One consequence of the ongoing pandemic has been the regrettable closure during the past few months of many cultural institutions in the CSRA. With the recent lifting of shelter-in-place regulations in our state and in Georgia, however, many museums, libraries and historic sites are slowly and carefully reopening.
Such is the case of the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta. On June 9, with certain safeguards in place, such as requiring the use of masks and limiting the number of visitors in the galleries, this venerable repository of Southern art has once again opened its doors to the public.
How much I welcomed the chance to reconnect with some of my favorite pieces in the permanent collection! Since my last visit in the spring, a number of these paintings have been rehung and recontextualized, and this is particularly true of the museum’s impressive collection of the works of North Carolina visionary artist Elliott Daingerfield. Eleven of his paintings have been, for the time being, assigned to a gallery space all to themselves, and the impact of this compacted assemblage is quite powerful.
Daingerfield, who was raised in Fayetteville, eventually moved to New York where he gained acceptance in the epicenter of the American art market. His greatest period of productivity and recognition came 10 years before and 10 years after the turn of the 20th century; he was elected into the National Academy of Design in 1906.
As I scanned the Daingerfield exhibition last week, I could not help thinking about a recent column that I devoted to novelist Edith Wharton. Although she was born to great wealth and social prestige, Wharton eschewed what she saw as the conspicuous materialism of the Gilded Age.
Daingerfield’s most characteristic work, it can be argued, similarly sets itself in opposition to material concerns. In the 1890s, when the artist first traveled to Europe, the Symbolist poets and painters were all the rage and so too was their collective quest for the truths behind surface reality. One thinks of the poems of Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud and the pastels of Odilon Redon.
In fact, the dreamlike works of Redon remind me so much of Daingerfield’s mature work. Therein, as is the case of his “Portrait of Violette Heymann,” which I used to visit often at the Cleveland Museum of Art when I was undertaking graduate work in that city, the young woman in profile in the right half of the image seems to be conjuring up in her imagination the fantastical floral fireworks that surround her. Over and over in Redon, we see figures immobilized in a dream state or sleepwalking through an environment shaped by the subconscious.
Similar figures, draped or undraped, upright or recumbent, inhabit the landscapes of Daingerfield’s mature style. In a 1994 Morris Museum publication titled “Victorian Visionary,” Rick Gruber argues that the death of his wife Roberta in 1891 led Daingerfield into realms of spiritual speculation. The Morris collection includes, for example, the artist’s “The Mystic Brim” (1893) for which he wrote an accompanying poem: “I stood upon the mystic brim of all Immensity and now about me … I saw go by a company moving on eternally.” In the oil painting itself, three figures stand on a promontory while about them swirl ghostly forms “like seraphim.”
The Morris is most fortunate to possess what may very well be Daingerfield’s most commanding works, including several pieces inspired by the artist’s 1910 trip to the Grand Canyon. According to contemporary accounts, Daingerfield and the other artists commissioned by the railroad to paint the glories of the Western landscape, were led to the rim of the canyon blindfolded and asked to open their eyes only when they had reached the edge so that the wonder of the scene might burst upon them all at once.
My own first glimpse of the Grand Canyon was not so dramatic although I too stayed at the El Tovar just as that visiting contingent of painters did over 100 years ago. Daingerfield’s first painted responses to the canyon were fairly traditional landscapes, emphasizing light, color, atmosphere. Eventually, however, he returned to the Symbolist mode; in both “The Sleepers” and “The Genius of the Canyon,” nude figures in the darkened foreground, molded to the rock as if they were part of the geological formation, appear to be in deep sleep, summoning up from their subconscious minds the exotic, Orientalist architecture illuminated on the canyon’s far rim. In these dreamscapes, the canyon is still recognizable but transformed by the artist’s imagination.
With so many of his works assembled in a single gallery room, now is the perfect time to appreciate Daingerfield’s achievements as a painter. In addition, thanks to the generous support of the Bank of America, admission to the Morris is free this summer until Aug. 31. In the coming weeks, I will be devoting columns to additional exhibitions currently on view: highlights from the museum’s folk art collection and eight works by Cheryl Goldsleger, the most recent Morris Eminent Scholar in Art at Augusta University.