An Artful Life: The Baker/Pisano Collection of Late 19th-Century American Art

BY D. FREDERICK BAKER

When Ronald G. Pisano and I began to frequent New York galleries, private dealers, and auctions in the early 1970s, in-depth research on American art and artists was pretty much in its infancy. Few universities had art history programs geared to American art, and the market was still fluid in terms of ordering artists on any hierarchical scale related to importance or value. In short we were on our own. Collecting was at times both frustrating and exhilarating, and certainly not dull. We met many colorful characters along the way, and came to know the “ins and outs” of collecting and the gentle, and sometimes not so gentle, foibles of other collectors, dealers, artist descendants, scholars, and curators. Collecting demanded full attention to detail and sometimes quick decision making; and we came to know the difference between simply accumulating and collecting with a point of view to achieve a cohesive and focused collection of American art. In short, it was a great adventure.

An ongoing work in progress, the collection slowly evolved into two areas, connected by the work of William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)1: one area included work of Chase’s students, among them, among them Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Charles Sheeler and Marsden Hartley, reflecting the role of American art in the early twentieth century as it evolved under the general rubric of abstraction; the other was composed of work from the late nineteenth century by New York based Chase and the friends with whom he associated during his long and distinguished career, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, and Louis Comfort Tiffany, among them. It is from this area selections have been made to create An Artful Life: The Baker/Pisano Collection of Late 19th-Century American Art at the Long Island Museum, Stony Brook, until May 26, 2013.

The exhibition is also about the art of collecting art, which has changed little over the centuries. Isabella Stewart Gardner, the nineteenth-century doyenne of Boston collectors confessed, “I’ve got the picture habit. It’s as bad as the whiskey habit.”2 However, added to this addictive need to buy art is the joy of the hunt and the rush of discovery, a kind of opiate that can smooth the fractious course of life.

Fig. 1: William Merritt Chase (1849–1916)
A Subtle Device, 1880
Oil on canvas
11⅝ x 15¼ inches
Chase is sitting in an improvised tent to ward off mosquitoes
The Heckscher Museum of Art, Baker/Pisano Collection

Fig. 2: Edwin Austin Abbey (1852–1911)
Sketching at East Hampton, 1878
Watercolor and gouache on paper
11¼ x 17 inches
Seated (l. to r.) Arthur Quartley, F. Hopkinson Smith
The Heckscher Museum of Art, Baker/Pisano Collection

Fig. 3: Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907)
Robert Louis Stevenson, 1887–88
Electrotype with bronze patina
11¾ inches (diameter)
The Baker/Pisano Collection, New York

Fig. 5: Edith Mitchill Prellwitz (1865–1944)
Young Woman with a Rose, ca. 1895
Oil on canvas
18 x 18 (rondel)
The Baker/Pisano Collection, New York

Fig. 4: James Carroll Beckwith (1852–1917)
A Ray of Sunlight,
Oil on panel
8½ x 6¼ inches
The Heckscher Museum of Art, Baker/Pisano Collection

The American art scene of the late nineteenth century was enlivened by the arrival of American art students from their studies in Europe. Interest in The Hudson River School painters was on the decline, and artists trained in the schools of Paris and Munich were bent upon making their mark. But collecting contemporary American art during the last decades of the nineteenth century was not wide spread; to the dismay of American artists at the time, American collectors were besotted with European artists. The French artist Jacque-Emile Blanch would later complain: “Soon that appealing figure, the modest picture collector, will be crushed by the stampede of irresponsible American millionaires or the new industrial aristocracy from Germany and Russia.”3 Chase and his friends had to scramble to make a living, doing so by putting their work on exhibition wherever and whenever they could, opening their studios to potential collectors, and seeking publicity in joining the seemingly unlimited number of art clubs and various art organizations springing up.
Fig. 6: Irving R. Wiles (1861–1948)
The Peconic Art Colony, ca, 1912
Oil on canvas
20½ x 27½ inches
Images (l. to r.): Edith Prellwitz, Gladys Wiles, Henry Prellwitz, Edward August Bell (possibly), Mrs. Wiles, Julia Overton Bell, Charles Bittinger.
The Long Island Museum, Baker/Pisano Collection

