At Concept Art Gallery – In Search of the Balance Between Aesthetic Proclivity and Scientific Objectivity

From Basilius Besler’s book “Hortus Eystettensis”

Among the mediocre auctions of 2009, Yves St Laurent estate auction was the most invigorating and discussed one. It proves glamor and connoisseurship are fail-proof recipes of successful sales. Quite often, single estate sales bring out the personalities and tastes of collectors up to the front; thus adding additional tangible values to the pleasure of owning things.

Not every collector can achieve such legendary status as Laurent or Sackler, yet their sharpened connoisseurship and distilled knowledge in their specialty make the complete offering of their treasure a materialistic presentation of their refined aesthetics . Such are the cases of Elinor Gordon, whose outstanding porcelain collection will be offered at Sotheby’s, or Judge Buchanan, whose small yet selected American paintings collection beat the expectation at Heritage last year. The outstanding results from these single estate sales are a manifestation that collecting IS a personal experience, which favors the intangible values of astuteness, erudition and passion, that can be transferred to the next owner through objects.

On Feb 20, Concept Art Gallery is offering the collection of James White, the head curator at the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon for three decades. This group of paintings and furnishings represents his appreciation for the fine arts and his background in botanical science.

Here is a short biography of James White from the press release of Concept Art Gallery:

A native of Johnson City, Tennessee, James received his B.A. (1963) and M.S. (1968) at East Tennessee State University. After moving to Washington, D.C., in 1969, he continued to take courses in botany and art at George Washington University and the Corcoran School of Art. With his astute eye for quality, he often assisted his close friend, George J. McDonald (1924–1998), in compiling an important collection of 19th-century American still-life paintings, many of which were part of the Hunt Institute exhibit Still-Lifes and Nature Studies from the George J. McDonald Collection (1984). James later acquired several paintings and furnishings from the estate of George McDonald, who was the proprietor of an art gallery on Capital Hill in Washington, D.C.

While living in Washington, D.C., James was Supervisor of the Herbarium Services Unit at the Department of Botany at the Smithsonian Institution (1969–1978). While working there he often would find original botanical artworks in the same drawer as herbarium specimens, and his fascination for botanical art was forged. In 1978 James received the award for 10 years of outstanding service from the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

James joined the Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation at Carnegie Mellon University in 1978 as Assistant Curator working with Curator of Art John Brindle. In 1979 James also became a Research Associate in the Section of Botany of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, and in 1982 he became Curator of Art and Senior Research Scholar at the Hunt Institute following Brindle’s retirement, holding both positions until 2009. For thirty years, he curated the Hunt Institute’s art collection and numerous exhibitions (including the globally recognized, triennial International Exhibition of Botanical Art & Illustration), and he contributed many articles for Hunt Institute publications.

James was president of the Greater Pittsburgh Museum Council (1999–2003) and also was an honorary director or member of numerous florilegium and botanical art societies around the world. In 2007 he received the American Society of Botanical Artists’ Award for Excellence in the Service of Botanical Art in recognition of his outstanding work in support of botanical art and his contributions as a founding member of this national organization.

It is not surprising that the strength of this auction sale lies in the quality of botanical art including fine prints, works on paper and oil paintings.

The first 28 lots are a variety of prints of herbs and flowers (with a few exceptions of birds). Although targeted for the masses, these prints are rare due to the limitation of the technology. Early prints, praised for their accuracy in scientific illustrations, are now appreciated for their quality of fine-drawing and delicate color-rendering by hand. It is noteworthy that all early prints in the sale were not made in America because the early history of science in America is but an extension of the history of science in Europe. Lot 6 features a hand colored copper engraving from Basilius Besler’s book Hortus Eystenttensis (Garden of Eichstätt), one of the earliest documentation in botany in grand scale. Compared to the awkward woodcut, copper engraving is well suited to scientific illustration, especially when handled by capable hands. In the first edition, there are two versions produced: black and white for use as a reference book, and a luxury version without text, printed on quality paper and lavishly hand-colored. According to the description, this one, although with a later hand-coloring, belongs to the first edition whose total number only mounts to 300.

