Editor's note: The The following essays were reprinted in Resource Library on January 12, 2016 with the permission of Arthur D. Hittner, George V. Speer and the Northern Arizona University Art Museum. The texts and images may be found in the catalogue for the exhibition Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, held April 7 to May 29, 2015 at the Northern Arizona University Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essays, associated texts and images, or wish to order a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Northern Arizona University Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:



 

A Note on the Collection

by Arthur D. Hittner

 

Even before that autumn day sixteen years ago when we purchased our first "American Scene" painting, Jerry Farnsworth's Working Girl, at a relatively obscure auction in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the work of American representational painters of the '30s and '40s had been a revelation to us. My wife and I had the good fortune of visiting the New York City gallery of the late private dealer and art scholar Janet Marqusee who was one of only a handful of dealers who specialized in the art of the 1930s and 1940s. Her stock was energetic, ripe with scenes of urban activity, boldly painted people and places depicting the heights and depths of life in America during the Great Depression and the war years that followed. Her catalogues, I quickly learned, were beacons amidst a dearth of published scholarship on the American artists of this period. A contrarian in many things, it was immediately clear to me that my own discovery of American Scene painting presented a wondrous opportunity and a concomitant challenge. Along with the chance to collect dramatically undervalued work of often astounding quality by once highly-regarded artists was the challenge to contribute in some way to a renewed appreciation of their accomplishments.

While the thrill of the chase has always been a primal motivator to collectors, it is often, at least to me, a mere prelude to the real fun: uncovering what I can of the lives of the artists and, where possible, the histories behind the individual works we've been fortunate to acquire. Umberto Romano's Katharine (Portrait of Katharine Bigelow Higgins) is a classic example. When we acquired this work it was believed to be a portrait of the artist's wife, although no documentation was provided with the painting. An email correspondence with the artist's son identified the true subject of the painting and led, in turn, to a fascinating email exchange with the subject's daughter revealing astonishing details of her mother's life, the significance of various symbolic devices within the portrait and the prior existence (confirmed by a photograph) of a companion portrait of the sitter's husband (later destroyed by his son in an apparent fit of pique). A perusal of microfilm records from the Smithsonian Institution's invaluable Archives of American Art and contemporary newspaper articles disclosed where and when these paintings were publicly exhibited and how they were received by critics.

Equally fascinating is the saga of Gregory Orloff's Elephants. We acquired this painting from an elderly gentleman in Arizona who had first encountered it when it decorated his second grade classroom in suburban Chicago, rescued it from a trash heap as a fourth-grader during the demolition of his old elementary school and retained it undisturbed for the succeeding fifty-five years until we acquired it. Finally, the acquisition of perhaps our favorite work, the monumental painting Eventide by Harold J. Rabinovitz, led me on a remarkable eight-year journey into the life, art and tragic death of the artist as a Japanese prisoner of war at the age of twenty-nine. Aided by the discovery of an amazing scrapbook compiled by his parents and more than seventy-five works owned by the artist's descendants, it was finally possible, some seventy years after his death, to publish a revealing article and construct a comprehensive biography and catalogue raisonne on this long-neglected but immensely talented artist.

The twenty-five artists represented in this exhibition, while only a small sampling of the thousands of unheralded artists of the American Scene movement, do cover many of its bases. There are twenty-one men and four women. Of the female artists, two were married to better-known artist/husbands to whom their own careers were largely subordinated, one was a fiercely independent single woman and one the self-effacing wife of a doctor for whom painting was little more than an avocation (despite her obvious talent). Six of the artists were foreign-born, though many more were sons or daughters of immigrants.  While the artists hailed from many different parts of the country, the overwhelming majority of them had significant connections to New York City, then very much, as today, the hub of the American art world. While many defy strict categorization, some were predominantly urban realists (Celentano, Farr and Fife, to name a few), several were often "social realists" (Bibel, Reisman and Turnbull, for example) and a few devout "Regionalists" (Firn, Meert, Rabinovitz and Sample, at least for portions of their respective careers). About half of the artists participated in the easel or mural programs of the W.P.A. and related federal programs during the Depression. Much research remains to be done on the art and artists of the 1930s and 1940s, and particularly the artists most closely associated with the American Scene movement of that period. It is my fervent hope that this exhibition and catalogue will make a contribution, however small, to that scholarship. AH

About the Author

A retired attorney, Arthur D. Hittner spent nearly thirty-four years with the national law firm now known as Nixon Peabody LLC, resident in the firm's Boston office. He previously served as a trustee of Danforth Art (formerly the Danforth Museum of Art) in Framingham, Massachusetts and the Tucson Museum of Art in Tucson, Arizona and currently serves as a board member of the Western Art Patrons, a support organization affiliated with the Tucson Museum of Art. He was also previously co-owner, vice president and a director of the Lowell Spinners, a minor league professional baseball team affiliated with the Boston Red Sox.

Married with two children and one grandchild, Hittner currently divides his time between residences in Oro Valley, Arizona and Natick, Massachusetts. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School.

