For some individuals, collecting can be a sustaining passion. The thrill of the hunt, the triumph of acquiring the objects of one’s desire and the pride derived from displaying these newly won possessions can become a major motivating force in a person’s life. Collecting can also provide the impetus for lifelong learning since the collector acquires over time considerable knowledge of his chosen topic of interest as a consequence of his quest.
This brings us to Arthur J. Phelan, a Maryland-based banker and real estate investor, who has amassed over the last 40 years not one but two extraordinary collections of American art. Patrons of the Morris Museum in Augusta were able to inspect one of these two last spring in a show entitled “Window on the West,” which featured classic paintings of the Western landscape and its subsequent exploration and settlement.
The acquisition of those works can be traced, in part, to Phelan’s academic interests – he majored in history at Yale – and to his military service – he was stationed in the West while on active duty in the Air Force. The formation of his second great collection also has roots in his personal past; in this case, it is the years that his family kept a summer home between New London and the Connecticut River. Memories of a youth spent near and on the sea sparked a fondness for paintings that capture maritime subjects.
That second collection is currently on view at the Morris; entitled “Reflections on Water in American Painting,” the 50 works in this show can be divided into a number of subcategories.
The first category includes classic ship portraits, renderings of sailing vessels often executed in response to a commission by their captain or owner. One such image is “Hudson River Steamboat” by James Bard, the first of three paintings that the artist did of the same ship, which changed hands three times. Each name change necessitated a new painting.
A New York-based painter, Bard earned a modest living during the shipbuilding boom of the second half of the 19th century. All of his steamboat portraits share common features; each ship is shown in full profile with flags flying, and generally at least one large flag bears the name of the vessel in question.
A very different portrait may very well have been the single work that impelled Phelan to pursue his maritime collection. “Great Lakes Marine Disaster,” an 1860 oil by William Wheeler, features on the right side of the canvas a vessel on fire with its passengers and crew on lifeboats, one in the foreground, trying to put some distance between themselves and the dramatic conflagration. A Michigan native, Wheeler knew well the dangers of navigating the Great Lakes, which provided in the 19th century a major water route for immigrants arriving on the East Coast but intent on settling in the Midwest.
A second group of paintings are, in effect, tour-de-force depictions of the sea itself, particularly the movement of water and the interplay of surf and spray. Like most of the rather small scale pieces in this collection, these works need to be examined up close to be fully appreciated. Take, for example, the very compelling 8-inch by 16-inch “Narragansett Rock from Narragansett Bay” by Alfred Thompson Bricher. This is a very subtle, gray-on-gray composition of the surf breaking on the shore as perceived from a distance. A late representative of the Hudson River School, Bricher might also be considered a luminist painter due to his subtle lighting effects, particularly as employed in his seascapes wherein the water mirrors the sky.
Other categories of marine art in this exhibition include images of seaside towns and life by the water. In the former group is George Albert Thompson’s 1920 oil entitled “Mystic River, Connecticut.” A student of John La Farge, who was an early friend and mentor of my favorite author Henry James, and also an artist who studied briefly with Claude Monet, Thompson was known for his rather impressionistic renderings of New England coastal scenes.
In the latter group is Aiden Lassell Ripley’s 1935 oil entitled “Beach Scene,” which features a gaggle of sun worshippers in bathing costumes of the period. A Massachusetts native perhaps best known for his scenes of sporting life, particularly images of hunters and fishers, Ripley was adept at capturing human subjects in a free, seemingly spontaneous style.
“The trouble with collecting,” avows Phelan, “is that it becomes an obsession. It’s kind of like filling out a stamp album.” The “stamps” in this particular album are on view at the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta until Feb. 10. For more information, call (706) 724-7501 or visit www.themorris.org.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship in 2008, Dr. Tom Mack holds the G.L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book “Hidden History of Aiken County” has just been published by The History Press (Charleston, SC and London, UK).