Ahmanson to Support Huntington; Buys a Contested Thomas Cole
|Thomas Cole, Portage Falls on the Genesee, 1839. Gift of the Ahmanson Foundation. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens
The Huntington has acquired Thomas Cole's Portage Falls on the Genesee, a painting formerly on display in the small Seward House Museum in Auburn, NY. It's the first purchase of a new art acquisition partnership between the Ahmanson Foundation and the Huntington. The Foundation, of course, has long supported LACMA acquisitions of European art. But William Ahmanson sparred with LACMA's Michael Govan over Govan's plan for rotating installations of the permanent collection. In 2020 Ahmanson said: "I like Michael Govan as a person, but we're having a major difference when it comes to this… Once that wrecking ball starts to hit the building, there's no turning back and we're stuck."
There had been speculation that the Ahmanson might switch its support to the Huntington, and the new deal makes that official.
The Cole painting was a gift to William S. Seward, New York Governor and Secretary of State to Lincoln. It hung in his home-turned-museum until 2013, when the painting's owner, the Fred L. Emerson Foundation, announced a plan to sell. Like so many such cases, the issue was the painting's soaring market value. At the nadir of the Hudson River School's reputation, one 20th century appraisal put the painting's value at $100. Then about 2008 a new appraisal estimated the value at $18 million. The Emerson Foundation decided to sell, citing inadequate security and the cost of insurance. Not mentioned, but doubtless a consideration, was the Seward House's modest attendance. Auburn, well off the cultural tourism track, has a population of 26,000.
|Seward House Museum, Auburn, New York
"This is like the Louvre giving away the Mona Lisa," said Hudson River Museum director Michael Botwinick. The Seward family also objected, but the New York Attorney General ultimately approved a sale in Jan. 2019.
This spring, in an even more contested sale, the Newark Museum sold another important Cole landscape, The Arch of Nero, for just under $1 million. It's possible that would-be bidders didn't want to take part in a widely condemned sale. Even so, that price suggests that the $18 million estimate for Portage Falls was optimistic.
Fortuitously, The Arch of Nero is now on loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art—and Portage Falls will be a permanent highlight of the Huntington's American collection. The Huntington had no painting by Cole, the British-born founder of the Hudson River School. Portage Falls not only fills that gap with a first-rate work but draws a connection to the institution's British art. Cole met Constable and Turner and was influenced by their innovations in landscape painting.
|"Grand Canyon of the East," Letchworth State Park, Castile, New York
Cole's large (84 by 61 in.) autumn landscape depicts a genuinely spectacular region on the Genesee River known as the "Grand Canyon of the East." Storm clouds threaten the crass American progress encroaching on sublime nature. Easily missed is a small figure perched precariously on the cliffside at lower right. It may be a self-portrait of the artist.
Cole's student Frederick Church also painted the area. Church's smaller landscape of the Genesee River's Lower Falls is at LACMA.
For those who value the Cole painting's connection to Seward, the Huntington press release notes that the institution's Civil War collection has an extensive group of Seward letters and memorabilia, including the knife used in a failed assassination attempt on the night of Lincoln's shooting.
Portage Falls on the Genesee is to go on view Nov. 20, 2021 in the Huntington's reinstalled Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art.
|Detail with figure