 


 

Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner

by George V. Speer

 

The NAU Art Museum is pleased and honored to host this exhibition of American portraits and genre scenes from the collection of Art and Peggy Hittner. The works in this exhibition -- chiefly from the 1930s and early 1940s -- provide an almost diaristic account of ordinary lives in an extraordinary time. The decade leading up to the Second World War saw the twin disasters of the Great Depression and the Dustbowl Years, two monumental calamities that radically altered our nation's self-perception as a place of endless resources and limitless opportunity. Breadlines, labor riots, families walking to California, Steinbeck's epic novel The Grapes of Wrath -- these are our historical impressions, our memories of what were arguably the bleakest years other than those spent at war. It is a profound paradox that this same decade -- in which basic survival was often at stake -- gave rise to an unprecedented visibility for American artists and to a sincerely and broadly held belief in these men and women as vital forces in our collective "recovery."

As we, in the twenty-first century, struggle with the perception that our nation has lost its magical exceptionalism to forces of globalization, extremism, and climate change, it is worth noting that this very same fear -- the sense that America's best days were behind it -- shadowed the point-to-point, day-to-day challenges of the 1930s. It was as if something greater and darker had befallen us -- call it a loss of grace, a covenant broken and withdrawn. This generalized anxiety only grew stronger as environmental and economic recovery proceeded at an achingly slow pace.

But what is striking about the paintings and sculptures in the Hittner collection is the steady, quiet thrum of optimism sustained by American artists in the face of hardship. Indeed, these works might be understood as an index of themes and cultural histories that emerged quite broadly not only in the visual arts but in political commentary, cultural criticism, literature, and, not least, the recuperative strategies of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal administrations.

Artists working independently of government commissions -- and the deterministic instructions that accompanied them -- were free to articulate the violence and suspicions engendered by racial and class inequalities. Think of Philip Evergood's chaotic, brutal canvases of unarmed workers attacked by hired goons, or Ben Shahn's grieving images of justice miscarried. By contrast, the "relief" programs of the New Deal -- the Fine Arts Project, the Treasury Section, and others -- uniformly mandated two things of the artists in their employ: optimism and authenticity. American painters hired for twelve dollars a week to create murals for post offices and justice buildings across the country were expected to anchor their compositions in the climatic, geographical, racial and agricultural specifics of the regions to which they were sent.

The over-arching goal was to create a culture of consensus, in which (theoretically) any local populace could identify with the theme and, more importantly, take heart from the comfortable optimism of the work. That optimism was encoded in many ways, having to do very often with the "pioneer past" that had given rise to the community, the enduring nature of those seemingly distant values of courage, hard work, and religious faith that, if we could only re-discover them, would help us find our way out of our difficulties. Alternatively, public works of art might emphasize the titanic enterprises engendered by government and industry -- the great dams, harnessing electrical power for millions of poor, rural citizens, or the latest advances in aircraft technologies or communications. These themes used an heroic present to postulate a brighter future.

A concomitant visual rhetoric emphasized the very ordinariness of contemporary American life in images that offered their viewers a respite from disheartening headlines. Home-grown baseball games, for example, were immensely popular subjects for regionalist painters (the first baseball games to be played under lights occurred in this period), as were scenes of county- and state fairs, or worship services in humble churches of "the Heartland."  From the clamorous urban environments of Chicago, Detroit, and New York City, images of working girls at lunch or on holiday, or of workers leaving the factory for a well-deserved beer reaffirmed the pleasures of the American city.

These themes and many others appear in the works in this exhibition. The Hittner collection is pictorially and historically rich on its own terms and not less for its comprehensive relation to the "American Scene" of a bygone era. We at the NAU Art Museum join Art and Peggy Hittner in the hope that our visitors will find in these enduring narratives a truth that resonates with their own, familial histories and memories.

 

Dr. George V. Speer

Director, NAU Art Museum

 

About the Author

George V. Speer is Director of the NAU Art Museum and Associate Professor of Art History at Northern Arizona University. He received his doctorate from Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught in the Master of Fine Arts program. Before coming to NAU, Dr. Speer was Curator of the Luce Foundation Center for American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His research investigates the cultural politics of avant-gardes emerging in the Western narrative since the Age of Revolution as well as the visual cultures of the early Post-Colonial period. Dr. Speer published his first book, titled Things of the Spirit: Art and Healing in the American Body Politic, 1929-1941, in 2012. His current project, titled Cyrus Baldridge and Caroline Singer: Sojourners at the End of Empire, is slated to appear in Spring 2017.

 

To view texts concerning individual artworks in the exhibition Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, please click here.

To view set one of images of artworks in the exhibition, please click here.

To view set two of images of artworks in the exhibition, please click here.

To view set three of images of artworks in the exhibition, please click here.

 

About the Northern Arizona University Art Museum

The Northern Arizona University Art Museum is located on the campus of Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona. For hours and fees, please see the Museum's website.

Resource Library editor's notes:

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The above essays and associated materials were reprinted in Resource Library on January 12, 2016 with permission of the authors and the Northern Arizona University Art Museum, which was granted to TFAO on January 11, 2016. The texts and images may be found in the catalogue for the exhibition Enduring America: Selections from the Collection of Art and Peggy Hittner, held April 7 to May 29, 2015 at the Northern Arizona University Art Museum. To order a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Museum.

For biographical information on selected artists referenced in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.


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