Philadelphia Museum of Art announces a trove of acquisitions

Posted: July 21, 2011

A vibrant Claude Monet landscape, a dappled Camille Pissarro apple tree, and a luminous portrait by Daniel Garber of his young daughter, widely considered the Pennsylvania artist's greatest work, are among a sweeping array of acquisitions announced Thursday by the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The museum also disclosed a promised gift of 190 works by self-taught artists from the collection of Jill and Sheldon Bonovitz, who have built one of the most highly regarded private caches of such "outsider art" in the country.

The Bonovitz collection, which will increase the museum's holdings of such art by about 60 percent, will form the core of a major exhibition in spring 2013 and ultimately make the Art Museum one of the nation's prime holders of work by self-taught American artists.

While the Art Museum is continually seeking to add to its collections, courting donors, scanning auction and gallery offerings, and ultimately acquiring new works, Thursday's announcement involving hundreds, by different artists and several different sources of art and funding, is one of the most sweeping in memory.

Almost all the works - which range from a 10th-century Indian bronze sculpture to a monumental triptych, Iona, painted by Sean Scully just a few years ago - were donations or made possible by donated purchase funds. Many are already on display, and all entered the museum's holdings since December, according to officials.

No works from the museum's collection were sold to finance the acquisitions, said director and chief executive Timothy Rub. He declined to comment on costs involved in any of the acquisitions, but said the museum's own funds represented a "very tiny fraction" of the total value.

"We bought a number of things, but we don't have the resources to make major acquisitions," Rub said. "There's not much we have to spend on works of art, but there are lots of things we can do. People have always been enormously helpful to this institution. I think that's a good story in and of itself. There are so many wonderful gifts."

Four significant impressionist works, just placed on view, were donated by Chara and the late John Haas, longtime museum supporters: Path on the Island of Saint Martin, Vétheuil (1881), by Claude Monet; Apple Tree in the Meadow, Éragny (1893), by Camille Pissarro; Mooring Lines, the Effect of Snow at Saint Cloud (1879), by Alfred Sisley; and Madame Bérard's Baby in a Striped Armchair (1880-81), by Mary Cassatt.

Joseph Rischel, senior curator of European painting before 1900, expressed delight at the acquisitions, noting that they "expand and enhance our rich impressionist holdings." The museum, he said, did not have a Monet from the years the artist spent in Vétheuil in the late 1870s and early 1880s.

The promised gift from the Bonovitzes will form the heart of a 2013 exhibition focusing on self-taught artists active from the 1930s to the '80s, museum officials said.

Jill Bonovitz is a ceramic artist and cofounder of the Clay Studio; her husband, an attorney, is a former chairman of Duane Morris LLP and a longtime museum trustee. Last year, they donated a substantial collection of embroidered Bengali works, known as kanthas, to the museum.

The 190 promised works include pieces by well-known figures such as William Edmondson, Bill Traylor, Martin Ramirez, James Castle, Howard Finster, William Hawkins, and Elijah Pierce.

"Self-taught artists use a wide range of inventive working methods and often employ unconventional materials, including house paint, wood scraps, roofing tin, and shirt cardboard," said Ann Percy, the museum's curator of drawings. "The individuality that characterizes the work, and the artists' methods of conceiving images independently of familiar styles, trends, or movements, will appeal to a diverse audience interested in exploring new terrain in the art of the 20th and 21st centuries."

Sheldon Bonovitz said he hoped the gift would help the museum "build recognition across a wide audience for the remarkable contributions of self-taught artists."

Daniel Garber's Tanis (1915), a shimmering portrait of the artist's 8-year-old daughter standing in a doorway bathed in radiant sunlight, was acquired with funds provided by Marguerite and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, the museum's chairman emeritus. The painting, which had been in the collection of the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was acquired via a private sale. The Westervelt Corp., owner of the collection, is selling about 50 of its most prominent holdings.

Rub declined to disclose the price, but Garbers have been increasing in value and this is considered perhaps his finest work. The price is believed to be well over $1 million.

The Lenfests, who funded the acquisition, have long been interested in the work of Pennsylvania impressionists, and have asked the Art Museum to share Tanis from time to time with the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, which also has significant holdings of Garber and his circle. Garber studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and taught there for several decades.

Kathleen Foster, the museum's senior curator of American art, said that "Tanis is the most brilliant of Garber's figure paintings in terms of color and light, and it epitomizes the joy and serenity in his work, which always sought the beauty in everyday life."

Among the other major acquisitions announced by the museum is a startling work by Philip Guston, Bombardment (1937-8), donated by the artist's daughter and her husband, Musa and Tom Mayer.

The museum also has acquired 31 drawings and two sculptures by the architect, artist, designer, poet, and philosopher Frederick Kiesler, a friend and colleague of Marcel Duchamp. The works were donated by Ronnie L. and John E. Shore of Cincinnati.

While all the acquisitions were announced at once, they came under the museum's stewardship via separate routes with separate time lines. Nevertheless, Rub said the announcement provided impetus for the museum to display the works and draw attention to the evolution of its vast collection.

"I felt very strongly that we should share news that we're developing the collection because we do so on a regular basis," Rub said. "It's also a way of acknowledging the support we've gotten in the past and continue to get from donors who want to help. . . . This process also makes us think in a much clearer-headed way about our obligation to get important new acquisitions out for the public to see. Hard to do in a place like this, because things are jostling for wall space."


Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594, ssalisbury@phillynews.com, or @SPSalisbury on Twitter.

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