The George Washington University now owns the Corcoran’s former home, The Flagg Building, and the National Gallery took hold of its 17,000-piece collection. The Gallery chose 6,430 works for its permanent collection and will disburse the remaining pieces to area museums. Two small exhibitions opened Friday featuring 56 of the Gallery’s new works.
The NGA plans to host other exhibitions in 2017 and 2018 in remaining Flagg Building galleries, contingent on their own and GWU’s renovation schedule, according to a museum press release.
Other paintings from the Corcoran collection will be integrated into the NGA’s collections beginning this summer and continuing as the East Building reopens in 2016. Additionally, some Corcoran works will join a photography exhibition at the NGA opening May 3.
The main additions to the Gallery’s collection are in the realm of American Art. According to a museum press release, 226 American works from the Corcoran will join the 1,215 already in the NGA’s collection.
“This collection, I think, is now enriched in ways that both really, really supplement things we already have… [and that are] adding our first painting by a key artist that we didn’t have,” said Gallery Deputy Director and Chief Curator Franklin Kelly.
Two New Exhibitions
The masterworks presentation is notable for its use of somewhat accessible and often recognizable art: images of cowboys and Indians, fanciful landscapes, marine subjects, portraits of fine ladies and even a sculpted marble female nude. The walls are full of landscapes by Albert Bierstadt, including the meta-titled “Mount Corcoran.”
There is a who’s who painting of 1822’s House of Representatives, a massive group portrait of members and other dignitaries all identified on an accompanying fact sheet like modern-day Facebook tags. Beside it is a portrait of young, beardless Abraham Lincoln.
Looming largest is Frederic Edwin Church’s “Niagara,” an enormous, glistening, distinctly American painting of the falls. Deputy Director Kelly, also a distinguished affiliate with the university’s Department of Art History and Archaeology, said that the use of these paintings was partially intentional.
“While this period of assimilating the Corcoran collection is going on, … we wanted to give people access to some of the most familiar, the most certainly loved paintings from the Corcoran collection,” Kelly said. This comes paired with the relative time period shared by the works and the fact that more modern pieces are destined for the Gallery’s modern art East Building, which is undergoing long-term renovations.
Museumgoer Allan Kovan of Washington, D.C., said he appreciated seeing some of these familiar works, citing specifically Robert Stackhouse’s “Drawing for ‘Ghost Dance’” in Works on Paper. “I like the way [the pieces] were presented,” he said. “I think it is very striking.’
As such, the works on paper present a variety of pieces with the raw emotion of the masterworks but without some of their polish.
Citing one peculiar charcoal male torso by John Singer Sargent (more renowned for his grandiose portraits and landscapes like one he painted upstairs), museumgoer Flori Kovan of Washington, D.C., said the exhibit presented “a much greater scope of work than is commonly known.”
Works on view by Jean-François Millet are perfectly lit, using warm colors entirely but with just enough green pastel to catch the eye. They are undeniably French in aesthetic and execution.
Additionally, the Gallery is making a welcome foray into African American art. Betye Saar’s “Dat Ol’ Black Magic” is one of a class of pieces near-wholly absent from the current collection. Similar is Aaron Douglas’ “Into Bondage,” portraying the shackles and ships of early slavery and the piercing, shining star that might’ve led to freedom.
Coming after a controversy-riddled exhibition of Bill Cosby’s African American art collection at the National Museum of African Art and ahead of the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s 2016 opening, the pieces, however few, come well-received.
The current exhibitions of masterworks and works on paper are on view until May 3.
A Daunting Process
All that remains is the monumental task of divvying up the remaining 11,000 or so works to other D.C.-area museums. Several institutions had expressed duly noted interest, Kelly said, but the giving process, decided in the end by trustees of the Corcoran, will be slow.
“This is something that has to be done methodically and carefully and involves a lot of different people: curators, conservators, art handlers, registrars [and] educators,” Kelly said. The gallery and trustees have not yet set up a timeline for disbursement.
Looking back, Flori Kovan said she and her husband “were always quite fond of the Corcoran.”
“It was a beloved institution locally,” she said. Now, looking forward, Kovan said she hopes the name of that institution will live on in memories and in museum captions and credits.
Kelly said that, all in all, the coming-together of the two great galleries will allow formerly disconnected paintings and artists’ works to come together. Now, visitors will be able to see a more complete view of artists like Bierstadt “not by having to cross town from one [piece] to the other, but to look across the gallery.”
Evan Berkowitz is a freshman journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.