The Ahmanson Foundation and The Huntington Form Major Art Acquisitions Partnership; Thomas Cole Masterwork Is First Purchase

  • October 18, 2021 11:40

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Thomas Cole, Portage Falls on the Genesee, 1839. Oil on canvas, 84 1/4 x 61 1/4 in. Gift of The Ahmanson Foundation. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

In an agreement destined to have transformative results, The Ahmanson Foundation, based in Los Angeles County, and The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, in San Marino, California, have formed a major art acquisitions partnership that provides significant funding to The Huntington to purchase masterpieces of European or American art to add to its collection. The first major acquisition to launch the program is the monumental Portage Falls on the Genesee (1839) by Anglo American painter Thomas Cole (1801–1848). The dramatic, approximately 7-by-5-foot painting of the Genesee River Valley in upstate New York captures the epic scale and sublime Romanticism that define the Hudson River School, an artistic movement of which Cole is considered the founder.

View of the Chinese Garden. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Martha Benedict

The Ahmanson Foundation has been an important strategic partner, supporting The Huntington for more than 45 years, but with this agreement, the partnership enters a new phase that’s designed to build on the Art Museum’s strengths; diversify the collection by adding masterworks by women and artists of color; and underscore the connections among The Huntington’s art museum, library, and botanical gardens. “The Ahmanson Foundation has long supported The Huntington’s highest-level needs,” said Huntington President Karen R. Lawrence. “But this new program is of an entirely different magnitude and specifically supports our Art Museum. It will increase the range of The Huntington’s stellar collection of European and American art, enabling us to bring significant works to Southern California audiences, making them accessible to the public, which includes the extraordinary number of artists, scholars, and students in our midst. We are enormously grateful to The Ahmanson Foundation for this significant and visionary support.”

The new acquisitions program is born of a relationship between The Huntington and The Ahmanson Foundation that began in 1976. Projects made possible with The Ahmanson Foundation’s funding range from the restoration of the historic Huntington Art Gallery and the expansion of the American art galleries to the construction of the Chinese Garden, library collection development, and planned upgrades to the original 1919 library building.

Opening Nov. 20, 2021, in "Borderlands," the Huntington's reinstalled American Art galleries will include works such as Harriet Goodhue Hosmer's (1830 - 1908), Zenobia in Chains, 1859. Marble. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Since its founding in 1952, The Ahmanson Foundation has focused on institutions that promote the public welfare and consistently demonstrate sound fiscal management and program integrity. “Over our fruitful, decadeslong relationship, we have built a solid understanding of The Huntington’s capabilities and core values,” said William H. Ahmanson, President of The Ahmanson Foundation. “I am confident we can make a meaningful, positive difference, helping The Huntington advance its vision by adding works of the highest quality and relevance to its galleries, where they can be seen by millions for generations to come.”

Portage Falls on the Genesee (1839) by Thomas Cole
While playing up the spectacular beauty of the American wilderness with expert use of lighting, perspective, and detailed brushwork, the arresting Portage Falls on the Genesee also describes a moment in history and foretells the impact humans will have on the scene, making a strong reference to the nascent environmental movement championed by artists and writers during the 19th century. A native of Lancashire, England, Cole was familiar with the impact of industrialization on both his native and adopted homelands. In the painting, storm clouds loom on the horizon, and, though dwarfed by the scope of the great gorge, a figure (likely the artist himself) and a few structures hint at the changes afoot. One such change would be the Genesee Valley Canal project; and, in fact, it was Canal Commissioner Samuel B. Ruggles who enlisted Cole to make the painting.

“This is a sublime masterwork of the highest artistic quality, created by an artist whose style and sensibility were informed by trans-Atlantic intellectual exchange,” said Christina Nielsen, the Hannah and Russel Kully Director of the Art Museum at The Huntington. “It will be the first painting by Cole to join our significant holdings of Hudson River School works and will form an impressive trio with two of our most famous, large-scale paintings: Chimborazo by Frederic Edwin Church—who was Cole’s most accomplished student—and John Constable’s View on the Stour near Dedham—one of the series of monumental landscapes that Cole studied and that became highly influential on his artistic career.”

Portage Falls on the Genesee, a lyrical tribute to the natural world and a warning about humankind’s effects on it, not only resonates with The Huntington’s world-class botanical collections, but also draws connections to its Library’s collection of historical materials. After it was shown at the National Academy of Design exhibition in New York in 1841, Portage Falls on the Genesee was presented by Ruggles to then–New York Gov. William H. Seward to hang in the executive mansion in Albany and later in his personal residence, now known as the Seward House Museum, in Auburn, New York. Seward owned the painting for the remainder of his life, during which he served as U.S. senator from New York and as secretary of state under Abraham Lincoln. Seward was one of the targets of the assassination plot that killed Lincoln. The Huntington’s vast library holdings—rich in materials on the history of New York, the home state of founder Henry E. Huntington—comprise many archival collections that document Seward’s life and career as well as travel narratives and early environmental writing, including works by William Cullen Bryant and Henry David Thoreau. The Huntington’s renowned archive of Civil War materials even includes the knife that was used to stab Seward during the night of the Lincoln assassination; the knife was last exhibited at The Huntington during a major 2012–13 exhibition on the American Civil War.

Portage Falls on the Genesee will go on view Nov. 20, 2021, in a reinstallation of the American art galleries.

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