The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Artist
On December 5, 1961 the Smithsonian announced that Alice Pike Barney's Studio House was donated to the Smithsonian by her daughters Natalie and Laura Barney. Alice Pike Barney was an American painter born in 1857 in Ohio. During the late 1800s, she spent time in Paris where she studied painting and began a salon in the home she rented there. When Barney returned to her home in Washington, D.C., she put a lot of effort into turning the city into a center for the arts. She had solo shows at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and other major galleries. After her death in 1931, the Studio House became the property of her two daughters, who donated it to the Smithsonian in 1961. In 1976, the house was opened as part of the National Museum of American Art, now the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In April 1995 the Alice Pike Barney Studio House was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The house remained in the possession of the Smithsonian until 1999, and it now serves as the Embassy of Latvia in Washington, D.C.
- Barney House given to the Smithsonian, Chronology of Smithsonian History, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Summer Wind to Ban-y-Bryn, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 96-153 - Alice Pike Barney Papers, 1861-1965, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- The beauty of the mechanical - Photographer, Kevin Twomey, has a series of images of the inside workings of mechanical calculators. [via PetaPixel]
- The Getty's Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OCSI) serves as a platform for the sharing of free art catalogues, including the Freer and Sackler Galleries catalog, The World of the Japanese Illustrated Book. [via OpenCulture]
- On Halloween this year, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Museum of American History redidicated Alexander Calder's, Gwenfritz, as was reinstalled in it's original location on the west lawn of NMAH. [via O Say Can You See? blog, NMAH]
- A reimagined National Mall, as told by artist, Sam Durant's Proposal for White and Indian Dead Monument Transpositions, Washington, D.C., which is on exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. [via Unframed blog, LACMA]
- Imagine that - You are now able to search every tweet on Twitter, all some half trillion of them and get results in under 100ms. [via InfoDocket]
- The Great War is a video series that will document how World War I unfolded, week-by-week, for the next 4 years. [via OpenCulture]
- Talk about a handful - A look at raising red pandas by hand at the National Zoo. [via Smithsonian Science]
I cannot, I feel, have any regrets about my accomplishments. What comes from art will just come. I don’t feel any need to strive. - John N. Robinson
One of my favorite parts of working in an archive is the opportunity to immerse myself in other people’s worlds, to learn more about their stories and experiences. One such person I encountered recently was John N. Robinson, a native Washingtonian and dedicated artist. Featured in Volume II, Edition 2 of the Here at the Smithsonian production series, Robinson’s artwork documents not only the regional history of Washington, D.C.'s Anacostia neighborhood’s growth and development, but also the personal history of his family, often featuring his wife, children, and grandparents. The episode features Robinson interacting with a group of fifth graders at the Anacostia Community Museum.
As I watched the video footage, I was struck by his dignity and gentle character, which is also conveyed to the viewer through his art. His style is one of celebration, encouraging the viewer to reflect on the beauty found in little things.
Born on February 18, 1912 in the Holy Hill community of Georgetown, Robinson was raised by his grandparents following his mother’s death when he was only eight years old, his father having abandoned him and his four siblings not long after. Their grandmother, Anna Barton, took in laundry to help support the family. Robinson and his siblings would assist her by delivering the clothes around Georgetown. Robinson remembered his grandmother as a “warm, lovely person.” Her husband, Ignatius Barton, was a U.S. Army veteran and had been a Buffalo Soldier in the Spanish-American war. Robinson described him as a kind man with a gruff exterior.
Robinson enjoyed doodling and sketching in his spare time - and sometimes while on the job. He had to leave junior high school to begin working, due to the family’s financial situation. His grandfather arranged a job for him, dusting automobiles at the garage where Barton was employed. It was while at this job that a chauffeur noticed Robinson’s sketches on a discarded time card and showed them to his sister, Elizabeth Thompson. She brought them to the attention of James Herring, art professor and founder of the Howard University art department. Recognizing Robinson’s talent, Herring arranged for Robinson to receive art instruction at Howard for a time, free of charge. Robinson studied under the tutelage of James Porter, though he wasn’t able to stay long-term, due to financial hardship.
When he was seventeen, Robinson’s grandparents moved to the Anacostia neighborhood of Garfield Park. His new next door neighbor was Gladys Washington, with whom he fell in love; they married in 1934. Together, they had seven children, six of whom lived to adulthood. It was also after moving to Garfield Park that Robinson began to devote more time to painting, including religious murals in community churches. Robinson went on to be employed in food service at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, eventually rising to management. He retired in 1970.
Outside of his family and community, Robinson didn’t gain much notoriety as an artist until later in life. In the 1940s, he displayed his work at Lafayette and Franklin Parks, through the Outdoor Art Fairs sponsored by the Times Herald. Later his work was featured at the Barnett-Aden Gallery, a haven for multicultural diversity and one of the first black-owned art galleries in America. He exhibited a one-man show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1976, at a time when few blacks were welcomed there, through a partnership with the Anacostia Community Museum. Another one-man show followed at the Anacostia Community Museum in 1983. Other exhibitions included ones at Howard University, the National Museum of Natural History, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Atlanta University, Xavier University, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Oxon Hill Public Library, and the Washington Project for the Arts.
