The Artist as Prospector

This engaging, farraginous show at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, on Fifth Avenue, invites the viewer to think of the nineteenth-century landscape artist, usually envisioned as the independent producer of a luxury artifact, as, instead, a tool of commerce and real estate development. Frederic Church, who has recently played a starring role in 2002’s traveling (London, Philadelphia, Minneapolis) megashow “American Sublime” and this year’s exhibition “Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church,” at the National Academy Museum in New York, extends his twenty-first-century revival by dominating the two other named artists in an assemblage subtitled “Tourism and the American Landscape.” Though Winslow Homer is represented by a number of amusing wood engravings and beautiful watercolors, and Thomas Moran adds his otherworldly West to the collective depiction of the relatively unspoiled American wilderness, it is Church whose heirs lodged over two thousand works in the collection of the Cooper Union Museum (as compared with more than three hundred by Homer and less than a hundred by Moran), and it is Church who, in his preternaturally deft and rapid oil sketches, most decisively places before us the thing itself, the New World’s nature.

The Cooper-Hewitt and its vast collection need some explaining, which Barbara Bloemink’s catalog introduction concisely provides. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art was founded by Peter Cooper in 1859 “in order to provide practical courses for the education and self-improvement of the working class, particularly in the trades of engineering, illustration, industrial design, architectural drawing, and painting.” Cooper, born in New York City in 1791, was himself an inventor and a hands-on industrialist, whose fortune got its start in the glue business, greatly expanded in the iron industry, eventually included more than half the telegraph lines in the United States, and was significantly invested in philanthropy and the cause of public education. Cooper Union provided night classes so that working men could attend; an existing art school for women was incorporated into the institution, “in order to provide female students with the practical skills to become self-supporting designers and art teachers.”

A committee drawn from the distinguished artists on the faculty acquired contemporary drawings “to be used for teaching purposes,” but it wasn’t until 1897, fifteen years after Cooper’s death, that his three granddaughters—Sarah Cooper Hewitt, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt, and Amelia Hewitt—founded “the first design and decorative-arts museum in the United States.” Their models were the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Victoria and Albert in London—stately grab bags whose polymorphous utility was expressed by Eleanor Hewitt at the museum’s founding: “For the worker, the source of inspiration is frequently found in the sight of an unexpected object, possibly one of an entirely different trade.” The sisters stocked their museum with buying sprees abroad; Dr. Bloemink states, “Many of the objects the sisters acquired were unusual and eclectic, reflecting an enormous range of works, from matchsafes and birdcages to wallpaper and fine …

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