San Francisco

Thomas Sully, Rembrandt Peale, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Blakelock

Maxwell Galleries

Maxwell Galleries played museum on an ambitious scale recently in organizing and presenting at its Sutter Street showrooms an extensive cataloged exhibition of historic American painting in which a large selection of items from the firm’s own considerable inventory of American period paintings and works by late 19th-century East Coast Impressionists and West Coast Regionalists was fortified with extensive loans from the American holdings of public and private collections throughout the Pacific Coast area. While no doubt the Public Image and promotive publicity functions accruing from the prestige attendant upon such a show provided some commercial incentive—and indeed resulted in the sale of a number of items long in the Maxwell bins (including most notably a gorgeous pointillist canvas from the youthful Paris years of Childe Hassam)—this exhibition, patently costly to assemble and open without charge to the public, performed a genuine civic educational service in affording San Franciscans at least a spotty panorama of various historic and regional phases of American art, some of which are but sparsely represented in the permanent collections of local museums.

The caption American Art Since 1850 was a little overambitious without being quite literal: the dates 1875–1935 would have encompassed the preponderant bulk of the exhibition’s inventory. (Abstract Expressionism and contemporary trends, where acknowledged at all, were accorded only perfunctory, token representation which might well have been omitted altogether.) On the other hand, there was not only a catalog entry, “Cole, Thomas (1801–1848),” but also an unidentified portrait, by an anonymous primitive painter, of a country squire in 18th-century breeches, tailcoat and three-cornered hat, surrounded by hunting hounds and engaged in manipulating a ramrod in the barrel of a muzzle-loading flintlock. Finally, there was a fair sampling of works by painters such as Thomas Sully (1783–1872) and Rembrandt Peale (1778–1860), the main span of whose active careers considerably antedated 1850, and whose work reflected mainly 18th-century conventions, influence and schooling, and some primitive New England landscapes and romantic Hudson River landscapes by artists known and unknown in which style, if not actual execution, belongs more to the second than to the third quarter of the 19th century. Instructive, incidentally, as to the influences molding early post-Colonial American painting and in some degree generative of the Hudson River School, was a Rembrandt Peale copy of a Salvator Rosa landscape. Moving as well as instructive testaments to a vigorous individualism asserting itself in romantic terms in American painting were provided in outstanding canvases by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Blakelock.

However, notwithstanding a few glaring omissions (George Caleb Bingham, for example) even within the scope of its most densely represented periods, the show included, often with superb and not over-reproduced and anthologized examples, representative canvases by a majority of the most acclaimed figures of 19th-and early 20th-century American art.

Non-objective idioms generally were the most neglected: the early 20th-century section of the show was fairly strong and well-stocked with recognized names associated with the twilight of Impressionism in the first decade of the century and with the vigorous resurgence of self-conscious regionalisms in the ’20s and ’30s, but weak and riddled with omissions in the category of post-Armory Show Cubists, Synchromists and the like.

Palmer D. French