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Museum showcases vast collection

By Jennifer Greenstein Altmann

Princeton NJ -- A major exhibition of American drawings and watercolors -- all from the Princeton University Art Museum's collection -- will open this month, showcasing important works by Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O'Keeffe, Winslow Homer, Benjamin West and Thomas Eakins.


Among the more than 1,300 American drawings and watercolors that are part of the University Art Museum's collection are (top to bottom): ''Seventy Years Ago'' by Thomas Eakins; ''Narcissa's Last Orchid'' by Georgia O'Keeffe; and ''Eastern Point Light'' by Winslow Homer.

''I think it's going to come as a surprise to people in this field that Princeton has a collection of this depth and richness,'' said John Wilmerding, the Christopher Sarofim '86 Professor in American Art, one of the exhibition's organizers. ''People don't have the sense of the overall totality, the size and quality of this collection.''

''West to Wesselmann: American Drawings and Watercolors in the Princeton University Art Museum'' will be on display from Oct. 16 through Jan. 9 at the art museum.

The show, arranged chronologically, begins with West and John Singleton Copley, the so-called ''old masters'' of the late 18th century who inaugurated the academic tradition in American art with studies of allegorical and historical subjects. It includes one of the museum's most prized pieces, a sketchbook that contains more than 30 drawings by Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School.

There also are two classic watercolors by major American masters, ''Eastern Point Light'' by Homer and ''Seventy Years Ago'' by Eakins. Works from almost all the members of the Ashcan School, a group of artists who followed Eakins' teaching in seeking to capture the dynamism and grittiness of urban life, will be on display. The show concludes with abstract master Jackson Pollock and pop artists Tom Wesselmann and Claes Oldenburg.

''The exhibition starts in 1780 and goes well into the 1980s -- a solid survey of 200 years of art,'' Wilmerding said. ''It's a major occasion for Princeton and its collections.''

A comprehensive catalog

''West to Wesselmann'' is not a stand-alone exhibition. It is a celebration of the publication of a 386-page book, the first in a series, titled ''American Art in the Princeton University Art Museum, Volume I: Drawings and Watercolors.'' The book, which was written by Wilmerding with contributions by others, is a fully illustrated catalog with essays about the 77 works in the exhibition, as well as a comprehensive listing of the more than 1,300 American drawings and watercolors in the collection.

''It is a catalog of all our holdings, as well as an overview of American art history from the 18th century to the present,'' said Laura Giles, curator of prints and drawings at the museum, who helped organize the exhibition and contributed to the book. ''Many times a catalog accompanies an exhibition. This is a case where the exhibition celebrates the catalog.''

Wilmerding is a widely known expert on American art who has spent the last 40 years teaching, curating museum collections and amassing an impressive personal trove of paintings and drawings (see related story on page 3).

Three years in the making, the book traces the history of American art at Princeton, starting with one of the first American pictures in the University's collection, a full-length portrait titled ''George Washington at the Battle of Princeton,'' which was ''commissioned by the trustees of the college and was paid for with a gift of 50 guineas from Washington himself,'' according to the book. The portrait now hangs in the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall.

Princeton's department of art history and archaeology, established in 1883, is believed to have been the first of its kind in the nation, the book notes. Its founding coincided with the submission of a proposal for the creation of an art museum, which occurred during the presidency of James McCosh, who said, ''The growing taste of America seems to me to demand a means of imparting to our educated young men, some knowledge of the great artistic works of ancient and modern times.''

The book, published by the museum, includes contributions by Diana Tuite, a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, and Mark Mitchell, who earned a doctorate at Princeton in 2002 and is now assistant curator of 19th-century art at the National Academy of Design in New York. Alumnus Bailey Russel, graduate student Alison Cooney and undergraduates Katye Chung, Eric Larson and Tal Zamar also helped with research for the book.

Next year the exhibition will travel to the Musée d'Art Américain in Giverny, France; in 2006 it will appear at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Support for the exhibition and the catalog was provided by an anonymous donor and the Brown Foundation.

One work that will only be on view in Princeton is ''Narcissa's Last Orchid,'' a pastel by O'Keeffe that is too fragile to travel. She painted the white orchid, rendered in such detail that it resembles a close-up photograph, from a plant given to her by Narcissa Swift King, a longtime friend who was going out of town and didn't want to throw the fresh orchid away.

When King returned from her travels she visited O'Keeffe, according to the book, which said the account came from letters and the recollections of family members. O'Keeffe told her friend, ''Oh, look what I did with your orchid. I painted it!'' To which King replied: ''Well! That's well and good, but I notice you didn't bother to thank me for it! That's the last orchid you'll ever get from me!'' Thus, the pastel earned its title.