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Paul G. Stein

Art devotee Paul G. Stein has worked as a volunteer with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art and is a member of the Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century Art.

A New American in Paris?

Published: February 22, 2012 17:23 Last Updated: May 27, 2014 23:12

Musée du Louvre
Musée du Louvre
(Flickr user Leandro Neumann Ciuffo)

Which American painting might the Louvre be about to acquire?

As ArtFixDaily and other news organizations have reported, the Musée du Louvre and three American institutions—the Terra Foundation for American Art, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art—have recently collaborated to bring the Hudson River School to the banks of the Seine.

The modest exhibition is titled “New Frontier: Thomas Cole and the Birth of Landscape Painting in America” and includes four works by Thomas Cole and one by Asher Durand. Now on view at the Louvre, it travels to the participating United States museums later this year. A related symposium on American art took place at the Louvre in January.

The exhibition is the first of a planned series that will focus on individual American artists.

There is more to the collaboration than transatlantic cultural hand-shaking, however. “For the past several years, the Louvre has been revitalizing its interest in American art," says Henri Loyrette, president and director of the Louvre. “We have partnered with various institutions to organize exhibitions and conferences about American art and will continue to do so as we strive to build our own collection in this area.”

A more tantalizing tidbit was reported at the end of an NPR “All Things Considered” segment on January 25th. “[Louvre curator Guillaume Faroult] says he has a surprise,” NPR reported, “he can't give any details yet because it's not a done deal, but he says the Louvre may be about to acquire another American painting — which would make it the fifth in its permanent collection of 4,000 paintings.”

The Louvre’s collection ends at the year 1848 (with some exceptions), the works created after that time having been split into the Musée d'Orsay in 1986.

Assuming an 1848 cutoff, the list of American artists that the Louvre would potentially consider acquiring would seem to be a short one.

It would theoretically include (but not be limited to) John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, and perhaps a Peale family member; early 19th century genre painters George Caleb Bingham, William Sidney Mount, and Samuel F. B. Morse (whose famous “Gallery of the Louvre” of the early 1830s is a star of the Terra collection); and Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and (possibly) Asher Durand.

The availability of great paintings by these American artists—of the calibre one would wish to see in the Louvre—is, of course, problematic.

Perhaps an exchange or sale would be arranged by an institutional collection, though one strains to think of an institution that would be willing to part with what presumably would be one of their finer works.

Dealers and galleries frequently sell to museums, though exceptional American artworks executed prior to 1850 are scarce—most of the greatest paintings are held by institutions and very wealthy private collectors.

It is possible that one of these collectors could rise to the occasion.

For example, the relationship between the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and collector Richard Manoogian resulted, according to a report in the blog CultureGrrl, in the museum’s acquisition of Richard Caton Woodville's "War News from Mexico” and Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait’s “The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix.”

Just last year Thomas Cole’s “Falls of the Kaaterskill,” painted in 1826 and generally considered to be one of the most important Hudson River School paintings in existence, vanished out of public sight when it was sold along with numerous other artworks by The Westervelt Company. Since the painting has not resurfaced in a museum, it is presumably in private hands.

One of the four American artworks currently in the Louvre collection is Thomas Cole’s “The Cross in the Wilderness,” acquired in 1975 and featured in the “New Frontier” exhibition. Thomas Cole himself visited the Louvre in 1831 and again in 1841 during his European trips.

Artfixdaily recently reported the planned March visit of Louvre curator Faroult, source of the NPR quote above, to the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York, for a lecture about the exhibition and American collaboration.