The North Carolina Museum of Art featured in Winston Salem Sentinel.
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Four and a half years after opening, the North Carolina Museum of Art received the long-awaited distribution of paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Although the Foundation promised in 1951 to donate a million dollars in art from Samuel Kress’s superlative collection to match the 1947 General Assembly’s $1M contingent appropriation, it ultimately presented Raleigh with a collection of sixty-eight paintings and two sculptures appraised at $2.5M in 1960. This endowment made the NCMA one of the leading repositories of Italian art in the U.S. Watch the video below to learn more about the Kress Collection.
Curious how curator, Lyle Humphrey, was able to find all the archival photos for this exhibition? She had a helping hand from the State Archives of North Carolina. Watch the video below to learn more about the collaboration between the NCMA and the State Archives.
The governor appointed five members of the State Art Society—Humber, who was elected chairman; Katherine Pendleton Arrington, its president since 1926; Clarence Poe, charter member; Edwin Gill, state treasurer; and Clemens Sommer, professor of art history at UNC–Chapel Hill—to seek “masterpieces of the American, British, French, Spanish, Flemish, and Dutch Schools.” Sommer was the only art historian among them, so they engaged a shrewd art dealer, Carl W. Hamilton, to help them navigate the New York art market and negotiate prices. In 1952 the Commission purchased 158 paintings, two sculptures, and twenty-five pieces of furniture and/or decorative arts totaling $880,000. Exchanges were made later in the year and the balance supplemented with a $300,000 distribution from a private trust (Robert F. Phifer Fund), bringing the total number of paintings acquired to 201. The assembled collection provided a survey of European and American painting from circa 1420 to 1900, fulfilling the Assembly’s desire for Old Masters, and boasted a number of world-class artworks obtained relatively inexpensively due to the supply of paintings then on the market. The Committee purchased a lone modern painting by Maurice Sterne but planned to add more later. All of it was held in storage in New York until the founders could secure a building in Raleigh.
The chief advocate for the “art bill” was Robert L. Humber, a charismatic attorney from Greenville who had recently moved back to North Carolina from Europe and joined the fight for a state art museum. At the end of the biennium, there was a surplus to cover the appropriation, but it took two more years for Humber to secure the required matching donation. In 1951 he persuaded the Samuel H. Kress Foundation to promise a million dollars in art—mostly early Italian paintings—to be presented to North Carolina only after it provided a suitable building to house it. The agreement satisfied the legislators, who authorized the State Art Society to begin their million-dollar purchasing campaign.
The Museum was ready for its public unveiling on April 6, 1956. In the year lead- ing up to that day (and for several afterward), illustrious philanthropists and North Carolinians alike contributed funds for additional purchases including European tapestries and antique marbles such as Hercules and Bacchus. Visitors could hardly believe their eyes when they saw the collection. In the words of a local newspaper columnist, it was a “Miracle on Morgan Street.”
Donations continued to pour in for several years, which expanded both the value and breadth of the collection. For example in 1957 Wachovia Bank funded the purchase of one of earliest Italian paintings in America (see adjacent painting), and noted Connecticut collectors donated over a hundred objects representing ancient and early Byzantine civilizations of Egypt, Greece, India (Gandhara), and the Italian peninsula. These gifts led to the opening of five new galleries of early sculpture and decorative arts. Valentiner himself instigated the collecting of twentieth-century art and envisioned adding ancient near and far eastern art, African and Oceanic art, medieval sculpture, a print room, and a sculpture garden. He raised the Museum’s profile worldwide in organizing both a major Rembrandt exhibition in the first year and a retrospective of the German expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner the next. Although the director had planned to stay only one year, he remained for nearly three, resigning only one week before his death in September 1958. In 1959 Valentiner’s immediate successor, James B. Byrnes, organized a memorial loan exhibition that solidified the NCMA’s status as a major U.S. art institution.
In 1953 the State handed over the recently vacated original State Highway Commission building on East Morgan Street and provided funds to transform it into an art museum. While the structure was being readied for the display of the collection, Humber and consultant Hamilton staged another coup. They persuaded a cosmopolitan museum professional, Dr. Wilhelm R. Valentiner (b. Karlsruhe, Germany, 1880–d. 1958, New York), who had served as either curator or director of five major museums over fifty years, to become the North Carolina Museum of Art’s first director. In November 1955 Valentiner abandoned his retirement in Italy and joined the team in Raleigh to begin planning the installation of the collection, which would be shipped from New York at the end of the year.
“Mr. Speaker, I know that I am facing a hostile audience, but man cannot live by bread alone.” Arguing before the 1947 North Carolina General Assembly on the last day of the legislative session, Rep. John H. Kerr Jr. of Warren County quoted biblical scripture to persuade his fellow representatives to pass a bill providing $1,000,000 to the N.C. State Art Society to purchase art for a state museum to be established. The sum in question was roughly equivalent to $11.9M in today’s dollars, and Rep. Frank Huskins of Yancey County responded, “Until we feed our people bread, you can’t put them on a diet of caviar.” A long debate ensued, but the bill passed with two contingencies: the existence of a million-dollar Treasury surplus after all appropriations had been made for the biennium 1947–49 and the sum’s being matched through private gifts.
