A huge book is laid open to a page with a print of a great blue heron in a glass case in the center of a room in the Addison Gallery of American Art. The bird’s wings are partially outstretched as its neck cranes down and its open beak touches its reflection in the water below. The print, one of 435 in the book, was hand-colored by John James Audubon, who made 120 volumes of books filled with art prints.
“Audubon was just a master at depicting birds in a way that’s naturalistic. He didn’t just make these stick figures. He set them in an environment and made them look as if they were alive and then put this landscape in. I turned to this page; we could’ve turned to any one of the pages. They’re all extraordinarily beautiful,” wrote Susan Faxon in an email to The Phillipian, the curator of the exhibit and Associate Director and Curator of pre- 1950 Art at the Addison.
Audubon’s 1827 “The Birds of North America” is one of the centerpieces of the Addison’s Spring 2017 “Eye on the Collection.” The collection features a variety of American portraits, landscapes, and abstractions from the early 18th century to the 20th century.
“Every term the Addison reinstalls the whole museum and one of the exhibitions is always a selection of works drawn from our extensive collection. It is our way of showcasing some of our most important and well-known works and juxtaposing them with works that are lesser-known but no less engaging. Because we own many more works than can ever be shown at one time, this is a way of making sure we share a wide range of works for our varied audiences over the course of the year,” said Faxon.
“Professor Henry A. Rowland” by Thomas Eakins from 1897 depicts Rowland, a physicist, sitting in a chair and gazing to his left. His clothes are wrinkled, he’s holding a scientific instrument, and a thick beam of light shines down onto his head as the most prominent part of the painting, according to Eakins in his artist’s statement. The frame of the painting was also constructed by Eakins and features equations, constants, and scientific notations from Rowland’s notebooks inscribed into it.
“Eakin’s very interested in scientific personages and the quality of their mind, so it’s by no mistake that the light is coming down and shining on his head, the head that contains the brain of this very eminent scientist. Here’s his hand, and he’s holding the piece of equipment that he has improved with his studio system. The frame is made by the artist. He wrote to the sitter and asked him to send him notes from his notebooks, and then he inscribed them with notes that he found so that the man is surrounded by his notations,” said Faxon.
John Frederick Peto’s “Office Board for Smith Brothers Coal Company” from 1879 is just one of his many still life paintings known as “rack pictures” or, as he prefers, “office boards.” The piece features a wooden wall with a running crack covered in a grid of pink tape. Keys dangle from the upper left of the wall, and stuck inside the grid are everyday items such as letters and postcards. One letter is addressed to him. To the left of that is an advertisement for the Smith Brothers Coal Company. An almanac, a check, and a couple of other items are also featured.
“Mr. Peto has put that board right here, so everything is right here and flat. He was known for this kind of picture. He often used cards over again. He probably owned them himself. He has a manner in which he puts strips of tape so that you can stick in your correspondences. People would do this to save the things that they thought were interesting or important,” said Faxon.
Charles Seliger’s 1947 piece “Subterranean Excavation Sky and Air” is one of the earlier abstract expressionist paintings. The painting is a collision of vibrant colors and shapes, resembling an inner world inside the Earth.
“He has made a magical fantasy image of the intricacies of someone’s thoughts or fears or hopes. It’s like he’s dug into some very weird under the surface place. I think it’s pretty interesting because of these incredibly dark and glowing colors that he has put side by side. Blue, green, and oranges and all these little forms. He’s tried to make this composition organic,” said Faxon.