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"American Stories" at Vassar's Lehman Loeb Gallery

by Carola Lott
Wed Feb 3rd, 2016

"The Approaching Storm, Newburgh New York" by Clarence Kerr Chatterton

In 1864 Matthew Vassar bought over 300 paintings that formed the personal collection of Elias Lyman Magoon. These works – for the most part contemporary landscapes and genre scenes - form what is known as the Founding Collection for the Art Center. Some of them are on display in the museum’s permanent galleries. Others, however, are in storage in the Art Center’s vault and seldom seen by the public.

Fifty nine of these paintings comprise “American Stories 1800 – 1950 which has just opened at the Lehman Loeb Art Center. The exhibition is divided into three sections: People, Places, and Moments.

In the first gallery devoted to people are a collection of portraits, the most notable of which is “Portrait of a Man” by John Singleton Copley painted in 1781. It depicts a clean shaven pleasant looking man with powdered hair, a plain brown coat and white stock. His forehead is much paler than the rest of his face whose ruddy glow suggests that he spends much of his time out of doors. 

Like most early American portraits, it would fit appropriately in one of moderately sized rooms of early Federal houses. Later portraits in the collection are larger such as James Henry Wright’s enormous full length portrait of  Matthew Vassar painted in 1861. He is shown walking with his dog Tip on his Poughkeepsie property Springside. Behind him one can discern a view of the Hudson River.

The second gallery is devoted to landscapes - lesser known works of the Hudson River School as well as later works. Most notable are several paintings by Clarence Kerr Chatterton, a professor of art at Vassar from 1915 to 1948. Chatterton became a friend of Edward Hopper when they were fellow students at the New York School of Art.  Hopper’s influence is evident in these paintings especially “White House on the Maine Coast,” probably painted in Kennebunkport where the two artists often painted together. One can also see Hopper’s influence in the dramatic “The Approaching Storm, Newburgh New York.”  As storm clouds gather children in white dresses happily rollther hoops on the lawn above a house overlooking the river. 

The third gallery is devoted to narrative or genre paintings, works that often carried a moral or social message. Typical is “Caught I the Act” by Tompkins Matteson that depicts a kitchen who is punishing a fat boy who has broken a pot of jam in an attempt to steal it to steal it. I prefer “Study for Theodore Roosevelt’s Cabin Door” by Richard La Barre Goodwin a trompe l’oeil painting of the entrance to Roosevelt’s ranch house in Medora ND hung with his rough rider hat, shotgun, cartridge bag and an number of mallards that he must have shot that morning.