Letter: Collection a monument to the Gilded Age
Apart from the ethical, legal and financial implications in deaccessioning the core nucleus of the Berkshire Museum's art collection, we should consider that these paintings and sculpture define the very essence of Gilded Age taste, standing as a symbol of Berkshire County's history.
The original cache of Zenas Crane's exceptionally high quality art collection gifted to the Berkshire Museum in 1903 speaks directly to the collecting taste of the captains of industry, the newly minted millionaires and the wealthy gentlemen of leisure in the late 19th century. Zenas Crane as a local Berkshires power player was drawn, much like John Jacob Astor, Jay Gould, William H. Vanderbilt, Cyrus Field, and Alexander Stewart, to the paintings by 19th century French academic painters, and to the works by nineteenth century American landscapists.
A few examples of the Gilded Age taste in art here are noteworthy. Crane avidly collected the work of the celebrated neighboring, homegrown painters of the American Hudson River School, such as Frederick Church, George Inness, Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt. Their soaring, romantic views of the Hudson River environs, as well as Western and South American locales were prized for their finely detailed, evocative landscape views of the untamed natural world. These paintings, coveted as symbols of status and worldliness, and adorned with magnificent gilded frames, were perfectly suited to decorate the parlor walls and private art galleries of the wealthy.
The millionaires in Lenox, New York and the Hudson River Valley in the late 19th century were also drawn to the works of the French academic painters, specifically captivated by the work of William Adolphe Bouguereau. Zenas Crane gifted two charming, sentimental Bouguereau paintings to the Berkshire Museum; one depicting a young shepherdess with her pet lamb, and another featuring two peasant children shown frolicking in the grass.
Seen intact and together, the Zenas Crane collection in the Berkshire Museum is a significant learning tool, connecting us to the aesthetic taste of the late 19th century elite. Deaccessioning these prized 40 paintings will not only deprive the area of these magnificent paintings, but will sever this collection's important historical connection to the Gilded Age as well.
Lynn Villency Cohen,
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