A Treasury of AMERICAN ART

A Book Review
By: Fred Taylor

One of Florida’s hidden jewels is nestled on a quite side street in south western Daytona Beach, close to, but very far removed from, the bustle of the airport and the noise of the race track. For the last twenty-five years The Museum of Arts and Sciences has been building a collection of American decorative arts that is unsurpassed in the South. But this is not a "southern" museum. It is an American museum, displaying the works of some of the most significant artists and artisans who worked in this country from 1640 to 1900, entirely the result of private philanthropy and the extraordinary efforts of Museum Executive Director Emeritus Gary R. Libby. When Libby became Director in the late 1970s the Museum owned three examples of American art, a Tiffany punch bowl, circa 1890, a tall case clock, circa 1790 and a small landscape by Ralph Albert Blakelock, circa 1875. Today the Museum houses nearly 3,000 American items that have provided the nucleus for the growth of a major museum in the State of Florida.

Under the direction of Libby and in conjunction with such notable experts as Wendell Garrett, Nicolai Cikovsky, Cynthia Duval, Leigh Keno and David C. Swoyer, among others, the Museum has given us a tantalizing peek at over one hundred of the objects that form the heart of the American Collection in "A Treasury of American Art", a hardcover volume published by the Museum in 2003.

At first glance "A Treasury.." could be mistaken for just another "coffee table" book full of pretty pictures – which it certainly is. But that would totally miss the point. Even without the lavish illustrations, the interpretive essays by Libby and his cohorts provide an insight into the composition and evolution of the American spirit and its art that would seem complete in itself.

This striking assembly of early 19th century artifacts represents some of the best of American craftsmanship. The chair on the left, circa 1815, and the gilded stand in the center, circa 1810, are by Charles-Honore' Lannuier. The chair on the right, circa 1820, is by Duncan Phyfe.

The opening essay by Wendell Garrett, entitled "Nature’s Nation", explores how a diverse group of Pilgrims, refugees, immigrants and adventurers somehow became successful colonists in a land so entirely alien from anything then known in the Old World. And in becoming successful colonists, they became, eventually, Americans, with their own interpretation of the world and its art. Then Nicolai Cikovsky jumps in with "The Art Spirit" to further explain the evolution of the American art psyche and how it has expressed it self in a variety of forms from the painfully untutored to the surprisingly sophisticated.

But then the good stuff starts. What follows is the display, in high resolution color photography, of some truly remarkable objects, each one carefully analyzed, interpreted, placed into context and explained in depth by Libby, Duval, et. al.

The very first color plate illustrates an oak chest, circa 1640, called a "Tulip and Aster" chest for its stylized floral motif. A gift of Kenneth Worcester Dow and his wife Mary Mohan Dow, the chest illustrates the elegantly simple utilitarian virtues prized by the Pilgrims. In his informative exposition of the chest Libby gives us some back-ground on the Pilgrims that many may not be familiar with. Another artifact, also a Dow gift, a small Queen Anne desk on frame, circa 1720-1740, demonstrates the plainer side of Queen Anne styling favored by Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough who was a close friend of Anne, according to essayist Cynthia Duval.

Holly Keris, the Curator of Collections and Registrar at the Museum provides us with an insight into the art of Samuel F. B. Morse. His disappointment in his painting led to the abandonment of the art and opened the way for Morse’s development of the telegraph. His "Portrait of a Matron in a Tignon" reflects his early desire to bring the style of the European grand masters to portraiture in America. And David C. Swoyer’s explanation of John James Audubon’s work "Townsend’s Bridled Weasels" gives us a great personal history of the artist and points out the changes in the work itself, revealed by a pentimento, as Audubon changed his mind about the composition.

Libby provides the back-ground material for two paintings of St. Augustine in the late 19th century, one by C. Grafton Dana (1843-1924) and one by Frank Henry Shapleigh (1842-1906). Both artists eventually lived in the city and painted its scenes many times.

Also pictured are works in the Museum by Tiffany, Frederic Remington, Duncan Phyfe, Anthony Quervelle, John Jelliff, Charles-Honore’ Lannuier and an entire host of American artists, some famous, some less so, some anonymous but all important in the overall theme of American art.

As wonderfully done as is "A Treasury of American Art" it can give us but a small taste of what the Museum actually has to offer - but it is an excellent taste that certainly will whet the appetite.

"A Treasury of American Art" can be purchased directly from The Museum Store, The Museum of Arts & Sciences, 1040 Museum Blvd. Daytona Beach, FL 32114. 386-255-0285, ext.23. For more information visit the Museum website at http://www.moas.org/publications_1.html

By Gary R. Libby
The Museum of Arts and Sciences
Daytona Beach, Florida
Hardcover, 230 pages, color
ISBN 0-933053-07-X

About the author:

Fred Taylor's new book "HOW TO BE A FURNITURE DETECTIVE" is now available for $18.95 plus $2.00 S & H. Send check or money order for $20.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
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