From its neoclassical architecture to the large gold-leaf frames within its galleries, the Hunter Museum’s mansion represents a traditional, iconic – and often favorite – part of the museum for many visitors. The mansion galleries encompass the oldest portion of the Hunter Museum and today house our early American collection of itinerant portraiture, Victorian furniture, and Hudson River School landscape paintings. For many visitors, the mansion galleries display benign artworks that are easy to recognize and require little to no interpretation beyond exploring the subject or painterly technique. Viewers often see early American portraiture, for example, as a precursor to modern day selfies – an unassuming depiction of the sitter – but these early portraits capture a subject that Americans struggle with today: defining an American identity. Art from the past was often radical, even if we don’t recognize it as such today.
In keeping with our mission to engage diverse audiences in active dialogues about American art, the Hunter has recently started an exciting reexamination of these early American galleries. Our new plan seeks to present art from the past in such a way that viewers will better understand their historical context. We will continue to highlight visitor favorites, but also include less familiar works. These historic paintings and drawings will be presented alongside more contemporary works of art as a way to highlight issues and themes facing early Americans that are still relevant today. The juxtaposition of old and new is intended to illustrate how the American identity has changed over time.
The mansion’s Southern Gallery – located on the top floor – represents the first of these gallery changes. Originally, the gallery housed Southern portraiture and landscape painting from 1810-1880 and explored how art played an important role in establishing a regional identity. Recently, the gallery was reexamined to explore the U.S. Civil War era and to delve further into the issue of race in America – a theme that is still relevant today. The gallery has reopened with the addition of “Southern Souvenir No. II,” c. 1948 by Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015), a loan from Art Bridges, a new non-profit foundation focused on sharing outstanding works of American art.
Cortor is an African American artist known for his serene paintings of strong, elongated black women, but in ‘Southern Souvenir No. II” he positions disembodied figures amongst historic representations and classical imagery to signify the legacy of race in the American South. Although Cortor’s painting is a more contemporary work than others in the mansion, it serves as a powerful comparison to the historic paintings. With the inclusion of “Southern Souvenir No. II,” visitors now have the opportunity to reexamine the historic context of the paintings dating around the time of the U.S. Civil War, while questioning the idea of race in America then and now.
Committed to collecting, studying and presenting significant American art to connect people of every background to creativity, knowledge and ideas, we hope these galleries will prompt a dialogue about the complexity of the American experience and reflect how the American identity may or may not have changed over the centuries.
Keep an eye out for additional gallery changes in the coming year.