As a prominent river town, the Queen City has long been a storehouse for culture. Picture Benjamin West’s massive painting Ophelia and Laertes – 109 x 152 1/2 inches – rolled up and secured to a barge coming down the Ohio River to its purchaser, none other than Cincinnati’s Nicholas Longworth. It was the first work by a major artist to come to Cincinnati, and it is a venerable document of the city’s cultural heritage. His purchase of the Belmont (now the Taft Museum) allowed Longworth to pursue a heartfelt avocation, the development and support of the arts in Cincinnati. It was in the ballroom of Belmont that he hung the painting Ophelia and Laertes that now hangs in the Cincinnati Art Museum. According to the Taft’s former Curator of Education, Abby Schwartz, “During the years he resided at Belmont, 1830 until his death in 1863, Longworth amassed a personal art collection, assisted a number of artists financially, offered advice and letters of introduction to others, and worked toward the development of art institutions in the city of Cincinnati. Thus began a legacy of art patronage on Pike Street—a legacy which lives on into the twentieth (and twenty-first) century…”
So it was apt that the first owners of the Cincinnati Art Galleries, Randy and Michele Sandler, who opened the gallery in 1984, decided to inaugurate Panorama of Cincinnati in 1986. What a brilliant idea, given how much the city treasures its own artists. If the artists were born here or studied and worked here in the Tri-State, they qualified to be in the exhibition.
This is the 33rd year for the Panorama and it benefits the Taft Museum of Art this year. So far, this annual exhibition has raised over $750,000 in donations benefiting such organizations as the Cincinnati Art Museum, the Taft Museum of Art, the School for Creative and Performing Arts, the Cincinnati Ballet, the Cincinnati Museum Center, Cincinnati Opera and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. “We are pleased to have the opportunity to support these greater Cincinnati art institutions, which enhance the quality of life in our region and enrich the quality of our lives individually,” states David Hausrath, who purchased the Cincinnati Art Galleries from the Sandlers several years ago. He continues Panorama and the exhibit this year is a delight, with standard landscape and floral oil paintings from the nineteenth to twentieth century, a roster of varied art work by living artists allied with Cincinnati, and a number of unexpected historic gems.
Let’s start with beloved Covington, Kentucky favorite, no not Frank Duveneck, but his student Dixie Sheldon. She is far more the colorist than her famous mentor, but the times provided that. The Fauves were established in Europe by the very early twentieth-century. Sheldon’s paintings in this exhibit, all bursting with tropical fruit colors, are from 1917 into the 1920’s. Each of her paintings is lovely.
Duveneck emphasized free and expressive painting techniques and Sheldon masterfully channeled this bravura painting style. Did she make groundbreaking paintings? No, we can credit Europeans like Matisse and Picasso for that, both who worked to expand the language of modern painting in the early twentieth century. We can also credit Alfred Stieglitz’s circle of painters, including his wife Georgia O’Keefe, and Arthur Dove, John Marin, etc., for doing the same in America. Duveneck and his students were still adhering to the picturesque to some extent. Their work was not as radically informed as Matisse, Picasso, and the Steiglitz circle artists all who experimented to radically alter the picture space of a painting. Which is not to say the work by Duveneck’s circle was not fresh and a delight to the eye, but simply that these artists did not have the same rigorous modernist aims.
Two other early Cincinnati colorists are in the exhibit, Stephen Alke and Julie Morrow DeForest. Stephen Alke was born in Augusta, Kentucky and like Dixie Sheldon studied under Duveneck. He is featured in the book by Arthur Jones, The Kentucky Painter from the Frontier Era to the Great War. Alke’s Woman in Flowers is a beautiful meditation on close-valued colors; everything shimmers, and nothing jars in contrast save her violet wrap. You want to fall into the painting with its inviting mauves, blue-violets, pale robin’s egg blues, lemon yellows. DeForest’s work is so like Bonnard, a Fauvist in Cincinnati, all alla-prima (all at once painting, no layers to build up volume and shading.) If I didn’t know any better I would say Deforest sailed straight from Paris to Cincinnati to “try out” alla prima painting. She was born in New York City and trained on the East coast, so there may have been some influence though I am only speculating. She came to the Queen City in her forties with her new husband and established herself firmly within art circles including the Cincinnati Art Museum Association and the new Women’s Art Club of Cincinnati.
It is not only oil paintings that provide luster in this exhibition. There are beautiful works on paper starting with four beautiful Henry Farny paintings, three gouaches and one oil. Gouache is opaque watercolors and was a favorite of painters before the invention of acrylic paints. Acrylics are by no means a substitute for gouache; gouache is opaque, lends itself to exquisite detail and dries to a matte finish and was a medium that fine and commercial artists used widely in the first half of the twentieth century. Farny’s gorgeous small paintings include Carrying Firewood that is on the cover of the sumptuous catalog. It is both abstract and realist. The lower half is almost pure white, empty and stark, save for faint tracks in the snow. The top half is a nearly otherworldly yellow of sunset. The Indian, tepee and trees provide a narrative element in an otherwise stark color field-like painting. The Vigil, an oil on board, is haunting, a grave watcher in the snow with the wrapped bodies of the deceased elevated on long tree limbs high above the ground.
Of course Frank Duveneck is represented with two lovely small oil portraits; five Edward Henry Potthast paintings, who is famous for his colorful beach scenes, are also on display. Also come to see the wonderful Charlie Harper works, and those by Paul Chidlaw, Jack Meanwell, Robert Henri and Jens Jensen to name just a handful. There are also a good number of local living artists represented so we really do have a historic Panorama of Cincinnati’s best artists. Cincinnati Art Galleries is at 225 East 6th Street, downtown.
For more information, please call 513-381-2128.