Since Telfair Museums opened its doors in 1886, its collection has grown from one mansion and its contents (including a modest collection of family paintings, sculptures, and furniture) to more than 7,000 works of art and three distinct buildings. This exhibition, based on the exciting new publication Telfair Museums: Curators’ Choice (2021), is an opportunity for Telfair’s curators to spotlight key moments, objects, and figures in the museum’s centuries-long journey.
Telfair Museums is both the oldest public art museum in the South and one of the first museums in the United States to be founded by a woman. Mary Telfair (1791–1875)—the daughter of a prominent merchant-planter family—left a small but multifaceted collection of fine and decorative arts. Through the visions of its first director Carl Ludwig Brandt (1831–1905) and fine arts advisor Gari Melchers (1860–1932), the museum established a collection in American Impressionism, Ashcan School, and European academic paintings. In 1951, Margaret Gray Thomas (1871–1951) bequeathed to Telfair what would later be known as the Owens-Thomas House & Slave Quarters, as well as a significant American and English decorative arts collection. In recent years, the site has been reinterpreted to tell the stories of the house’s enslaved inhabitants and, more broadly, the history of urban slavery in the South. The museum’s growing collection of contemporary art, photography, and self-taught art is exhibited in the Jepson Center for the Arts, which opened in 2006.
Through this selection of artworks from disparate time periods and mediums, Telfair’s curators have reflected on the museum’s history, identity, and collecting practices, while offering a view of what lies ahead.
George Bellows (American, 1882–1925); Snow-Capped River, 1911; Oil on canvas; Museum purchase, 1911.1
George Bellows was one of the best-regarded painters of his generation, making an enduring mark on American art despite his premature death at age 42 from a ruptured appendix. Known for his paintings of boxers, which challenged notions of acceptable ﬁne art subject matter while celebrating traditional ideals of masculinity, Bellows was born in Columbus, Ohio, and went to New York in 1904 to study art with William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri.
Snow-Capped River, like many of Bellows’s urban landscapes, portrays New York during the winter. The painting presents a view from Manhattan’s Riverside Park of the icy Hudson River and the snowy Palisades of New Jersey in the distance. Bellows applied his paint thickly, in some places using a palette knife rather than a paintbrush. At ﬁrst glance, the color palette seems to be composed of blues and greens, but closer examination reveals vibrant yellows, saturated violets, and small pops of red that draw the viewer’s eye around the canvas. The composition is tightly structured, with a tall tree on the left and a stone wall at the bottom creating a distinct rectangle. The work is grounded by a vignette of everyday city life in the foreground: a man pauses during his morning walk to tie his shoe on a park bench, his large dog’s attention captured by a smaller dog pulling on its leash nearby.
This work was painted in 1911 and acquired by Telfair Museums that same year through negotiations between Bellows and Gari Melchers, Telfair’s ﬁne arts adviser. Bellows counted it among his most important works.
Frank Stella (American, B. 1936); Bene come il sale, 1989; Etching, aquatint, and relief print on handmade paper; Kirk Varnedoe Collection, Gift of the Artist, 2006.25
Frank Stella and Kirk Varnedoe are both iconic ﬁgures in the 20th-century art world. As an artist who found a path forward after abstract expressionism, Stella became known for his geometric and minimalist works, which later evolved into prints that explored more expressionist forms through repetition. He was famously known for stating: “what you see is what you see.” Savannah native Kirk Varnedoe took on the mantle of chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1988, a position he held until 2001. He is remembered for championing the work of living artists and found much to admire in Stella. In fact, Stella said he and Varnedoe bounced ideas off each other in a productively competitive way. He also emphasized how Varnedoe saw value in the “physical reality” of a work, which Stella found to be a refreshing quality in a curator.
Bene come il sale translates to “as dear as salt” and is a reference to a story in Italian Folktales (1954) by Italo Calvino, the 20th-century Italian writer. Part of Stella’s Italian Folktales series, the work takes imagery from his Pillars and Cones series and explores the narrative capacities of abstraction. The work’s large scale and bold forms make it a perfect ﬁt for the Kirk Varnedoe Collection, a group of works on paper by the artists Varnedoe most admired, which were donated to Telfair Museums to honor his life and legacy.
