Art: University of Pennsylvania exhibition features American art from Warner collection

Posted: August 21, 2011

Jonathan Westervelt Warner, known as Jack, has spent more than half his 94 years building up an impressive collection of American fine and decorative arts - between 700 and 800 objects made over nearly two centuries.

Until recently, the public could visit the collection at the institution he created in 2003 to display it, the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where he lives.

But over the last year, and particularly in recent months, the Warner collection has been sundered, and some of its more important paintings have been sold. The museum has closed, although apparently it plans to reopen in another location.

The story of what happened to the Warner collection, assembled by a man passionate about American art and history, doesn't seem to have made headlines outside Tuscaloosa and the museum world. It's a complicated and fascinating story that touches Philadelphia at several points, and it begs to be told.

The main point of contact is an exhibition at the Arthur Ross Gallery of the University of Pennsylvania called "An American Odyssey." It consists of 63 paintings and works on paper owned by Jack Warner and the Warner Foundation, which ran the Westervelt-Warner Museum.

The show offers a window into Warner's preoccupations as a collector - particularly George Washington, the Hudson River movement, Winslow Homer, American impressionism, and art of the South. Yet it doesn't hint at the turmoil that has wracked the collection since last fall.

This show, organized at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, doesn't represent the absolute best of Warner's efforts, nor could it.

It's an engaging exhibition within the limits of what art was available to Douglas Hyland, the New Britain Museum's director. For instance, one Warner masterpiece he couldn't borrow, because it had been sold, was a luminous portrait of a young girl by Bucks County impressionist Daniel Garber.

Tanis was purchased by H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest, also a collector and arguably this city's most prominent philanthropist. Lenfest donated the painting to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, on whose board he sits. Tanis now hangs in the museum's American wing.

If you're wondering why Warner would sell one of his prizes, he didn't. The painting was sold by the family business he led for many years, the Westervelt Co., formerly Gulf States Paper Corp., which owned it.

During the last year, Westervelt also sold a number of other masterpieces, most notably Progress (The Advance of Civilization) by Asher B. Durand and The Falls of Kaaterskill by Thomas Cole. The company did so to take advantage of a 2011 tax window that applies to sales of noncore assets.

(Kaaterskill was one of three works Warner lent to a 2005 exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, "In Private Hands.")

Jack Warner couldn't prevent these sales because the collection that bears his name has, or had, three owners: the Westervelt Co., the Warner Foundation, and himself. Ironically, as he explains in a statement displayed in the Ross gallery, he began collecting in the 1950s "as an investment for my family company."

The company was founded in the early 20th century by Warner's maternal grandfather, Herman Westervelt, who in 1902 invented a machine to make the large brown-paper grocery bags still used today. Jack Warner's son, also named Jonathan, is now company chairman.

(Earlier this month, the company re-titled its portion of the larger collection as the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art.)

The company declined to lend to the New Britain show, apparently because sales of more than 40 paintings were in the pipeline. Consequently, the Connecticut museum had to rely on loans from the foundation and Warner.

As Ross director Lynn Marsden-Atlass, a friend of Warner's, explained, the show was shaped to complement the strengths of the New Britain museum.

It subsequently came to Penn because Marsden-Atlass asked for it. The 63 works, including five Winslow Homers, three paintings by Cole, and four prints by Mary Cassatt, are mainly from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

They offer a reasonably representative sample of 19th-century American painting, although one can only wish that the magnificent Progress, which reflects a quintessential Hudson River theme of civilization displacing wilderness, and Cole's Kaaterskill were in the mix.

Two of the more compelling pictures from that century are large still lifes of fruit by the German-born Severin Roesen. Cole's Autumn Landscape from 1827-28 and Homer's evocation of roiling surf, The Backrush, are also splendid, as are Alfred Jacob Miller's large oil of Indians racing at Fort Laramie and a bucolic scene of an Indian encampment by a river by Thomas Worthington Whittredge.

Off in one corner, a small landscape by Jasper Cropsey, Autumn on the River, beautifully re-creates the interplay of muffled sunlight and placid water. One could easily slide by this gem; be sure not to. The show contains works by all the major Hudson River landscapists, but this Cropsey stands out.

The impressionist examples are less prepossessing, despite the presence of a large, summery canvas by Childe Hassam of two women sitting on a porch. Frederick Frieseke's woman with a green parasol more effectively delivers the quintessential impressionist blending of color, light, figure, and ground.

A large genre scene by Louis Lang, The Sewing Party, introduces a lively domestic note. This intricately theatrical concoction is bracketed by a group of more homespun genre scenes by South Carolina native Edward Lamson Henry, one of several painters in the show known for images of Southern life.

A small picture by Thomas Hart Benton of black sharecroppers chopping cotton is tucked into another corner - like the Cropsey landscape, also easy to overlook. It complements several other pictures of Southern farm life by genre painter William Aiken Walker.

As for the father of our country, he's neatly circumscribed by Gilbert Stuart's fastidious miniature portrait, in watercolor on ivory, and Andrew Wyeth's dry brush Washington at Valley Forge, in which the general is all but invisible.

Warner says in his statement that his art knowledge isn't academic, that he didn't use advisers, and that he bought art that spoke to him in some way. This would explain the inclusion of works by Maxfield Parrish, Peter Blume, and N.C. Wyeth, as incongruous a trio of painters as one could imagine.

They confirm, however, that the Warner collection, at least as represented at the Ross, is a piquant mix of conventional art history and personal indulgence. The former might need to be justified, but it seems impolite to fault the latter.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.

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