The keystone of the Baker/Pisano collection is William Merritt Chase’s A Subtle Device (Fig. 1), painted on the third summer painting expedition of the short-lived Tile Club to Sands Point, Long Island, in 1880.4 Purchasing the work served as the wellspring of an effort to not only research the origins and life of the club, but to search for art by other Tile Club members.5 The Tile Club was the earliest plein-air sketching club in America, made famous by a number of articles and books, starting with the January 1879 issue of Scribner’s Monthly6 and culminating in the 1887 publication of A Book of the Tile Club, designed by club member Stanford White.7 When purchased at auction, A Subtle Device bore the fugitive signature of Alfred Stevens, which after cleaning came off, revealing remnants of the original signature “Briareaus”—the Tile Club sobriquet of William Merritt Chase. The work of another Tile Club member, Edwin Austen Abbey, was also an important addition to the collection. Sketching at East Hampton (Fig. 2) was painted in 1878, during the first Tile Club summer sketching trip to Long Island. The artists described East Hampton as a veritable “painter’s gold-mine, all bits and nuggets,” celebrated in several plein-air paintings and dashingly recorded in Abbey’s painting in grisaille.8

It was during a visit to New York in 1887, that the renowned novelist and poet, Robert Louis Stevenson, whose play “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was playing on Broadway, met Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the introduction having been arranged by their mutual friend, the artist Will H. Low. Stevenson was frail and bedridden, the consequence of having tuberculosis. Saint-Gaudens completed several sketches of Stevenson during subsequent visits, which were the basis of his most popular bas-relief of the novelist/poet, completed that same year (Fig. 3). To the left of the sitter, Saint-Gaudens included Stevenson’s poem Underwoods, which he had dedicated to Low. Two years later, Saint-Gaudens reworked his relief into a circular medallion, including 11¾ inch versions, which were sold at Tiffany’s in New York and Doll and Richards in Boston.9

Fig. 7: Maurice Prendergast (1858–1924)
Recess, ca. 1896
Monotype on paper
5¾ x 8⅝ in.
The Baker/Pisano Collection, New York

Fig. 8: Winslow Homer (1836–1910)
Watching the Surf, 1883
Watercolor on paper
11¼ x 19½ inches
The Baker/Pisano Collection, New York

Fig. 9: Cecilia Beaux (1855–1942)
Portrait of Richard Watson Gilder
Oil on canvas
47 x 35 inches
The Baker/Pisano Collection, New York
The phalanx of American artists in France during the last few decades of the nineteenth century is well recorded. Among them were J. Carroll Beckwith and Edith Mitchill, who would later marry Henry Prellwitz. Beckwith, along with his roommate, John Singer Sargent, studied with Carolus-Duran, and later at the École des Beaux Arts. Known for his formal portraits, Beckwith’s more intimate work, A Ray of Sunlight (Fig. 4), is a study in perspective and back-lighting. It was included in the 1892 retrospective of his work at the Society of American Artists. Edith Prellwitz studied at the Académie Julian, a rowdy Paris art school that admitted women. Her painting Young Woman with a Rose (Fig. 5) was found among the nearly entire life’s work of both she and her husband stored in a double studio next to their summer home on the North fork of Long Island, overlooking Peconic Bay. The work is dated to the year in which she and her husband moved to Peconic, near the summer home and studio of Irving R. Wiles, and they both appear in Wiles’ group portrait The Peconic Art Colony (Fig. 6), an informal group of artists who were neighbors.

But while the work of Wiles, stemming in part from his study in Paris under Carolus-Duran and at the Académie Colarossi, remained tethered to the nineteenth century, the later work of Maurice Prendergast—with nearly the same life dates and who also studied at the Académie Colarossi—reflects his having evolved into an important early 20th century modernist. It was during these years in Paris (1891–1894) that he began working in monotype, surely becoming the most prolific and one of the most successful artists to take up the process. His monotype Recess (Fig. 7) dates to ca. 1896. As Prendergast also studied at the Académie Julian where there was an active American student contingent engaged in “making” monotypes, his interest in the medium was surely encouraged, if not inspired, by fellow students.10

Fig. 10: Childe Hassam (1859–1935)
Ein Mahler, 1892
Watercolor on paper/menu
4½ x 6 inches
Said to be a portrait of William Merritt Chase.
The Heckscher Museum of Art, Baker/Pisano Collection

Fig. 11: Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933)
Oranges on a Tree Branch
Watercolor on paper
5⅛ x 3⅛ inches
The Heckscher Museum of Art, Baker/Pisano Collection
Winslow Homer is arguably one of the most important American artists of the late nineteenth century, and certainly the quintessential American watercolorist of his generation. In 1883, having returned from a nearly two year stay in Tynemouth, located on the North Sea, England, Homer and his brother Charles decided to settle in Prout’s Neck, Maine, said to resemble Tynemouth. Watching the Surf (Fig. 8) is a work dated that first year Homer spent at Prout’s Neck. Much has been written about Homer and the sea, with various competing metaphors galore, but what is certain is Homer’s complete mastery of the watercolor medium.

