• News Retrospective

    Retrospective: What’s American Art? A Perspective from 1939

    And other excerpts from our coverage 100, 75, 50, and 25 years ago

    100 YEARS AGO

    The story of the stolen Van Dyck turns out to be an ingenious hoax. A certain art dealer had a picture which he supposed was by Van Dyck, and upon which he provisionally set the value at £10,000. He had submitted the canvas to a well-known “expert,” pending whose verdict the dealer desired to have public attention strongly focused upon the painting. The two men who informed the Berchem [Antwerp, Belgium] police of the alleged robbery of the masterpiece during a motor-car journey were confederates of the dealer, who has now confessed that he concocted the hoax in the hope of enhancing the price of the supposed Van Dyck at a time when business was becoming very slack.

    —“Stolen Van Dyck,” May 16, 1914

    75 YEARS AGO

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    William Gropper, The Last Cow, pre-1939.

    COURTESY QUEENS MUSEUM.

    If the “American Art Today” exhibition at the New York World’s Fair is really the voice of our contemporary plastic expression, the audience may sense that it suffers from an ailment of the larynx. Evidence of quality is there, but there are bad breaks and long periods of monotone between intervals of brilliance. . . .

    But it must be remembered that the intention is not to show the best, but the most characteristic. The five hundred and fifty paintings, two hundred and fifty sculptures, and four hundred works of graphic art were selected on a regional basis by local juries of artists chosen to represent all tastes. Since the aim was toward geographical as well as artistic catholicism, the competition in some areas was much keener than in others, and works of high quality were sometimes kept out to make room for less interesting representations of other tastes or locales. . . . The sponsors desired, by democratic means, to assemble an exhibition which would reveal the “average” of American art.

    —“U.S. Art at the Fair: Democratic Selection & Standardized Result,” by Doris Brian, May 6, 1939

    50 YEARS AGO

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    John Everett Millais, L’Enfant du Regiment (The Random Shot), 1854–55, oil on paper, laid on canvas, mounted on board.

    COURTESY YALE CENTER FOR BRITISH ART, PAUL MELLON FUND.

    The Pre-Raphaelites’ reputation has always been unstable. Within two years of the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848, the pictures exhibited by Millais, Hunt and Rossetti were attracting almost unanimous abuse. Although Ruskin soon became the movement’s eloquent defender, critical obtuseness never grew into universal adulation and, today, Pre-Raphaelitism stands again in generally low repute. The Pre-Raphaelites never fared well in America: an exhibition sent to New York in 1857 had little impact, and since then the American public has had only rare opportunities to see their pictures.

    —“Radical romantics,” by Allen F. Staley, May 1964

    25 YEARS AGO

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    Hewitt C H (Sergeant), No. 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Germany Under Allied Occupation.

    WIKIMEDIA COMMONS/THE IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM.

    “I fully understand the people’s impatience, but each individual item has to be dealt with. While the actual monetary value of the things is not enormous, the sentimental value for these people is very great,” [Judge Reimar] Gradischnik says. “These are people who lost everything, and in some instances the artwork may have belonged to a parent and may be the only thing left. In a way, it’s people seeing a connection with their past. How do you put a value on that?”

    —”Vienna: Complexity, Contradictions,” by Andrew Decker in New York, with Ferdinand Protzman in Vienna, May 1989

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