The Halff Collection
December 26, 2006
Twenty-six major paintings from America's Gilded Age make up the collection assembled by San Antonio's Hugh and Marie Halff, all of which are now on display at American Art. The exhibition, "An Impressionist Sensibility," accomplishes several things: It provides viewers with access to a rich collection, one regarded as authoritative among private holdings of works from the turn of the century. Because the complete collection is on display, the exhibition offers a comprehensive view of a carefully selected set. For some viewers, that comprehensive perspective will make for insights into the nature of collecting. More directly, the show captures the painterly ambition of the Gilded Age in its various modes: impressionism, japonisme, orientalism, and academic painting.
The Halffs began collecting contemporary art in the 1970s; the "mature" collection—the collection as it stands—was developed quite rapidly: from 1985 through 1989, with only a few adjustments thereafter. During this period, the market for impressionist work was robust and competitive.
The Halff collection is virtually complete now. (The Halffs debate adding one last piece, if space permits—they've capped the collection size at what can be comfortably displayed in their home). Works have entered the collection as others have left: Childe Hassam's Clearing Sunset, for example, replaced a Shinnecock landscape by William Merritt Chase.
The artists in the exhibition studied in Europe and absorbed the various impressionist modes that were developed throughout the continent. What may strike viewers as a meandering sensibility in the collection is, in fact, a reflection of the diversity of ways that artists were experimenting with surface values. An amazing Prendergast painting (Park Scene Near Bay, one of the artist's rare fine oil pieces) features thick dollops of paint, whereas paint is so sparely applied in Twachtman's work, the canvas is plainly visible.
The commonalities in the collection? The stylistic thread jumps from work to work and artist to artist, but impressionism is clearly the common idiom. At the time in which most of these artists were creating, the Hudson River school was in eclipse. Church and Bierstadt were among the generation in decline; a new and confident generation had emerged, with artists such as Sargent, Chase, and Whistler competing in the vanguard.
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