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


Anonymous said…
At least the Ahmanson Foundation is assisting another local institution, if not on Wilshire Blvd in LA than on Oxford Road in San Marino.

Meanwhile, certain benefactors of LACMA from the 1960s (such as Anna Bing Arnold or Edward Carter, much less William Ahmanson, etc) are spinning in their grave.
Anonymous said…
Michael Govan is an idiot
Anonymous said…
The Ahmanson Foundation with its good bag and cheap shoes…

The Thomas Cole is a testament to its miserliness, its pettiness, and its conservative politics.

Probably cost about $200,000, but for that low price it keeps the Ahmanson name in the local news and it advances the Ahmanson’s ideas about great art.

If the Ahmanson Foundation had any shame, it would have gone into hiding after the Mellon Foundation gave Judy Baca $5 million to complete her “Great Wall of LA.” Sadly, it now seems it’s conspiring with the Huntington to make American museums great again. The Huntington should know better…
Anonymous said…
When you are dead, you don’t spin around in graves or have the capacity to care for what is happening. The scattered atoms can’t form a conscious, let alone that of the last human that it was a part of. LACMA’s problem has been that it was too weak to say no to these big fish, the result being that they are constantly walking out whenever their will is not acquiesced. MOMA or the Met wouldn’t put up with this crap. This is actually a win a win for all parties concerned, the Ahmanson wants to have control over the future of the museum and it found a small enough collection that allows it to have that much control and LACMA freed itself from a foundation that had an outsized influence in the museum and was chaffing off other big donors.
Anonymous said…
Good bag and cheap shoes? Hannibal Lecter, right?...

As to your last paragraph, it’s a provocative, yet apt comparison — Judy Baca’s LA River Project (Mellon Foundation) and Thomas Cole’s Hudson River (the Ahmanson Foundation). In this hypothetical battle of the foundations, it does appear that the Mellon Foundation not only has more money, but it also has a more enlightened view of things.

As you probably know, the search for the origins of the Hudson River for the Hudson River School painters (Thomas Cole et al.) was in many ways a search for the true America and the true American. The so-called "Wilderness and its Waters” mythology provided Americans at the time with an active and divinely-ordained self-image, but not everyone was allowed on that mythical expedition.

By funding the completion of Baca's great wall, the Mellon Foundation seems to be directly countering the Hudson River School's conception of the river and advancing a more inclusive vision of the river as a source of American identity. Judy Baca talks about that vision here:

… As to the Huntington Museum, I am not sure it could have known better. It’s a collection for aesthetes and thus limited in how relevant it can be.

Joseph Garcin
Anonymous said…
> When you are dead, you don’t spin around in
> graves or have the capacity to care for what
> is happening.

Michael Govan, you're way too literal.

Incidentally, how's your sociopathic thinking and planning going?
Anonymous said…
"Even so, that price suggests that the $18 million estimate for Portage Falls was optimistic."

Ok, what?! Is there a Van Gogh hiding underneath that Thomas Cole? That appraiser needs to be sent back to school.