Richard Watson Gilder (1844–1909), editor of Scribner’s Monthly, later renamed The Century Magazine, was a benevolent friend of American art and artists, supporting their work, and employing many as illustrators. He was married to Helena de Kaye (1846-1916), one of the founders of the Art Students’ League and the Society of American Artists. Together they were an indomitable force on the American art scene of the late nineteenth century. One of their closest friends was Cecilia Beaux who painted several portraits of the Gilder children and two paintings of the family patriarch, Portrait of Richard Watson Gilder (Fig. 9), the first given to his son Rodman (National Portrait Gallery), the second to his two daughters who had prevailed upon their friend Miss Beaux to make a replica for them, and from whose descendents the work was acquired for the collection.11

Throughout the history of late nineteenth century American art, there are references to many art clubs and societies, some short lived, others still active today. Stories of excursions and other art adventures abound, including what seems to have been a variety of different celebratory dinners. On a Monday evening in February, 1892, a gala dinner was held in the Recital Room at Music Hall (Carnegie Hall) to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the building of the American Fine Arts Society—located on 57th Street between 7th Avenue and Broadway (now home to the Art Students’ League). Childe Hassam painted a portrait Ein Mahler (Fig. 10) on the dinner menu, which was then signed by thirty-three attendees, including Hassam, Chase, Robert Reid, Carroll Beckwith, Irving R. Wiles, Francis D. Millet, Otto Bacher and H. Siddons Mowbray. On the menu of another dinner (unidentified as to the occasion or date) Louis Comfort Tiffany painted Oranges on a Tree Branch (Fig. 11) which was also signed, in this case by twenty-two artists at the affair, including F. S. Church, Hassam, Chase, Arthur B. Frost, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, J. F Cropsey, and Bruce Crane. Both of these signed menus were acquired from the grand-daughter of Lewis Fraser, Art Manager of The Century Magazine and presumably at both of the dinners.

Fig. 12: James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903)
Saint Paul’s (Cathedral), ca. 1885
Brown in wash on paper
8⅞ x 7⅜ inches
The Baker/Pisano Collection, New York
Looming over much of the American art scene during this time was James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Colorful, irascible, and a confirmed expatriate, Whistler, though he spent considerable time in Paris and its environs, lived for the most part in London, where he completed St. Paul’s (Fig. 12), ca. 1885. The work was originally owned by the English artist and Whistler sycophant, Mortimer Mempes, and illustrated in his paean, Whistler as I Knew Him, in which he described Whistler’s process in its making, “The feather end of the quill pen was used as a brush for the washes.”12

Assembled over nearly forty years, the Baker/Pisano collection remains an ongoing work in progress.

Ronald G. Pisano (1948–2000) authored several books on Long Island artists, and the definitive study of The Tile Club, which was the basis of a 1999 exhibition at The Long Island Museum. For over thirty years he worked on the catalogue raisonné of William Merritt Chase, which was completed by D. Frederick Baker, with the assistance of Carolyn K. Lane, in four volumes published by Yale University Press (2006–2010). Each volume was featured in articles written by Mr. Baker for Antiques & Fine Art Magazine.

1. Chase was the subject of Ron Pisano’s master’s thesis from the University of Delaware. It formed the basis of the exhibition “The Students of William Merritt Chase,” which he organized for The Heckscher Museum and The Parrish Art Museum in 1973.

2. Quoted in “There’s no gain without loss at the Gardner,” The Art Newspaper, Issue 231 (online), January 11, 2012.

3. Ann Dumas, “Degas and the Collecting Milieu,”
The Private Collection of Edgar Degas, exh. cat., (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1997), 110.

4. Ronald G. Pisano, The Tile Club and the Aesthetic Movement in America, (New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1999).

5. The collection of works by and related to The Tile Club, eventually totaled 17 works, including 5 club tiles and a painted plate (Heckscher Museum of Art).

6. William Mackey Laffan, “The Tile Club at Work,” Scribner’s Monthly, XVII, No. 3 (January 1879), 401–409.

7. F. Hopkinson Smith and Edward Straham [Earl Shinn], A Book of the Tile Club (New York, Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1887).

8. William McKay Laffan and Edward Straham [Earl Shinn], “The Tile Club at Play,” Scribner’s Monthly, XVII, No. 4 (February 1879), 471.

9. John H. Dryfout, “The Work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens” (University Press of New England 1982), 34.

10. Joann Moser, “Singular Impressions: The Monotype in America (Smithsonian Institution Press 1997), 17.

11. “Cecilia Beaux: Portrait of an Artist” Exhibition catalogue (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts 1974), 121.

12. Mortimer Mempes, Whistler as I Knew Him (London, Adam and Charles Black, 1904), ix, illus. fp.xviii.
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