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Thursday, October 27, 2011

Yale Day Trip

On October 11th, the class traveled to New Haven to visit Yale University's Art Gallery and the Furniture Study center.  Arriving early at Grand Central (7:00 AM) we managed to get tickets, coffee, and prepare for our time in New Haven.  Yale is a trip we take each year that I am particularly fond of, even more so this year because highlights of their American collection (including John Smibert's Bermuda Group) were out on view.  The train ride from Grand Central is fairly easy and well worth the time it takes to see the museum.  In years past, because of the museum renovations, we focused on the Center for British Art and the furniture study center.  This year, with a full schedule and much to see, we never even set foot inside the Center.

Our first stop was to the Museum to see selections from the permanent collection installed (If memory serves me) on the Third Floor.  For Americanists, there is a great blend of important Fine and Decorative Art.  Highlights for the group included seeing Benjamin West's Aggripina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus from 1768.  Although a standard image in every American survey, the size and scale of the object allowed West to render a level of detail that is impossible for slides to capture.  I think it's easy to forget how good a painter he was, how much control he had, and how much he included when looking at a projection of the image.  Installed across from Copley's Mrs. Benjamin Pickman of 1763, the gallery serves as mini-survey of American painting, allowing students to see representational works by the key players of the era.   

Yale's gallery deserves a lot of credit for showing works that aren't typically seen in smaller museums, such as the charming Aesthetic Movement vignette which included a beautiful John Bennet vase.  They also display a Stickley sideboard with ceramics from Marblehead Potteries, Dedham, and Roseville.  

From the Art Gallery we headed to the furniture study center to have a silver handling session.  Although we were scheduled for about an hour of time on silver techniques, condition, and construction, the generous staff at Yale let us run over as students continued to ask questions, examine objects, and take notes.  Once the required white gloves were on, students were able to handle the objects, ranging from a mug made by silversmith John Coney from about 1710-15, to an 1880 silver ingot from the Free American Mines, to tools silversmiths use in their trade. 

Having discussed the basics of silver manufacturing, general issues of condition, and how to determine what methods were used in the making of pieces, we broke for lunch which everyone found on their own.  

Normally I have little interest in detailing my meals, but the trip to New Haven requires a break from tradition here.  For it is in New Haven, according to some food historians, that the Hamburger was born at Louis' Lunch.  Housed in a small, unassuming building on Crown Street, the menu options are limited: you're pretty much there to eat a burger.  Grilled in a proprietary gas fired contraption, the meat is served on toasted white bread, not buns.  Everything is made to order, and seating is limited.  The burger was fine, not the best burger I have ever had (and a tad undercooked), but the place oozes history and was a nice break from the outdoors.

After lunch we met up again at the Furniture Study Center for round 2: wood.  Yale provides exceptional access to the collection in a way that most Luce center installations cannot.  There's literally no barrier between the object and the viewer, and our hosts were more than happy to remove drawers so that students could see secondary wood types, better understand regional construction differences, and fully appreciate the objects.

The center's collection is arranged chronologically by type with regions typically grouped together as well. It's a stunningly obvious (at least in hindsight) way to organize furniture that makes so much sense because it allows for concentrated masses of objects that enable the viewer to pick out similarities and differences.  Distinctions between makers and regions and wood become more obvious because of the proximity and it is one of the best teaching tools available.  The collection spans from the 17th through the 20th century and includes desks, chairs, tables, clocks, bureaus, and virtually anything else one could desire.

After we finished we furniture we went back to the Art Gallery to view the current exhibition: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery Part One: We the People. On view from July 29, 2011–January 1, 2012, the exhibit is full of revelations. Smibert's Bermuda Group has never looked so clean and vibrant, and--positioned close to Copley's miniature of Reverend Samuel Fayerweather and Peter Pelham's mezzotint of Cotton Mather--forms a microcosm of the arts in Boston before 1760. In addition to the high art tradition of painting, regional and folk painting was well represented too with incredible paintings by The Beardsley Limner, Edward Hicks, and the enigmatic portrait of Roger Sherman by Ralph Earl. Even in a relatively small exhibit, Yale demonstrates a surprising amount of strength and depth to their collection: miniatures by John Trumbull, a version of Hiram Powers' The Greek Slave, a beautiful portrait by John Neagle, and a striking painting by Fitz Henry Lane.  The arrangement of the exhibition, by blending different media, and juxtaposing objects of different sizes makes for a dynamic viewing experience.  It also reinforced the context within which objects were made by causing a dialog between the prints, paintings, furniture, and silver.  Part two of the exhibition opens on January 31, 2012 and if the first installment is any indication, this will be well worth another trip up. The catalog accompanying the exhibition is beautifully done, comprehensively researched, and well worth the price.

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