On October 17, 1994, John Robinson passed away. A family man, he mused that perhaps he could have been more ambitious in promoting his art earlier in life, but he also recognized success is not just in material things, but sometimes is seen best in “the happiness of those we love.”
- Accession 00-132 - Office of Telecommunications, Productions, 1982-1989, Smithsonian Institution Archives.
- “Here, Look at Mine!” exhibition records, Anacostia Community Museum Archives
- John N. Robinson artist file, Smithsonian Libraries
As a young artist entering the contemporary art world, the opportunity to speak with an art collector or museum director is few and far between. An art collector like Joseph H. Hirshhorn has always played a crucial role in the development of artist careers, bridging the gap between the maker and the public institution. I am currently a graduate Master of Fine Arts student at the Maryland Institute College of Art participating in a Smithsonian Institution Archives Summer Internship Program to further my thesis investigation into different multimedia based technologies, and the means in which the apparatus shapes the way we create systems of documentation.
While digitizing the correspondence between Joseph H. Hirshhorn and many coveted artists during the 1960s and 1970s, it is made evident through the preservation of these paper documents that bonding relationships formed. Artists including Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, and Willem de Kooning share words with members of the Hirshhorn family that extend far beyond business relationships, and move towards a closeness to that of a friend or family member. These materials affirm a physical record over the years as both Hirshhorn and his disciples share all, from their daily dealings, to their most intimate and reflective thoughts, to their major life events. The ongoing conversations reveal Hirshhorn’s utmost reverence for artists and their lives.
During the digitization process there were numerous letters, postcards, and telegrams all filled with warm salutations, advice, and admiration for various art works. I came across a few unique letters and photographs to share with you. It seems Hirshhorn had a close bond specifically with Willem de Kooning as he notes in the letter on November 15, 1967 after an exhibition reception, “I guess it wasn’t enough for the reporter to hear me shout all over the place that you and Picasso are the greatest painters alive—.” Hirshhorn also shares correspondence with de Kooning’s only daughter Lisa de Kooning. Found above is a letter in child’s handwriting where Lisa thanks Hirshhorn for his gifts that encourage her love of animals. In the letter she draws a portrait, shown adjacent to a photograph of her pet horse Freddy. They later reunite their exchange as Lisa writes to Joseph and Olga Hirshhorn on December 7, 1978 to include them in her organization of ASPCA Animals and Art benefit. Sifting through, I also came across a series of Kodak color still photographs from 1965 documenting the installation of Alexander Calder’s outdoor sculpture Two Discs, which is amongst the permanent collections at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Calder exchanges multiple letters with Joseph and Olga about travel plans filled with invitations to his home in Saché, France. Lastly, included is a brief letter between Marc Chagall and Hirshhorn about his inquiry for artworks. Hirshhorn was also a frequent guest in the Chagall home, as this snapshot of Chagall and German shepherd was captured during a leisurely afternoon with the Hirshhorn's and friends.
After exploring these artifacts, I began to ask myself if these close affinities could exist today. In the midst of the current art market environment saturated by digital content, concrete communication is often abstract and fleeting. It can take weeks to get an answer to a telephone call, and for email sometimes never as mailboxes fill up with thousands of messages that can prove overwhelming to answer. Digital correspondence is so immediate that it can often lack the nuance that adds to the character or intent of a conversation. The current generation communicates primarily through digital outlets. Email, text messaging, and social media definitely have their place, however do these electronic versions have the same meaning and impact as the hardcopies they replace? Can these modes of communication suffice in establishing gallery or museum representation to prolong a future in a fine art field? It is a pleasure to go back and read the development of these special relationships, the impact Hirshhorn had on the lives of the artists he supported, and at the same time allow contemporary artists to consider the importance of the means in which relationships are built within the current art world.
- Willem de Kooning at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Alexander Calder at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Marc Chagall at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
- Record Unit 7449 - Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, circa 1926-1982 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Last week I caught an interesting and moving documentary on HBO, Remembering the Artist: Robert De Niro, Sr. By coincidence, just a few days earlier I was looking through our finding aid to the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers in the Smithsonian Archives collection. Hirshhorn had gained his fortune in the mining and oil industries, and also amassed a large art collection - the core of which became the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden that opened in 1974 as part of the Smithsonian Institution. The finding aid to Hirshhorn's papers listed a folder containing correspondence with Robert De Niro, and I wondered at the time, why would actor Robert De Niro be writing Joseph Hirshhorn?
As I started watching the documentary, it finally clicked that Hirshhorn's relationship was with Robert De Niro, Sr., part of the New York School of artists who had success in the 1940s and 1950s, but whose fortunes would soon fade in the 1960s and 1970s when Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism began to take center stage, and De Niro refused to change his artistic style and point of view.
The documentary is a son's tribute to his father and his father's art.
The De Niro/Hirshhorn correspondence echoes themes in the documentary and sheds additional light on De Niro Senior's financial struggles and his sometimes tumultuous relationship with art dealers and patrons.
- Record Unit 7449, Joseph H. Hirshhorn Papers, c. 1926-1982 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Robert De Niro, Sr., artwork at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
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