Childe Hassam (American, 1859–1935); Avenue of the Allies, 1917; Oil on canvas; Bequest of Mrs. Elizabeth Millar Bullard, 1942.11
American impressionist Childe Hassam was ﬁrmly established as one of the most critically and commercially successful artists of his day when he embarked on his now-iconic series of ﬂag paintings. Inspired by the ﬂag displays on New York’s Fifth Avenue in the months leading up to the United States’ entry into World War I, Hassam created approximately thirty ﬂag paintings from 1916 to 1919. He also treated the subject in a 1918 lithograph, which replicates the composition of his painting Avenue of the Allies: Brazil, Belgium (now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). This body of work is often interpreted as a personal expression of Hassam’s patriotism and his support for France (where he studied and lived for several years) and for Britain (the country to which he proudly traced his heritage).
This painting was originally exhibited by Hassam under the title Flags at the Waldorf. It depicts the ﬂags of France, the United States, and the United Kingdom displayed on the facade of the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel, with the sunlit columns of the Knickerbocker Trust and Safe Deposit Company in the background. Constructed in 1893 and expanded in 1897, the Waldorf-Astoria was demolished in 1929 to make way for the Empire State Building. Unlike other paintings in Hassam’s ﬂag series, this one takes a tighter view, cropping the architecture dramatically and not revealing any open sky in the background. Telfair trustee Mrs. Elizabeth Millar Bullard acquired this painting, most likely from a 1918–19 exhibition held at Milch Gallery in New York, and bequeathed it to the museum in 1942.
Theresa Bernstein (American, 1890–2002); Fair on Hawthorne Inn Lawn, 1918; Oil on board; Museum purchase with funds provided by the Gari Melchers Collectors’ Society, 2019.33
Theresa Bernstein was trained at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women and the Art Students League in New York under the tutelage of artists such as William Merritt Chase, a proponent of American impressionism. However, her art more closely resembles the works of the Ashcan School, a group of American realist artists who challenged the impressionist and academic traditions. Their work often reﬂected the grittiness and vitality of working-class and immigrant populations and the urban landscapes they occupied. While not officially part of the all-male group, Bernstein was aligned with the Ashcan painters in her subjects, interests, and aesthetics.
Bernstein created Fair on Hawthorne Inn Lawn while she summered in the ﬁshing village of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Describing the piece in a letter, she explained: “I painted this subject several times just before the end of WWI. The affair was for the beneﬁt of the wounded veterans.” The gestural, almost rough brushstrokes and bold coloring displayed here may partly explain why 20th-century critics characterized Bernstein as a “woman who paints like a man.” She continued to produce art into the twenty-ﬁrst century, and her work experienced a revival during the second-wave feminism of the 1970s, a time when the discipline of art history sought to trouble and expand its male-dominated canon. This painting ﬁts particularly well in Telfair’s collection—which includes a number of American impressionist and Ashcan School works—and is emblematic of the museum’s concerted mission in recent years to introduce its visitors to historically underrepresented artistic talents.
Gari Melchers (American, 1860–1932); The Unpretentious Garden, c. 1903–15; Oil on canvas; Museum purchase with funds provided by the Button Gwinnett Autograph Fund, 1916.5
A perennial favorite among museum visitors thanks to its cheerful sunlight and inviting subject, The Unpretentious Garden is also symbolically important to Telfair Museums. It is the only work by Gari Melchers—the renowned artist who served as the museum’s ﬁne arts adviser from 1906 to 1916 (and unofficially through the 1920s)—acquired by the museum during his lifetime. Melchers used his prescient eye and well-placed connections in the art world to negotiate the acquisition of some of Telfair’s most important works (such as La Madrileñita (The Girl of Madrid) by Robert Henri, Snow-Capped River by George Bellows, Brooklyn Bridge in the Winter by Childe Hassam, and George Hitchcock by James Jebusa Shannon). Yet the museum owned no works by Melchers himself, even as the artist continued to garner awards and acclaim for his paintings. The museum’s trustees rectiﬁed this in 1916, voting to honor Melchers’s service and legacy by purchasing The Unpretentious Garden for its permanent collection. Melchers, keen to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, was reluctant to sell a work to the museum he had advised. In a letter to Melchers, Telfair’s board president stated: “I note the reluctance with which you sold us this picture, and I repeat my oral assurances to you that I very much appreciate your yielding to our persistence.”