The effort to establish a state art museum in Raleigh was twenty years underway when the Second World War ended. Since 1924 the sponsors of this project—members of the North Carolina State Art Society—had acquired a small but respectable art collection, received a substantial interest in a private trust, developed a continuous series of special exhibitions, lectures, art competitions, and educational initiatives for students of all ages, and instituted a popular art gallery in the heart of the city. Notably, the founders kept their gallery and programs alive through the Depression by forming a partnership with the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration. When the WPA closed down in 1943, they lost a financial lifeline, but North Carolina’s Treasury had accumulated an unprecedented surplus during the war, so the time was right to ask the Legislature to invest in their plan to provide the state’s four million citizens with an intangible luxury—a repository of art they could call their own and visit for free. It would be an extended classroom for the state’s schoolchildren, a tourist attraction for Raleigh, and a southern art center for art students and specialists. This is the story of that bold request—one million dollars to build a state art collection, a first in U.S. history—and its outcome, the foundation of the North Carolina Museum of Art as we know it today.
—Lyle Humphrey, Associate Curator of European Art and Collections History
Miracle on Morgan Street: The Foundations of the NCMA, 1946–1960 is organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art. Generously supported by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This exhibition is made possible, in part, by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources; the North Carolina Museum of Art Foundation, Inc.; and the William R. Kenan Jr. Endowment for Educational Exhibitions. Additional support was also provided by Rosemary and Smedes York. Research for this exhibition was made possible by Ann and Jim Goodnight/The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fund for Curatorial and Conservation Research and Travel.
The NCMA founders—members of the State Art Society—promoted women artists in their exhibitions going back to 1925, and they embraced a strong woman, Katherine Pendleton Arrington, to lead their mission for thirty consecutive years (1926–1955). Thus it is not surprising, but still re- markable, that Arrington and her four cohorts on the State Art Commission purchased two paintings by women with the original State appropriation. One of these is a Dutch still life believed to be by Rachel Ruysch, now attributed to Willem van Aelst. The other was this lifelike portrait of a Russian grandee executed by Vigée Le Brun during her extended stay in St. Petersburg. The two acquisitions were singled out in a press release after the Museum opened.
The State Art Commission spent over half of its original purchase funds on Dutch and Flemish paintings, and when the NCMA opened in April 1956 it boasted having seven canvases by the famed seven- teenth-century Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens and one sketch on panel, displayed here. Current scholarship recognizes that most of these works were executed with the help of assistants or by specific collaborators whom Rubens trained in his productive Antwerp workshop. Nevertheless, Gideon and the Midianites, which represents the Israelites overthrowing the Midianites during the period of the Judges (Old Testament), is likely based on original designs by Rubens.
When this painting came in—one of scores of donations presented to the NCMA between 1956 and 1960—its creator was identified as Constantine Netscher and the subject as Rachel Ruysch, a renowned flower painter of Amsterdam whose works resemble the still life depicted on the easel. The founders were especially pleased, as they believed that Ruysch was the artist of a vanitas still life they had purchased in 1952. Today that painting is attributed to Ruysch’s teacher, Willem van Aelst, and the present one to Michiel van Musscher. Although it is tempting to see Van Musscher’s composition as a portrait of Ruysch in her studio, it is most likely an allegorical representation.
This painting by the preeminent painter of early sixteenth-century Florence once belonged to the 1st Duke of Lerma (1552–1625), a favorite of Philip III of Spain, who held the most important private collection of paintings in early seventeenth-century Spain. Although the NCMA founders embarked on their art purchasing campaign in 1951 with the knowledge they would be receiving a Samuel H. Kress Collection of mostly Italian paintings, they nevertheless purchased a number of first-rate, early-modern Italian paintings with the original State funds, including the present panel, which manifests Andrea del Sarto’s exceptional talent as a colorist.
This diminutive panel, which once contained a donor figure to the right of the cross, is one of the more intriguing early European paintings acquired in 1952. Formal evidence points to its origin in the southern Netherlandish city of Bruges around 1480, and the painting has traditionally been associated with fifteenth-century Bruges’s leading painter, Hans Memling. Technical considerations undermine this attribution, however, leaving the authorship question open. The two heraldic shields painted into the composition indicate it passed from a Netherlandish owner to a Venetian one before 1491. This change of hands can be explained by close mercantile connections between Venice and Bruges during this period and the fact that Memling’s paintings and those of his contemporaries were prized by Venetian collectors.
The Art Commission paid more for this small panel than for any other work acquired as part of the bulk purchases of 1952, including each of the eight paintings attributed to Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens, whose works were then, as now, some of the most expensive Old Masters on the market. The St. Jerome was then thought to be an early work by Stefan Lochner, Cologne’s most famous fifteenth-century painter; it is now attributed to another artist from the same milieu. Like Lochner, the Master of the Heisterbach Altar was familiar with devices of optic realism developed by early Netherlandish painters such as Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, hence the illusionistic architectural frame demarcating the depicted interior.
