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The American Collection Makes its e-Debut

One of the long-term goals for a museum curator is to put together a catalog of the collection under their care. With the advent of the web this project has gone beyond the printed page and given the writer a whole new set of options. Unlike a publication, a web catalog allows the writer to add works as they are acquired instead of having to produce another book sometime in the future, change entries as new information becomes available, and correct mistakes that would forever remain in print. Flexibility is one of the major advantages of putting a collections catalog on the web.

The journey from concept to completion of the catalog for the American collection began more than two years ago with a compilation of the material that would be necessary to begin the project. Nothing could begin without a complete list of the American collection. For this project the list took the form of a printout which contained each piece in the American collection organized by its accession number, the order in which it came into the collection. For example 2008.352 was the 352nd piece to come into the collection in 2008. It was then necessary to ascertain from this list the works to be included in the web catalog. The remarkable aspect of a web catalog is that once this decision is made there will always be the opportunity to create more entries in the future.

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A Severin Roesen in the IMA’s Early American Gallery

Severin Roesen, Before

Severin Roesen was known for his realistic, sumptuous still life paintings. Most of his work was done in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where he settled in 1857.

Roesen pioneered the American still life and is the artist who comes to mind as the premier colonial still life painter. Although best known for his meticulously painted tables filled with fruit that reflected mid-nineteenth century optimism, his particularly striking and difficult to find floral still life paintings paved the way for floral themes in American art.

The IMA has long sought to display a work by Roesen in its Early American gallery, so it was very exciting to learn that Conner Prairie had a floral still life painting by the artist that they wanted to put on long term loan at the IMA. The only requirement was to bring it back to its original glory by conserving the painting.

It is with great anticipation that we await the completion of this work, when the painting can be placed on view for the public to appreciate its beauty and become acquainted with the style and quality of Severin Roesen’s still lifes. We sincerely thank Conner Prairie for sharing this treasure with the IMA and its visitors.


Acquiring a Work of Art: He is Risen from The Passion of Christ Series

He Is Risen (The Passion of Christ Series)

There are two African American artists that I thought I would never have the opportunity or the funds to purchase, Romare Bearden and Henry Ossawa Tanner.  I still haven’t been fortunate to acquire a Tanner, but Bearden became part of the American collection in 2006.  Much of Bearden’s work falls outside the American collection, because it was done after 1945 and, therefore, considered contemporary art.  The organization of museum collections can seem so arbitrary to an outsider, even inside it can be confusing. The cut off of 1945 was made because that is the period when American art no longer emulated European style and ventured out on its own to develop Abstract Expressionism.  I discussed this in the Delaney blog.  Because of this demarcation I never thought a Bearden would become available that would fit into the American before 1945 collection.

The discovery of this painting occurred during my 2006 trip to New York for my yearly symposium on American art.  I always visit the galleries to see what is available.  On the wall in an American art gallery was an early Tanner that caught my eye, but it was not representative of the artist’s style and would not have been a good representation of his work.  So I continued to look at the display on the rest of the wall when I was struck by the color and design of the work next to it.  I wasn’t used to seeing early works by Romare Bearden, so I was surprised to learn he was the artist.  The piece was stunning.  I kept coming back to it during my walk through the gallery.  When I returned to the IMA I couldn’t take my mind off the painting.  The price was more than I had ever asked the museum to pay for an acquisition, but I thought it was so important to the collection that I had to try to acquire it for the museum.    Read the rest of this entry »


Acquiring a Work of Art: Training for War

There was a beautiful full page ad that a New York dealer had placed in the magazine American Art Review of a print by William H. Johnson.  Johnson first received attention in 1929 when he won the Harmon Foundation Gold medal.  He was a well trained artist having studied at the art school of the National Academy of Design and then in France, where he took up residence in the former studio of James Abbott McNeill Whistler.  After his return from France, Johnson resided in Harlem and became part of the Harlem Renaissance culture.

Much of Johnson’s art focused on his roots in South Carolina and his life in Harlem.  His work is very colorful and expressive and often tinged with humor.  After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America went to war, Johnson produced numerous paintings and prints that explored the contributions of African Americans to the war effort.  His paintings depicted black soldiers engaged in infantry training, ammunition drills, actual battle, and war-related support services.  He focused on their heroism as well as the segregation of the armed forces with a combination of seriousness and his signature style of humor.

Training for War by William H. Johnson

Training for War by William H. Johnson

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What’s in a frame?


The IMA rarely has the luxury of reframing the paintings in its collection, since funds to pay for new frames are not readily available. A frame is an important part of a painting that serves not only to enhance the image but also to protect it.  Several paintings at the IMA have unsuitable frames that do nothing to enhance the beauty of the work and may actually detract from it.  One of those paintings is Abbott Thayer’s 1886 Still Life, a simple but lush depiction of a peony in a pewter-lined copper bowl.  This spare but dramatic still life was in a deteriorating reproduction frame that had a negative affect on the painting.

Last year the work appeared in the exhibition American Art and the East at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York.  It was seen by Eli Wilner, a leading frame dealer and restorer, who noticed that the frame did not show the painting to its best advantage.  Mr. Wilner contacted the IMA and made a proposal to reframe the painting for a minimal payment from the museum.  The IMA was being given the opportunity to obtain a museum quality frame that we would not have been able to purchase if Mr. Wilner had not offered to donate most of its cost.

A comparison of Thayer’s still life before and after reframing shows a stunning transformation in the presentation of the painting.  It is now surrounded by a frame that resembles those of the period in which it was created and one that brings out the beauty of the image.  Mr. Wilner has offered to help the IMA reframe additional paintings with his support, so we are hoping that we will be able to take advantage of this very generous offer in the future.


The next time you are visiting the IMA come to the American galleries and see the Abbott Thayer still life in its new frame and experience what the appropriate frame can do for a painting.


About Harriet Warkel

Job Title: Curator, American Painting and Sculpture

Interests: Exercise and dancing

Favorite Movies: I’m not a fan of movies.

Favorite Music: I love anything fast with a fast dance beat, but I also like “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie Titanic.

Favorite Food: The Saigon is my favorite restaurant, Goodfellows is second. So it’s not a particular food but a particular style of cooking.

Pets: None. When I was young I had fish, parakeets, canaries and a dog, which we returned to store because he had untreatable fleas. After I married, we had fish. I should have learned that fish did not survive under my care. We also had a toad that lived a long and happy life.

Something you should know about me: I never liked art when I was growing up. I would cringe when my art teacher looked at my drawings and whine when my class went to an art museum. Not until I married did my husband’s interest in art intrigue me enough to earn a degree in art history.

Harriet has written 12 articles for us.