The subject of the painting is the artist’s wife, Corinne Lawton Mackall Melchers, whose uncle was the president of Telfair’s board and who thus served as the link between her husband and the museum. Corinne is shown seated outside the couple’s home in the Dutch ﬁshing village of Egmond aan den Hoef while a servant tends to the garden nearby. Melchers worked in the Netherlands for more than thirty years and produced many of his best-known works there.
Sarah Jones (American, 1756–1804); Sampler of Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed, 1763; Linen ground fabric with silk embroidery floss
Gift of Mrs. Hubert Bond Owens, 1971.4
To the frustration of contemporary scholars, women in historical records are often positioned as accessories to men. Descriptions identify women as the “wife of” or “daughter of” important men, without any insight into who these women were or how they affected history. Likewise, most of the decorative arts in museum collections are identiﬁed as having belonged to men, but they were more likely the possessions and selections of women, who often ran the household. Similarly, while the education of prominent men is documented, from the universities they attended to the mentors who nourished their growth, the record on female education is scant. The historical record does show that most girls were educated in domestic arts in addition to basic academic subjects, and almost all such educations included needlework.
Sarah Jones created this sampler, the earliest-known example from Georgia, to showcase her achievements when she was seven years old. Like many samplers of the period, this one displays her stitches via the religious texts that were part of most children’s education. While directly related to many prominent men, Jones was a signiﬁcant person in her own right. She bore ten children and survived a war while raising them without local male support, which was absent during the chaotic Revolutionary War years. After the war, it was Jones who petitioned the Georgia Assembly to remedy her husband’s problematic situation, caused by switching sides during the Revolution. He eventually regained political prominence and served as mayor of Savannah. Sarah moved to Connecticut where several of her children were educated, including her daughter Mary Jones Glen, whose education, like her mother’s, included needlework.
William O. Golding (American, 1874–1943); Tug William F. McCauley, Atlantic Towing Company, Savannah, Georgia, 1934; Pencil and crayon on paper; Museum purchase, 2009.23
One of the most poignant and underappreciated stories in American art belongs to the African American seaman and artist William O. Golding. Golding condensed a half-century of maritime experience into more than one hundred drawings, produced largely from a hospital bed in Savannah during the 1930s. The son of a Reconstruction lawmaker from Liberty County, Georgia, Golding was kidnapped from the Savannah waterfront, tricked into service aboard a Canadian vessel at the age of 8. He spent twenty-two years serving on sailships and steamships before seeing his home again. In the 1930s, Golding was an intermittent patient at the United States Marine Hospital in Savannah, where he was treated for chronic bronchitis. Nicknamed “Deep Sea,” Golding swapped stories with fellow patients and rendered his experiences in expressive pencil and crayon drawings. His works bear a unique style brimming with visual invention and an ever-present sun in the form of a compass rose.
Golding drew numerous vessels he claimed to have served on or seen, from whalers in the Arctic to the steam yachts of New York’s elite. Several works depict the Savannah waterfront and city landmarks, including this image of the tugboat William F. McCauley. Built in 1894, the McCauley was based in Savannah and commissioned by the US Navy during World War I. Encouraged by local artist Margaret Stiles, Golding also depicted international ports he had visited during his decades at sea, which may have included naval service in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. His drawings of ports in the Philippines, China, Vietnam, and Indonesia bear witness to the experiences of a merchant seaman at the turn of the century.
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937); Untitled, 1880; Oil on canvas
Museum purchase with funds from the bequest of Shirley Carson, 1998.29
Henry Ossawa Tanner, born in Pittsburgh on the eve of the Civil War, was the son of a former enslaved woman who escaped through the Underground Railroad and a bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. After relocating to Philadelphia in 1868, Tanner studied under the American realist Thomas Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts before moving to Paris and becoming a pupil of the academic painter Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant at the Académie Julian. This relocation was motivated by more than a pursuit of French artistic training; the artist, who found in Paris a respite from the particular kinds of racial discrimination experienced in the United States, explained: “I could not ﬁght prejudice and paint at the same time.”