This marvelous, collapsible altarpiece is one of twenty-four Spanish paintings acquired by the State Art Commission in 1952. It was likely intended to be used by a clergyman either while traveling or transport- ing the Eucharist to the sick. The central panels showing St. Jerome and the Pietà are based on a full-scale altarpiece executed by Bartolomé Bermejo, one of the most original artists of fifteenth-century Europe, for an elite Barcelona prelate and art patron, Lluis Desplà. Whoever created this portable devotional object evidently had first-hand knowledge of the so-called Despla Pietà (now housed in Barcelona Cathedral), and therefore was probably based near Barcelona, in the Principality of Catalonia (present-day northeastern Spain).
This statuette is one of twelve casts produced from a lost terracotta model for a marble tomb monument commissioned by Pope Urban VIII to mark a new burial in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, that of the powerful feudal ruler and church benefactress Matilda of Canossa. Keen to acquire sculpture for the NCMA, Valentiner had the Matilda shipped to Raleigh on approval from a dealer in the Netherlands in spring 1958, shortly before departing for two months in Europe. On his first stop, London, he learned that John Pope-Hennessy, the esteemed curator of sculpture at the V&A Museum, was thinking of buying the same statuette. The director immediately wired home: “We must decide Bernini purchase otherwise Victoria Albert Museum will buy. Send Pope-Hennessy all NCMA Bulletins.”
The NCMA celebrates the arrival of the long-heralded Kress collection.
December 29, 1960
James Byrnes resigns as acting director, and Justus Bier (1899–1990), then head of the Art Department at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, is appointed the NCMA’s third director.
April 6, 1959
Acting NCMA Director James Byrnes and Paul Wescher, director of the J. Paul Getty Museum, organize a major loan exhibition to memorialize Valentiner’s fifty years as a museum professional.
June 8, 1959
The Kress Foundation and the NCMA agree on the collection that will be presented to Raleigh as part of the Kress regional galleries program, and the two organizations begin planning for its integration into the galleries on East Morgan Street.
January 10, 1958
The Museum presents the first comprehensive U.S. exhibition of paintings, watercolors, and prints by the German expressionist artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938).
February 7, 1958
Valentiner hires Charles W. Stanford Jr. as the NCMA’s curator of education. One of Stanford’s tasks is to initiate a formal training program for the Museum’s volunteer guides, called docents (German for teacher).
August 30, 1958
Valentiner returns from summer travel in Germany gravely ill and resigns seven days before dying. He bequeaths the Museum four hundred works of art, a two thousand–volume art library, a collection of study photographs, and $15,000 in cash.
Noted art collectors Fred and Florence Olsen donate over one hundred objects representing ancient and early Byzantine civilizations of Egypt, Greece, Ghandara, and the Italian peninsula, and the NCMA opens five new galleries of early sculpture and decorative arts.
Image Caption: Ben Williams, curator, and May Davis Hill, librarian and registrar, with Odilon Redon, Dante and Beatrice, circa 1914 (ex-Valentiner collection; now in the Uehara Museum of Art, Japan), May 20, 1957. Photograph courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina. From the News and Observer Photograph Collection.
Valentiner initiates a scholarly museum journal, the North Carolina Museum of Art Bulletin. The Museum mounts three exhibitions of twentieth-century art, including a selection of outstanding paintings and sculptures belonging to Valentiner personally. The latter are billed as works from an “anonymous” local collection.
The Museum attracts national attention when it opens an international loan exhibition to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s birth. It is named one of the four best exhibitions in the U.S. in 1956–57.
Governor Luther H. Hodges cuts the ribbons to inaugurate the North Carolina Museum of Art on East Morgan Street.
February 1953–February 1954
The Art Society receives distributions totaling $300,000 from a trust established by the last will and testament of Robert F. Phifer of Concord (d. 1929) and purchases an additional thirty-one paintings by combining that amount with remaining state funds. The State Board of Buildings and Grounds turns over the old State Highway Building to be used as the North Carolina Museum of Art, and the General Assembly appropriates $200,000 for building renovations.
February 20, 1952
After N.C.’s State Supreme Court settles a dispute over whether Valentiner’s approval complies with the requirements of the legislative act of 1951, State Auditor Henry L. Bridges purchases 158 paintings, two sculptures, and twenty-five pieces of furniture and/or decorative arts on behalf of the State Art Commission.
September 5, 1952
The State Art Society formally adopts the name North Carolina Museum of Art to replace State Art Gallery.
April 14, 1951
The General Assembly authorizes the State Art Society to accept a donation of a million-dollar art collection from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in lieu of cash to match the contingent appropriation of $1,000,000.
The State Art Commission, led by Robert L. Humber and advised by a shrewd New York art dealer, Carl W. Hamilton, selects and places on reserve 174 paintings in the New York art trade.
December 26, 1951
The Art Commission solicits a seasoned museum professional, Wilhelm R. Valentiner, previously director of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum, and J. Paul Getty Museum, to vet their planned acquisitions with the state-appropriated funds. He approves 157 of 174 paintings.
Art Society newcomer Robert L. Humber helps convince the 1947 General Assembly to draft and pass a bill appropriating $1,000,000 to establish an art collection upon the condition that a matching amount can be found from other sources.