A masterwork by Thomas Cole that was at the center of a deaccessioning controversy last spring has found a new home at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The work, titled Arch of Nero (1846), was among a group of works sold by New Jersey’s Newark Museum of Art at Sotheby’s to raise funds for the care of its collection. It was purchased from the auction by the Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen PhD Foundation, a St. Louis–based organization whose aim is to “carefully research and obtain American masterpieces,” and donated on a long-term loan to the Philadelphia Museum, where it will be displayed in the American galleries.
The Newark Museum first announced its plan to deaccession artworks last March, though few details were provided as to which pieces would be offered at Sotheby’s. An outcry ensued when the museum revealed that paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Eakins were headed to sale. But critics of the Newark Museum mainly focused their attention on Cole’s landscape.
More than 50 cultural historians and critics released an open letter denouncing the sale as a “senseless monetization” of the art. Addressed to museum director Linda Harrison, the writers demanded she “cancel the self-diminishment and monetization of Newark’s art” because the sale would inflict “irreparable damage” on the museum. The signories included professors from Harvard and Yale, a former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), and past employees of the museum, such as William L. Coleman, current director of collections and exhibitions at the Olana Partnership in Hudson, New York.
The painting depicts a decaying Roman arch set against lush greenery and a brilliant blue sky. Painted the year the Unites States invaded Mexico in a land grab, the painting has been interpreted as a mediation on the transitory nature of empires. “Newark’s great The Arch of Nero was one of the earliest paintings to address these issues,” the letter continued. “It should be a centerpiece of a great museum’s American galleries.”
Despite the letter, the painting sold for $988,000 at auction. The Philadelphia Museum said in its release announcing the loan that the work was purchased by the Jacobsen Foundation “to keep this important painting in the public domain.”
Kathleen A. Forester, senior curator of American art at the Philadelphia Museum, said in a statement, “We are thrilled to have this great painting in our galleries, and we are grateful to the Jacobsen Foundation for ensuring that it will continue to be seen by the public for years to come.”