Although Tanner was pressured to produce genre scenes featuring digniﬁed Black people—by Booker T. Washington, among others—he made works that appealed to the mainstream contemporary art market, most notably religious and Orientalist paintings. Orientalism purported to accurately represent what we now call the Middle East; this idea has since been debunked by contemporary scholars who have argued that these works heavily exoticized and romanticized the “East.” Tanner was regularly awarded medals and museums started to collect his artwork during his lifetime. This marine painting features a group of children, adults, and pets frolicking on the beach. The cloudy sky, crashing waves, and silhouettes of ships are rendered with a soft, almost hazy touch that underscores the artist’s realist yet poetic vision—a painterly treatment characteristic of much of his oeuvre.
Kahlil Gibran (American, B. Lebanon, 1883–1931); Life, c. 1931; Watercolor and pencil on paper; Gift of Mary Haskell Minis, 1950.8.12
Kahlil Gibran is best known as the author of The Prophet, a book of poetry and fables ﬁrst published in 1923. Since its publication, The Prophet has been translated into more than twenty languages and has notably never been out of print. Though lesser known than his writings, Gibran’s involvement in the visual arts was vital to his personal expression; he produced watercolors, drawings, and oils from a young age. Some, like Life, were created to accompany the publications of his written works, while others were independently conceived works of art. Life is one of three works in Telfair’s collection created to illustrate The Garden of the Prophet. In it, Gibran interprets Mother Earth as a larger-than-life female ﬁgure reaching down benevolently toward the small human ﬁgures surrounding her.
Gibran was born in Lebanon and moved with his family to Boston while he was still a boy. As a young man, he attracted attention from members of Boston’s artistic circles, and he quickly became exposed to writers, photographers, visual artists, and patrons of the arts. Included in the latter category was Mary Haskell (later Minis), who ran a progressive school for girls in Boston’s Back Bay. Haskell helped Gibran secure exhibition opportunities and sponsored his studies in Paris. They maintained an intense friendship throughout Gibran’s life and after Haskell relocated to Savannah, she chose to donate her personal collection of Gibran’s artwork to Telfair Museums. Comprising ﬁve paintings, eighteen watercolors, and six drawings, it is the largest collection of Gibran’s visual art in the United States.
Jack Leigh (American, 1948–2004); Midnight, Bonaventure Cemetery, 1993 (printed 2000); Gelatin silver print; Gift of the Artist, 2002.2.1
One of Savannah’s most respected photographers, Jack Leigh is known for photo essays documenting his native South. He studied at the University of Georgia, discovering his medium in a documentary photography course, and he later learned from inﬂuential photographers George A. Tice and Eva Rubinstein. After traveling in Europe and living in Virginia, Leigh returned to Savannah in the 1970s, where he found inspiration recording the lives of oystermen and other Southerners rarely seen in photographs.
In 1993 author John Berendt recommended Leigh to Random House to create the cover image for Berendt’s novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Leigh worked in Savannah’s historic Bonaventure Cemetery for two days, obtaining permission to stay after hours. He discovered Sylvia Shaw Judson’s Bird Girl as the light was ebbing, and shot the bronze sculpture using a technique known as lens compression in order to make the sculpture appear monumental. Afterward, Leigh manipulated the image in the darkroom, using ﬁlters and the “dodging” method to lighten the area around Bird Girl. This highly constructed image attests to Leigh’s traditional photographic craftsmanship. It was the sole image he submitted to Random House for the cover of Berendt’s book, which became a smash best seller. Leigh’s iconic image made him internationally famous, enabling him to open the Jack Leigh Gallery. The book’s success also spawned a movie adaptation, after which Leigh became involved in a legal battle over promotional images that were similar to his Midnight photograph. Leigh’s ﬁnal photographic series documented the construction of Telfair Museums’ Jepson Center. He died from cancer in 2004 at age 55 and is buried at Bonaventure Cemetery beside his parents.