Smith College Museum of Art: Jewel of the Valley Art Crown

Pioneer Valley Delights IV:
Smith College Museum of Art, the Jewell in the Crown

Sheeler, Rolling Power
Last summer, two New Zealand friends visited and we popped into the Smith College Museum of Art (SCMA). When we entered the third floor permanent collection gallery, Janet craned her neck to observe a wall of Impressionists and exclaimed, “There are more masterpieces on that wall then there are in all of New Zealand!” Masterpieces, of course, are in the eye of the beholder (and the pocketbook of the rich), but she’s not the first to be (if I may) impressed. There are but a handful of college art museums in the nation that can hold a torch to the SCMA, most of them scattered among the Ivies.

The SCMA doesn’t just collect–it’s a teaching museum par excellence. I wanted to use some art images for my Civil War class last fall and approached the museum’s enormously resourceful educational staff. They invited me to bring my class into the curatorial area, where they displayed an array of Matthew Brady photographs, Winslow Homer woodcuts, and original illustrations from Frank Leslie’s and Harper’s Weekly. I made sure that my young charges appreciated the depth of their extraordinary experience. The area in which they were working held an astonishing 1600 drawings, 8,000 prints, and 5,700 photographs!

The SCMA is a treasure chest, but it doesn’t make you feel like you’re being buried under a mound of shiny offerings. Because it is a teaching facility as well as a repository, the museum displays its fanciest baubles and puts on its work clothes in galleries whose content changes. The SCMA is spread across four floors, but only third and half of the second remain (relatively) static. The first floor is generally devoted to temporary exhibitions, like last summer’s rock posters of the Sixties extravaganza, and the more subdued (but also stunning) current exhibit of Anne Whiston Spirn’s landscape photographs. Like most college museums, the SCMA collects broadly rather than specilizing. Walking through the SCMA is akin to a virtual Art 100 textbook. This is especially true of its European collection, where you’ll find Cézanne, Courbet, Kandinsky, Manet, Monet, Pissaro, Rouault, and Seurat, among others. But you’ll also find antiquities, mannerist works, European romantics, African carvings, Inuit art, Impressionists, Abstract Expressionists, Chinese calligraphy, Ethiopian diptychs, medieval paintings, Native American beadwork, Latin American art works, and American paintings from the Colonial period to the present. Smith also honors its status as a women’s college with works by female artists ranging from Jaune Quick-to-See Smith to Georgia O’Keeffe. Make sure you walk down side corridors and into study galleries to see what Smith art students are contemplating. Lots of visitors make the mistake of neglecting the ground floor, which is where the SCMA houses more contemporary works. These works are generally not as good as those at the Mead (Amherst College), but they’re well worth a peek. In other words, the SCMA is a true jewel–heck, even the benches and restrooms are artist-designed.

My favorites are admittedly idiosyncratic. My top pick is Rolling Power by Charles Sheeler. It’s from 1939 and is a major work of Precisionist painting. I like it because it’s both geometrical and ideological. Sheeler just painted the bold shapes of a locomotive’s wheels, pistons, and drivers, but they end up as a synecdoche for American industrial might that we know (in retrospect) was bloodied by the Great Depression and chugged off into the postindustrial sunset during the 1970s.

Pissarro, Old Chelsea Bridge
You can see all of the images mentioned here on my Facebook Page, but here are some others I really like. I get a chuckle out of the huge honker of a nose on Johann Zoffany’s The Oboe Player, which stands in inelegant contrast to a gilded paining by Charles Pearce, Cup of Tea. It’s hard not to love any and all of the Rouen Cathedral series by Monet, or the stony solidity of Bridge at Moret by Theodore Rousseau. Camille Pissarro has always been my favorite Impressionist, in part because he didn’t always paint “pretty” subjects. I love his 1890 Old Chelsea Bridge, London.

The huntress Diana gets a double work out at the SCMA, once as an insouciant young girl by sculpture Jean A. T. Falguiiére (see image) and again in the controversial nude cast by Augustus Saint-Gaudens that once topped Madison Square Garden. Speaking of Madison Square Garden, Childe Hassam’s 1891 painting of the taxi stand outside that building is among my favorite Gilded Age paintings of all time. 
Childe Hassam

Want some drama? How about Gérôme and his 1850 Leap of Martius Curtius? Or Taddeo di Bartolo’s bloody 15th Century Death of St. Peter Martyr? Hardly anyone outside the Pioneer Valley knows the work of Edwin R. Elmer and the SCMA has two reasons for self-education, Lady of Baptist Corner, Ashfield, and Mourning Picture. The latter is a stunner. It looks like an idyllic 19th century rural scene unless you know that the curly-haired girl at the left has died, that her parents are in mourning, and that everything you see is either a death or
Mourning Picture
mourning symbol. A brighter favorite is View of Northampton, 1865 by Charles Farrer, which really is idyllic ruralism. It’s also an instant time machine, as it sits at the end of a gallery whose window opens toward the very spot upon that Farrer painted. It predates the founding of Smith College and few can resist the game of trying to transpose the present upon the past.

Get the feeling I love it all? I do. Check out Joseph Wright’s magical cavern, Randall Dahl’s disturbing look at the old Belchertown state school, Honoré Sharrer’s enigmatic Music for a Ballerina, and yes, stuff from O’Keeffe, Degas, Marsden Hartley, and others. Visit and share your favorites.

Important notice: Visit soon! The SCMA will be closing some of its galleries for renovations sometime this summer. Consult the Website: http://www.smith.edu/artmuseum/