MUSEUM AT A GLANCE: Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire

While I love my hometown of Los Angeles, there are times when the east coast (and higher education) calls.  I left my city of palm trees, enviable weather and “Carmageddon” for the lush greenery, actual city planning and distinct vocal accents of the eastern part of the country.  As part of my east coast tour on the way back to Swarthmore College outside Philadelphia, I spent several days in New Hampshire and decided to revisit the Currier Museum of Art, a small but distinguished art collection in Manchester.  (I have previously written a review of a show at the Currier Museum, which can be read here.)

(archnewsnow.com)

The Currier specializes particularly in art and furniture from around the Revolutionary War period.  It also contains a lovely collection of glassware, including some pieces by Tiffany, a brief survey of European art, and a small collection of works by modern and contemporary painters.  While it does not have the awe-inspiring scope or clout of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, or Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, it does contain several gems by well-known artists. I decided to tackle the museum’s permanent collection this time around, and, for a change of my usual pace, started on the museum’s second floor and worked my way down. 

The majority of the permanent collection structured around a central atrium, with two floors of balcony-galleries fitted with columns, and connected rooms holding the museum’s permanent collection of American art (with a focus on New England) from the 18th through the early 20th centuries.  The layout is square and symmetrical and easy to navigate.  Despite the small scale of the museum, each gallery is well-appointed and well-lit, with furnishings that either subtly emphasize the works on display or merely serve as a nondescript backdrop for the works themselves.

The first set of works I took in was a balcony gallery of paintings that was hung, salon-style, in many rows on the wall.  The gallery displayed a variety of subjects: portraits, nature scenes, and still life works, in a variety of styles and skill levels.  On a museum-appreciation note, it’s interesting for me to see artworks displayed in the once-common salon style, and it makes me glad that painting exhibition styles have changed over the years.   There are no true “masterpieces” in this gallery—salon style is not ideal when you want to highlight one painting over others.  This salon-style balcony is punctuated by a Neoclassical sculpture of an anguished Pompeiian girl by Randolph Rodgers; the work weds graceful motion with a sense of pain and urgency.

A view of the salon-style gallery from the second floor.  Photograph by the author.

The adjacent room juxtaposes furniture and silverware from the 18th and 19th centuries with various portraits from the same time period.  A Gilbert Stuart portrait notwithstanding, these works are largely by lesser-known, less technically skilled artists. These flat, delineated portraits occasionally veer into almost modern-looking semi-abstraction, but are otherwise not particularly notable. The furniture and tables are lovely, however, with gorgeous intricate inlaid flowers and plants and exquisite carvings.

Moving around the corner to the next balcony gallery (directly across from the salon-style gallery), I came upon my favorite work in the museum:  John Singer Sargent’s portrait of “Grace Elvina, Marchioness Curzon of Kedleston” (reproduced below), dating from 1925.  I happen to love Sargent for his breezy, descriptive touch with the brush and the way he makes his subjects seem full of movement, vitality and personality. Sargent is unreservedly one of my favorite painters and this large work, which depicts a society lady bedecked in pearls glancing teasingly at the viewer, is a true gem.  

(currier.org)

This gallery is less stuffed than its counterpart across the atrium; it contains just a few more paintings and several small bronze sculptures of nude mythological figures. The rest of the paintings, which comprise impressionist-style works by Childe Hassam and Edmund Tarbell, are also enjoyable.  The hallway is capped off with a double portrait by William Merritt Chase, “Portrait of Master Otis Barton and his Grandfather” (1903), depicting a boy and his grandfather.  The work painted with a breezy touch similar to the Sargent work on the other end of the hall.  The execution is half successful—while the grandfather seems to emanate a stern-but-wise character, the titular boy is idealized and rather milquetoast.

Around the corner to the small balcony leading to the stairs, an unexpected delight came in the form of “Mary Ann with her Basket”.  The work, painted by Robert Henri and dating from 1926, is a Franz Hals-esque portrait of a young girl described in loose, vigorous brush strokes.  Her hands are almost crude sketches, the flesh of her face is warm and rosy, and her gleaming eyes are moist, as if the paint has not yet dried.

The next room proper, mirroring the previous furniture room directly across from it on the other side of the atrium, pairs yet more furniture with some still lifes and landscapes. While this room does contain one small Bierstadt, some Coles and a Church, it is otherwise not particularly interesting unless you like early American furniture.  However, if you walk through this room to a small corner room by the elevator, you will find a lovely collection of a collection of small-scale nature- and seascapes.  These works are by lesser-known artists, but some of the seascapes in particular make excellent use of light.

