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Illuminating America

The American Art Collection at the Mint Museum of Art showcases a grand portrait and reveals the secret life of a long-lost landscape

Museums are, generally speaking, quiet places, and the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte is no exception. But in the galleries of the museum's American Art Collection, that quiet masks the flurry of activity behind the scenes. "It's a busy time," says Jonathan Stuhlman, the museum's curator of American art.

Indeed, Stuhlman has his hands full, with a major new acquisition on display, a special exhibit showcasing the "identity theft" of an important Hudson River School painting, and preparations for the collection's move to a spacious new locale in downtown Charlotte in late-2010. Stuhlman came to the Mint Museum in 2006 from the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he served as curator of American art. He was attracted to the job at the Mint, he says, "because of the tremendous potential here - the chance to work on developing the collection and on reinstalling it in the new building, as well as the opportunity to put together some exciting special exhibitions for our audience." And he has not wasted any time exploring that potential, presenting two special exhibits since his arrival, with three more in the works, and overseeing a complete survey of the collection.

Exciting as the new space will be, Stuhlman is not waiting for next year to begin building the museum's holdings. The museum announced its acquisition of "St. Cecilia, a Portrait" (Mrs. Richard Crowninshield Derby) by John Singleton Copley in July and put the new addition on display almost immediately. Copley was the preeminent portrait painter in the American colonies when he moved to London in 1774; his subject, Martha Crowninshield Derby, was also an American expatriate, a wealthy woman seeking to solidify her reputation among London's social elite by commissioning a grand portrait. The result is undeniably grand, both in scale - at 92 by 58 inches, it is among the largest paintings in the collection - and in presentation. Probably responding to similar works by rival painter Sir Joshua Reynolds, Copley poses his subject as St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Wearing a white empire-waist dress, his subject plays the harp under the adoring gaze of cherubs perched on a cloud above.

Aside from the excitement of adding to the museum's collection of Colonial and Federal-era portraiture a work by one of America's early masters, the painting illustrates the international nature of American art from its earliest days. "I love the idea that it's two American expatriates working together in Europe to secure their reputations there," Stuhlman says. "I love how the painting really speaks about that dialogue between Europe and America at a very early point in time."

That interchange between Europe and America emerges in other parts of the collection as well. The landscape painters of the Hudson River School looked to European art for inspiration in composition and technique. Many studied in European academies. But, inspired by America's wilderness, they developed their own uses for Old World techniques, making landscape the focus of their art rather than a relative backdrop for it. Many of the artists were attracted to the romantic notion that the sublimity of the American landscape was enhanced by a clearer and more radiant light than shone on Europe. The Luminists, as they have come to be called, saturated their paintings with light, producing atmospherically luminous scenes.

Stuhlman found another project - an unusual special exhibit - among the museum's collection of Hudson River School paintings. One of the paintings in the museum's holdings is a 1945 gift to the collection, originally identified as "Mount Washington from Lake Sebago, Maine (1871)" by Jasper Francis Cropsey. It is an undeniably Luminist rendition of the scene, a view of Mount Washington so drenched in light that even the cows in the foreground seem to radiate.

Scholars long had questioned the painting's attribution to Cropsey, pointing out similarities to the style of Cropsey's colleague Luminist Sanford Gifford, who also painted several views of Mount Washington. Still, Cropsey's signature on the painting seemed conclusive, that is, until a routine cleaning in 2004 revealed a second signature - Gifford's - below Cropsey's. At some point, most likely between 1900 and 1930, when the painting's whereabouts are untraced, someone obscured Gifford's signature and replaced it with Cropsey's. The change was probably made to increase the value of the painting, as Cropsey was slightly better known and his paintings of more value.

Today, a special exhibit, "Identity Theft: How a Cropsey Became a Gifford," explores the process by which the Gifford painting became identified as a Cropsey and the museum's later work in uncovering the error. The exhibit places the newly reattributed painting, now identified as Gifford's "Indian Summer in the White Mountains (1862)," in context by exhibiting it alongside relevant works by both artists borrowed from other museums and private collections. This, in turn, exposes a side of museum work that members of the viewing public are rarely privy to. The exhibit, Stuhlman says, will be an extraordinary opportunity for the public to see what goes on behind the scenes at a museum.

 "On the one hand,"  Stuhlman says, "it's bringing in some really great Hudson River School paintings to the museum. On the other hand, it's really a teaching moment about the history of our painting and what goes on here." 

Besides examining the artistic evidence involved in the reattribution, including letters and other documents that explore art-historical and aesthetic questions about the artists' styles and working processes, the exhibit showcases the conservation and scientific tools involved in the attribution process, including use of black light and infrared photography to garner information about the parts of a painting that aren't visible. For Stuhlman, it's a rare opportunity to show the museum in a new light. "Hopefully we're really going to get people engaged with a wide range of ideas," he says. "Hopefully it can operate on a lot of different levels."

Even as the "Identity Theft" exhibit gathers momentum, the collection is being prepped for its imminent move to space in the museum's new 135,000-square-foot building downtown. The American Art Collection will occupy more than 6,000 square feet of display space, more than twice the size of the current space on Randolph Road. It's an exciting prospect for Stuhlman, as the new space offers endless possibilities.  

"It's an opportunity to rethink how the collection is installed and to bring out things that are currently in storage," he says. "Visitors will have access to a much richer ... and more carefully crafted experience."  

The Mint Museum of Art

2730 Randolph Road 
Charlotte, NC 28207 
(704) 337-2000

Details: www.mintmuseum.org 


10 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesdays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; closed Sundays, Mondays and major holidays