PRINT March 1964

The Fleischman Collection

IT WOULD BE DIFFICULT TO RECALL a more difficult illustration of the pleasure and pain of collecting than that provided by the history of the Fleischman Collection. Lawrence Fleischman began collecting works of art while in his early twenties, his enthusiasm and taste ranging over a great variety of objects, but he collects only American Painting and American Furniture. At the same time that this interest in American Art was developing he plunged deeper into the art world, associating himself with many art organizations and becoming a member of many important museum boards. It is extraordinary that in a fifteen-year span Mr. Fleischman has been able to build what is, without a doubt, one of the major private collections in America.

The special distinction of the collection lies not only in its numbers but in the high quality of the individual paintings, their antiquity, and their uniqueness or rarity. The large majority of the paintings date from the eighteenth century down to the present day, since few earlier paintings have survived. It also contains an extraordinary number of examples from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and, at the same time, items like the pair of Copley portraits cannot be matched anywhere. Mr. Fleischman has also brought to his collection his unusual taste and the benefit of his experience in all fields of art. Where many of the collections are more minor in size than major, this one includes a remarkable number of pieces of greater importance and beauty. Major additions have come after years of waiting for a particular painting to find its way to the buyers market. Mr. Fleischman has always been ready to beg, borrow or borrow on, to obtain that certain rare specimen that will once again fill a gap in the chronology of his collection. Mr. Fleischman has been helped in the organization of the collection by his wife, Barbara, who, perhaps more than any other individual, spends the most time in its environs. Together they have acquired a unique knowledge of the collection in an area in which there are few recognized experts.

In the recent past there has been a revival of interest in American painting. The specific character and ramifications of this interest are complex and continue to challenge the art critics. Depending on the personal perspective of the critic, American art has been described as progressive or decadent, revolutionary or retrogressive. Art in America seemed to reach a great ascendancy in the decade of the 1890’s when there was a symptomatic, wide-spread restlessness and a spirit of emancipation among progressive artistic circles.

A considerable number of people today have an appreciation of American painting, not merely from the point of view of the collector of rare items, but for the idea behind it all. The result is that many forms of American painting have been rescued from oblivion and destruction and valuable private and public collections have been made. We may wonder why it has taken so long to appreciate painting so closely bound up with the early life of America. During the successive stages necessary to the evolution from one state to another, consideration of one generation might seem important to the special circumstances of its time, but by the next generation they may seem quite unimportant because a new set of circumstances has in the meantime arisen. It is only now, after many years of latent interest, that we see again paintings which possess such striking individuality. The paintings of America’s past are now on view for everyone to see its primitive beauty and tough virtuosity. Unfortunately, there is much controversy among informed people as to American painting, its European origin, terminology, and sources of inspiration, for the simple reason that comparatively little documentary evidence exists. The issues are further confused by the fact that many paintings considered to be American were in actual fact brought from Europe by the early settlers. For a long time, little or no attention was given either to the history or craftsmanship of American painting, and many who had accurate information failed to record it.

It is miraculous that the early settlers were able to record anything, let alone paint, for the country was harried by the Indians, against whom they had to be on guard constantly. American painting reflects “far off” days near the beginning of the world’s greatest human experiments when one had to possess a special kind of toughness, born of resistance to the elements, in order to survive. Determination was needed to adapt oneself to the varied conditions of life peculiar to early America. Our first paintings were directed to the necessities of life and then, only when time permitted, a little decoration was allowed to relieve the tired esthetic sense. In the earliest paintings we fancy we can see something of the character of their creators, for in spite of their various graces, there always appeared that essential toughness which was so much a part of the life which they represented. The Early American painter possessed a great deal of hope of a new life in a new country, a new expression in presenting based on the traditions and experiences of the old world but tempered by the conditions of the new.

The most revealing aspect of this collection is that the artists disclose their artistic activity in various stages. The nature of their subject matter and the intimacy and directness of the artists’ notations bring to light the most personal attributes of theme and graphic invention. Seen as a group, the paintings create the cultural atmosphere in which the artist lived and worked. Beyond their technical proficiency lies what we might call their moral strength. By this we mean that the slightest sketch is both a moral commitment and an artistic statement. The Fleischman Collection deserves our interest for intrinsic worth as works of art, as well as for the light they throw on the American scene of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. But in another important respect also, they continue to hold our attention. The artists represented cherished the best in the art of the past and also responded generously to the innovations of their contemporaries. All had faith in humanity and social progress. They viewed their art as a form of beneficial social action, and held dear the simple life of the people and their own steady labors as artists and craftsmen.

The Lawrence A. and Barbara Fleishchman Collection of American Art is receiving its only showing at the University of Arizona Art Gallery, February 1 through March 29, Tuscon Arizona.

Mr. Steadman is Director of the University of Arizona Art Gallery.