Sorting through 80 Years of Taft History
~ Tamara Lenz Muente, Assistant Curator, Taft Museum of Art
The Taft Museum of Art celebrated its 80th anniversary on November 29, 2012. To commemorate the occasion, museum staff mined the archives for documents that could illustrate the history of the museum in a way never before seen by the public. I was honored to be asked to winnow down the many items into a small exhibition for the Taft’s Sinton Gallery. The exhibition, Pages of History: 80 Years of the Taft, which closed on January 6, became a wonderful grab-bag that featured photographs, letters, catalogues, and recent gifts to the Taft collection. The items told the story of the past 80 years, as well as revealed significant events before the Taft became a museum in 1932.
One of my favorite, and one of the earliest, documents in the exhibition was a rare photograph of Taft family members on the front steps of their home (fig. 1). The Taft owns many photographs and a lithograph of the house, but seeing family in their own doorway casts a personal aura around the grand house. Never before seen by the public, the image shows young Anna Sinton at left, next to her father David Sinton. Charles Phelps Taft stands on the far right. The photograph was taken in about 1871, which places it soon after Sinton purchased the residence and before museum founders Charles and Anna Taft married.
Another item that helped personalize history was an original invitation to the Tafts’ wedding. The young couple married beneath a canopy of evergreen boughs on December 4, 1873, in the Music Room of the Taft home (which is still called the Music Room today). The local press described the wedding as the social event of the year. The Cincinnati Enquirer noted that “the widowed father of the bride is perhaps the wealthiest man in the community, and the fair bride is his only surviving child; the groom is a young lawyer, of a family noted for intellectual cultivation.” Their marriage—Charles with political connections and Anna soon to inherit a fortune that would make her the wealthiest woman in Ohio—was an alliance that contributed to the greater good of their community. The Tafts became two of the most influential philanthropists in the history of Cincinnati.
The Tafts began collecting art in 1902, seeking European paintings and decorative arts, as well as Chinese porcelains. During this first year of collecting, they published a green velvet-bound catalogue which reproduced 30 paintings. Because the Tafts continually refined their collection, selling less significant works to purchase more important ones, only seven paintings from this first catalogue remained in the Taft collection when it opened to the public 30 years later.
In the exhibition, original invoices from major art dealers Duveen Brothers, Arthur Tooth & Sons, and Scott & Fowles (the Tafts only worked with the best) showed what many in our audience found very interesting—how much they paid for the art back in the early twentieth century. It is particularly fascinating that they sometimes spent less on paintings than for Chinese porcelains, which for many contemporary viewers might fade into the background as decoration in the Taft’s galleries. It’s a good reminder that the porcelains are spectacular works of art that bear close attention.
In 1927, the Tafts promised their home and art collection “to the people of Cincinnati in such a manner that they may be readily available to all.” The singular copy of an illuminated book in the exhibition provided evidence of the full extent of the Tafts’ gift to the city (fig. 2). The couple bequeathed $1 million to fund the new Taft Museum and other cultural institutions. They also stipulated that Cincinnatians had to raise $2.5 million to match their gift, establishing the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts. The hand-lettered and decorated book lists the names of the nearly four thousand citizens from all walks of life who supported the Tafts’ efforts with gifts ranging from $1 to $100,000, in total exceeding the required amount. I personally love how democratic the listing is—rather than listing by amount, as is the norm today, the book lists people and organizations alphabetically, regardless of the size of gift.
The introduction of the book states that the Cincinnati Institute of Fine Arts’ purpose was to “further the musical and artistic education and culture of the people of Cincinnati, and to that end to maintain and support schools of art, music and drama, art museums, symphony orchestras, and conduct other similar activities in connection with the fine arts….“ This fund laid the foundation for the Fine Arts Fund, now known as ArtsWave, which annually raises more than $11 milllion for Cincinnati cultural institutions. Whenever I hear the symphony, attend an opera, or even visit the zoo (which Anna Taft and friend Mary Emery purchased in 1916 to save from financial ruin), I think about how different Cincinnati’s cultural landscape would be if it weren’t for the Tafts.
In addition to illustrating how the Tafts built their collection by displaying original invoices, letters, and early collection catalogues, the show included other items representing exciting moments throughout Taft Museum history.
We discovered a few of these by accident. For example, about a year and a half ago, volunteers were working on a cataloguing project in the Taft library when they opened an old volume of The History of American Sculpture and saw a note written on the inside cover. The book had been inscribed by American sculptor George Grey Barnard, who created the Lincoln statue that the Tafts commissioned in 1910 for Lytle Park. Barnard wrote the following, just days after the Tafts formalized the commission: “To Mr. and Mrs. Chas P. Taft: If faith is more than friendship, then you are more than a friend… Lincoln loomed up in the twilight as I found your park tonight. You called him.” This glimpse into the intimate relationship between artist and patron suggests that the Tafts had personal contact with Barnard and possibly also with other contemporary artists, such as Frank Duveneck and Henry Farny, from whom they purchased art.
Another particularly thrilling discovery occurred about two years ago, when I was flipping through a 1951 exhibition file. While searching for an answer to a public query I came across a page covered with strikingly bold handwriting. The return address read “Abiquiu, N.M.,” which I knew was the home of Georgia O’Keeffe. I excitedly turned to the next page, and sure enough, there was O’Keeffe’s artfully penned signature! Though the letter simply answered an inquiry from then Taft Museum director Katherine Hanna regarding some photographs by O’Keeffe’s husband Alfred Stieglitz, it is amazing to have a document of the original handwriting of such an important American artist.
In addition to what the Taft already held in its archives, some fortuitous gifts came to the collection during the planning of the exhibition. On display for the first time in Pages of History, these pictures allowed us to highlight the earlier history of the home and family. Two pastel portraits of Nicholas (fig. 3) and Susan Longworth, made posthumously by Cincinnati artist Emma Mendenhall, paid homage to the early residents of the historic house, important arts patrons in their own time. The portraits were bequeathed to the museum by Longworth descendent Annie Wallingford Anderson.
By serendipity, another portrait that entered the Taft collection in 2012 was equally suited to Pages of History and first exhibited there. A gift from Taft descendent Malcolm Davison, this was an engaging portrait of Anna Taft’s mother Jane Ellison Sinton (fig. 4). The back story: Anna Taft had been so pleased with the portraits of herself and her husband completed by Raimundo de Madrazo Garreta in 1902 that she commissioned the Spanish artist to paint posthumous portraits of her mother and father (the one of her father, David Sinton, was already on long term loan to the Taft from another descendent). Sinton and Ellison married in 1846 and had two children, Edward and Anna. Sadly, Jane died while Anna was still a toddler, and Edward passed away at age 21, leaving Anna the sole heir to the Sinton estate. When Sinton passed away in 1900, Anna inherited the fortune that enabled the Tafts to assemble their world-class art collection.
The Taft Museum of Art is a unique place: it combines an art museum with a historic house. The history of the families who lived there are as much a part of the story as the Rembrandt, the Turners, and the Chinese porcelains that grace the Taft’s galleries. The 80th anniversary provided a terrific opportunity to focus on the historical aspects of the Taft, and to highlight how this home became one of the world’s great small art museums.