crocker, the exhibition introduces what is the most important gift of American art from outside the state ever to come to the Crocker, a gift that museum’s director, Lial Jones, calls “transformative on a national level.”

While the Crocker has been known for its strength in California art, the Jones’ gift expands the museum’s holdings of works done between 1803 and 1875 and includes works by some of the most noteworthy Hudson River School artists, among them Asher B. Durand, Thomas Doughty, and Jasper Cropsey. These artists are noted for landscapes of the areas around New York’s Hudson River Valley that, before the widespread use of photography, epitomized the transcendental wonder of a serene and bucolic nature as yet untouched by the Industrial Revolution.

The exhibition includes stunning pastoral landscapes, such as Worthington Whittredge’s autumnal scene “Ducks on a Pond,” 1864, and Doughty’s “Adirondack Mountain Scene (Catskill Scenery),” c. 1828, and narrative genre scenes, including Eastman Johnson’s “At the Maple Sugar Camp,” c. 1860s, a depiction of the winter tradition of collecting and boiling maple sap in the process called “sugaring off” that results in maple sugar, a distinctively American sweetener. Both John Frederick Kensett’s “School’s Out,” 1850, which combines landscape and genre modes, and Russell Smith’s “Silver Lake with Indian Tepee,” 1867, remind us of Thanksgivings past and present, the first feast hosted by Native Americans and the long and continuing tradition of kids being let out of school for the holiday.

Five sumptuous still life paintings in the show are among the Joneses most cherished acquisitions. They range from William Harnett’s masterful trompe l’oeil painting “Still Life with Book, Pitcher, Pipe, Tobacco, and Newspaper,” 1848-1892, to Severin Roesen’s “Still Life with Fruit and Wine,” 1862, a picture of abundance and perfection with no hint of European allusions to decay and death signified by overripe fruit and withered foliage. Here, as in the Crocker’s 1961 Wayne Thiebaud painting of pie slices flies never land on, an air of optimism and celebration pervades the scene.

The majority of works in the show paint a picture of an American ethos that both chimes and clashes with the current wave of nationalism that elected an “America First” president. It presents fascinating perspectives on a period marked by economic growth, national pride, nostalgia for ways of life that were passing into history, and hunger for an art that looked away from European models and expressed the optimism, natural beauty, and transcendental spirit of a young and still unspoiled land.

At the same time, it was a country so divided over race and slavery by the century’s midpoint that it was torn apart by a devastating civil war that made enemies of family members and friends, left battlefields littered with corpses and a lingering wound in the national psyche that still festers today.

Only one work in the show refers, albeit obliquely, to the war between the states. Painted in the last year of the war, Jervis McEntee’s “Sitting by the Fire,” 1865, gives us a somber scene of a woman in black, presumably a Civil War widow, contemplating a dying fire. On the mantel above the fireplace, a mirror is flanked by four framed pictures, the one on the lower right depicting a portrait bust of a soldier. The mantel is draped with a black covering, a window off to the side is hung with a dark curtain, and a blue candle on the right side of the mantel near the portrait of the soldier is snuffed out. It’s a richly detailed picture that symbolically speaks of mourning and loss.

After the Joneses selected the Crocker to be the eventual home of their collection, they added a California scene to the group. “A Golden Summer Day near Oakland” by Albert Bierstadt, an artist who worked in both the American East and West, connects the Jones collection directly with the one started by Sacramento’s Crocker family.

In the exhibition catalog, the Southern California couple wrote that they chose the Crocker for several reasons: “It is the oldest museum west of the Mississippi, is located in our state capital, and, consequently, has a steady stream of visitors. We are delighted beyond words that the Crocker Art Museum is where our carefully selected, long-enjoyed paintings will reside.”

If you go

What: “American Beauty and Bounty: The Judith G. and Steaven K Jones Collection of Nineteenth-Century Painting”

Where: Crocker Art Museum

When: Through January 27. 10 a.m.to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday. Closed Mondays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day.

Price: $6 to $12. Free for members and children 5 and under. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.

More info: (916) 808-7000. www.crockerart.org cq