Bryant Chapin found the beauty in the decaying of apples

If the advantage in science and technology gave European prints much more favorable spots, Mr. White favored indigenous painters for oil paintings. Although not an encyclopedic assembly of still life painters nor a complete enumeration of domestic or exotic fruits, White’s collection of American still life paintings reflects his kinship to the prudish and balanced designs and his embrace of brilliant colors of natural wonders. Most of the American still life paintings in this sale fall into the period between the civil war and WWI, a category which is more affordable than that of the federal period or impressionistic works. But more importantly, the realistic naturalism dominated in this period, i.e. never obsessed with paint and texture, possesses the dual quality of fine art and illustrative perceptibility, a key factor for a connoisseur with a scientific background.

George William Whitaker’s still life

A group of Bryan Chapin’s works represents his two different styles in still life. Lot 80 to 82 feature close-up rendering of fruits on the ground with a generalized green landscape in the background, a revival of Pre-Raphaelite style from the 1860’s. His treatment of the grassy and dirty area is very painterly: not much to see, yet soft enough to feel. The light covers just part of the fruit set while leaving a few receding into the dim nature. I have found these pictures very subtle and intimate. Lot 81 showcases the conventional tabletop composition. In particular, the finely-observed patterned table edge and the hazed reflection on the table top – hallmarks of his mentor Robert Spear Dunning – disclose his affinity to the Fall River school.

A group of 19th century Rhodes Island painters, all directly or indirectly associated with the Fall River school, are represented with their still life paintings in the sale. George William Whitaker was born in Fall River, Ma, and developed an art community in Rhodes Island. Although the “dean of the Providence painters” was primary known for his landscape paintings in Barbizon tradition, he was also prolific in still life paintings. His sense of colors is vividly shown in lot 208, a fairly large canvas which projects a group of warm-toned fruits and vegetables and a bottle of beer under soft light.

Edward Leavitt’s painting at Brandywine River Museum (partial)
Edward Leavitt’s painting offered in the auction

Another Rhodes Island painter, Edward C. Leavitt had also a Fall River lineage. Studied after James Morgan Lewin, a painter of the Fall River school, he went on to become the Rhodes Island’s most successful still life painter of the 19th century. Quite often, Leavitt used a long horizontal format (like lot 139) to accentuate a more decorative oriental aesthetic, with sumptuous colors and an opulent overtone. (In the Brandywine River Museum, one of his best still life paintings displays a variety of objects sprawling under romantic moonlight. )  Dated in 1901, the painting is more introvert than his typical floral paintings: The staged light plays with the lush strawberries and creates a strong pattern of light and shade.

Gigantic red lobster painted by John Clinton Spencer

John Clinton Spencer, another Providence painter, studied briefly with Leavitt. Spencer painted both games and fruits paintings under staged light. In particular, lot 193 features a red lobster, which seems to be his specialty. This painting, measured 19 by 23 inches, makes it a fine demonstration of his inside-out anatomical knowledge in the specie. Yet I am wondering whether one would appreciate the fine quality of the painting without being intimidated by this larger-than-life close-up depiction of the lively monster.

Mr. White’s fondness of still life with scientific objectivity extends to his selection of contemporary works. Lot 95, a still life of grapes, pear and plum by Indian artist Jaggu Prasad was meticulously painted and masterfully composed. The photo-realistic quietude together with a dimensionless floating surface has a psychological implication that seems to venerate the smooth surface of fruits beyond the edibility. Our search of familiarity becomes futile because our eyes are deprived of any supporting ground that has the gravity, color or texture to rest the eyes. Instead, here, we are forced to see the objects with elevated sensibility – a tradition carried on from those 19th century still life painters – for the pleasure from the pursuit of truth and beauty.

Jaggu Prasad’s still life of Grapes, Pear, and Plum

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


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