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New York State of mind 

Telfair exhibit chronicles Savannah ties to the Big Apple

From the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, the Telfair Museums' "New York Accents: The New York Influence on Telfair's Collections" celebrates the long-standing connections between New York and Savannah.

Co-curated by Tania Sammons, senior curator of historic sites and decorative arts, Courtney McNeil, curator of art, and Harry DeLorme, senior curator of education, this exhibition brings together important objects from the Telfair's private collections which seem to be making their way to the public eye more than ever.

"New York Accents" follows on the heels of "Sitting in Savannah," demonstrating the Telfair's diverse permanent collection of decorative arts. Both exhibitions are on view at the Telfair Academy.

"New York Accents" displays paintings, furniture, and silver in a chronological way that demonstrates the Telfair's rich history of collecting New York art and artifacts, beginning with Mary Telfair herself. The was educated in New York at Miss Dow's School, now Newark Academy, and visited often thereafter.

Courtney McNeil explains the importance Mary Telfair's father, Edward, placed on education:

"He sent Mary to Miss Dow's school at the urging of his good friend Colonel William Few, who stated of Miss Dow's school that it was 'generally believed there is not a more respectable or better school for young ladies in the United States.'"

Mary went on to become great lifelong friends with Colonel Few's daughter, Mary. To learn more about Mary Telfair's life and her significant contributions to Savannah, stop by the museum shop in the Jepson Center to peruse and purchase a copy of Mary Telfair: The Life and Legacy of a Nineteenth-Century Woman by Charles J. Johnson, Jr..

According to Sammons the Telfairs likely purchased many furniture objects directly from New York cabinetmakers such as Duncan Phyfe and Charles Honore Lannuier. Eighteenth-century Duncan Phyfe settee and chairs are second to none, held by such great repositories of American furniture as the Metropolitan's American Wing and the Henry Francis DuPont Winterthur Museum.

Nineteenth century portraits adorn the walls surrounding the eighteenth century furniture. Sammons says, "Perhaps the most interesting of the portraits is the image of Catharine Littlefield Greene Miller, circra 1809, attributed to James Frothingham."

Moving on in time, one enters the rich early twentieth century works of American Impressionism and Ashcan School painters, curated by Courtney McNeil.

The display of paintings by such powerhouse names as George Bellows and Childe Hassam is a knockout. The acquisition of the American Impressionist and Ashcan works was guided by the sharp eye of one Gari Melchers, most popularly known as an expatriate artist in Holland.

Upon the death of the Telfair's founding director, Carl Brandt in 1905, the museum board turned to Melchers, who was married to the niece of Telfair board president, Alexander Rudolph Lawton. Melchers advised the museum officially from 1906-1916 and informally through the 1920s.

One of his own works, "The Unpretentious Garden," (ca. 1903-09), is part of the exhibition and its adept, painterly rendering of a sunny garden scene places Melchers squarely in good company with the likes of George Bellows's showstopper, "Snow Capped River," (1911).

"Snow Capped River" just returned home from the national exhibition, "George Bellows," with stops at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Royal Academy of Arts, London. Bellows was a student of the famed American artist Robert Henri and is associated with Henri's Ashcan School, known for promoting a wide variety of political and cultural views on American life.

In addition to his gritty scenes of New York City life and renderings of boxing matches, Bellows also painted seascapes and city views. "Snow Capped River" is a view of the Hudson River from Riverside Park. Wall Street Journal critic Eric Gibson described this work as, "a bone-chilling view across a frozen Hudson, paint captures—even seems to embody—atmospheric effects such as winter's bitter cold, the blinding glare emanating from the sunlit landscape, and the aridity of a stripped-down, frozen landmass."

The work is Bellows at his most sublime in his commentary on man's struggle against nature, and is a masterful tour de force in American painting.

Progressing forward into the later twentieth century is an appetite-whetting arrangement of works curated by DeLorme that includes some of the biggest names in American modern painting, such as Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein. On the way to these superstars are some lesser-known artists such as Alexander Brook and Augusta Denk Oelschig.

Oelshig was a student of Brook's when he taught at the Academy on his visits to Savannah from New York, and her works were featured in a major retrospective at the Telfair in 2000. She moved to New York in 1948 when it was the hotbed for Abstract Expressionism and the explosive growth of new schools of painting, yet she maintained her representational manner. The leaps from her work around the room to Oldenburg, Lichtenstein, and the Haarlem Renaissance hero, Romare Bearden, are graceful, and leave the viewer yearning to see what more the Telfair will bring out of the coffers.

Another great connection between the Telfair and New York is its relationship with famed Museum of Modern Art curator Kirk Varnedoe, a Savannah native. His widow, Elyn Zimmerman, worked with the Telfair to assemble the collection, which includes works by Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly, Frank Stella, Roy Lichtenstein, and many others.

While the "New York Accents" exhibit was germinating, Sammons organized a trip for the Telfair's Owens-Thomas House supporters up the Hudson River to visit great houses and museums, including Fredric Edwin Church's Olana, Jay Gould's Lyndhurst, and the Rockefeller Brothers's Kykuit.

Sammons says, "The visit to the Hudson River Valley had been in the works a few years as a trip sponsored by the Friends of the Owens-Thomas House, and spurred on by my study trip to the region last summer. Once we added this exhibition, the trip took on additional meaning."

The good news is that we Savannahians do not need to board a train along the mighty Hudson to interact with New York. "New York Accents: The New York Influence on Telfair's Collections" is up through June 2013.

The one thing this avid museum-goer and art historian would have cherished is a catalog of the exhibition with essays by the Telfair's learned curators. For more information, see www.telfair.org.

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Paula S. Fogarty

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