A Note About the Collection
Even before that autumn day in 1998 when we purchased our first “American Scene” painting, Jerry Farnsworth’s Working Girl, at a relatively obscure auction in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the work of American representational painters of the Thirties and Forties had been a revelation to us. My wife and I had the good fortune of visiting the New York City gallery of the late private dealer and art scholar Janet Marqusee, who was one of only a handful of dealers who specialized in the art of the Thirties and Forties. Her stock was energetic—ripe with scenes of urban activity, boldly painted people and places depicting the heights and depths of life in America during the Great Depression and the war years that followed. Her catalogues, I quickly learned, were beacons amidst a dearth of published scholarship on the American artists of this period. A contrarian in many things, it was immediately clear to me that my own discovery of American Scene painting presented a wondrous opportunity and a concomitant challenge. Along with the chance to collect dramatically undervalued work of often astounding quality by once highly-regarded artists was the challenge to contribute in some way to a renewed appreciation of their accomplishments.
While the thrill of the chase has always been a primal motivator to collectors, it is often, at least to me, mere prelude to the real fun: uncovering what I can of the lives of the artists and, where possible, the histories behind the individual works we’ve been fortunate enough to acquire. Umberto Romano’s Katharine (Portrait of Katharine Bigelow Higgins) is a classic example. When we acquired this work it was believed to be a portrait of the artist’s wife, although no documentation was provided with the painting. An email correspondence with the artist’s son identified the true subject of the painting and led, in turn, to a fascinating email exchange with the subject’s daughter revealing astonishing details of her mother’s life, the significance of various symbolic devices within the portrait and the prior existence (confirmed by a photograph) of a companion portrait of the sitter’s husband (later destroyed by his son in an apparent fit of pique). A perusal of microfilm records from the Smithsonian Institution’s invaluable Archives of American Art and contemporary newspaper articles disclosed where and when these paintings were publicly exhibited and how they were received by critics. (For more on this post-acquisition investigation, see “A Regionalist Masterpiece Deconstructed: Unraveling the Mysteries behind a 1939 Society Portrait” in the November/December, 2008 issue of the magazine Fine Art Connoisseur). Equally fascinating is the saga of Gregory Orloff's Elephants. We acquired this painting from an elderly gentleman in Arizona who had first encountered it when it decorated his second grade classroom in suburban Chicago, rescued it from a trash heap as a fourth-grader during the demolition of his old elementary school and retained it undisturbed for the succeeding fifty-five years until we acquired it.
The forty-two artists presented in this catalogue, while only a small sampling of the thousands of unheralded artists of the American Scene movement, do cover many of its bases. There are thirty-six men and six women. Of the female artists, three were married to better-known artist/husbands to whom their own careers were largely subordinated, two were fiercely independent single women and one the self-effacing wife of a doctor for whom painting was little more than an avocation (despite her undeniable talent). Thirteen of the artists were foreign-born, though many more were sons or daughters of immigrants. While the artists hailed from many different parts of the country, the overwhelming majority of them had significant connections to New York City, then very much, as today, the hub of the American art world. While many defy strict categorization, some were predominantly urban realists (Marsh, Celentano, Farr and Fife, to name a few), several were often “social realists” (Bibel, Reisman and Turnbull, for example) and a few devout “Regionalists” (Firn, Meert, Rabinovitz, Poray and Sample, at least for portions of their respective careers). Almost half of the artists participated in the easel or mural programs of the W.P.A. and related federal programs during the Depression.
Much research remains to be done on the art and artists of the Thirties and Forties, and particularly the artists most closely associated with the American Scene movement of that period. It is my fervent hope that this online catalogue will make a contribution, however small, to that scholarship.
Arthur D. Hittner