After my detailed study of the second floor’s offerings, I made my way down to the first floor, which, in addition to rooms located around the atrium, also contains small wings off the main lobby.  Lining the hallways to the wings, just past the entrance, is the Currier’s exquisite glass collection.  Paperweights, vases, goblets, and candlesticks—a variety of glassmaking styles are on display. 

Moving onto the Modern Art section, I was immediately greeted by another Currier gem, a 1925 Edward Hopper, “The Bootleggers”, depicting men sailing away from a house on a coastline.  The mood of the painting is striking—the use of light in the transition from afternoon to evening creates a disquieting effect, which is fitting considering the illicit nature of the work the men are doing.  Adjacent to the Hopper is a William Zorach from 1917, titled “Plowing the Fields, Plainfield, New Hampshire”.  I am not familiar with Zorach, but this semi-abstracted pastoral landscape scene, with its deep green, and oddly orange and pink hills, made it stand out early on.

Deeper in the modern section, I came across a strange George O’Keefe from 1932,  “Cross By the Sea”.  It depicts exactly what the title indicates, and is not recognizable as by the artist’s hand unless you read the placard.   In terms of traditional masterworks, a highlight of the modern action is the Picasso on display: “Woman Seated in a Chair”, from 1941.  The work is what many people would think of as a classic Picasso: this brightly colored painting is abstracted into blocks and cubes.  Adjacent to the Picasso is a small bronze Matisse, depicting a thick-hipped, powerfully built reclining woman. 

Across from the Modern wing is the European room.  The European collection of the Currier is rather small, which is not surprising—the museum is clearly more geared towards amassing an idiosyncratic collection of Revolutionary-war era, American art rather than attempt to compete with nearby larger museums in terms of pure scope.  Eras of European art spanning the Gothic to the French Impressionists are set up in alcoves, providing a general survey of trends in European art for the curious, time-pressed art historian.  This room greets you with a strangely moody Monet outdoor scene, and a small, quaint Corot landscape, with the older works located near the back of the room.

In the Italian Renaissance alcove in the European art collection also contains a “Madonna and Child” from the circle of Perugino, as well as a technically interesting Madonna and Child by Benedetto da Maiano.  I found this polychrome terracotta work intriguing because it blurs the line between relief and sculpture in the round.  The standing figure of the Madonna is nearly fully realized and only attached to the pseudo-niche she is set in on a small part of her back.  Also in this alcove is a surprisingly wonderful work by Mattia Pretti, from c.1660, depicting the martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew.  The work (reproduced below) has a clear Caravaggesque quality: it’s dramatically rendered, with high emotion and contrast between light and dark. The saint provokes our sympathy with his outstretched hands and anguished heavenward gaze.  Is he questioning his faith at this critical moment?

(currier.org)

The Dutch section of the European survey boasts a Rubens Crucifixion but otherwise offers fairly typical Dutch genre pairings, landscapes and still lifes.  In a pleasant surprise, near the entrance to the room is a Tiepolo painting study for a ceiling.  Although sketchy, it still displays the master’s lighthearted hand and ambitious composition.

The last section I visited in the Currier Museum was dedicated to more contemporary art.  A quintessential Rothko, placed quietly on a large wall, is a lovely highlight.  In an interesting echo of the layout of the American art rooms on the second floor, the paintings and sculptures here are also punctuated with furniture, though here it is more contemporary, abstract art-furniture.  A highlight is a strange little desk designed by Jere Osgood, dating from 1996.  It combines the old-fashioned roll-top desk with a sleek wood element, marrying the old and the new delightfully.  Lastly, Michael Mazur’s “Pond Edge”, a large painting dating from 1996, bursts forth in splashes of color that drip down, resembling jellyfish or reflections in the surface of water.

Overall, the Currier Museum of Art is excellent to visit if you are in New Hampshire and/or love early American art and furniture.  It does not seek to compete with the larger museums in the area, and has wisely chosen to specialize in a few specific areas.  It does contain some gems, but it does not possess quite the scope of masterpieces that many larger collections do.  Additionally, if you are interested in architecture, the museum operates tours of a nearby Frank Lloyd Wright house.  I have taken said tour twice and it is not to be missed.  

Comments

  1. You have brought this museum to life...and nice plug for the FLW tour as well! Nice job!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Deborah,

    Thanks for the great write-up about our Museum, and I'm glad you enjoyed your visit here. I think you missed one of our best rooms, though. We have a large, airy contemporary gallery including works of art by Frank Stella, Robert Indiana, Sam Gilliam, Glenn Ligon, Alexander Calder and others. Come by again anytime and check them out. :)

    Cheers,

    Steve Konick
    Director of PR and Marketing
    Currier Museum of Art

    ReplyDelete

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