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Vassar College's Art Center Highlights Three Collectors and 48 Outstanding Works
Henri Matisse (French, 1869-1954), designer; Edmond Vairel (French, 19th-20th centuries), printmaker, Le cow-boy (The Cowboy), from the album Jazz, 1947. Pochoir (stencil). Gift of Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd (Blanchette Hooker, class of 1931) 1954.2.14

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY.- The summer exhibition at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, A Taste for the Modern: Gifts from Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, Edna Bryner Schwab, and Virginia Herrick Deknatel, showcases 48 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, and photographs that have been donated to the Art Center by three Vassar alumnae.

On view from June 24 through September 4, 2011, A Taste for the Modern, examines for the first time the modern art collecting of these three generous alumnae - Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller, Edna Bryner Schwab, and Virginia Herrick Deknatel - and the development of their tastes for the modern. In addition, the exhibition, curated by Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings, explores how all three of their collecting histories have profoundly affected and continues to influence the visitor’s and Vassar student’s experience of exploring modern and contemporary art at the college.

In the permanent collection of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, works of art by 20th-century modernists vie for attention, providing excellent examples for contemplating the moments and moods associated with artists and movements of that century. Luscious, nature-evoking canvases and watercolors stand out by the circle of American artists around gallery owner and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Provocative oils and prints by mid-century expressionists project new, alternative, and tense worlds. How did these and many other adventurous modern works come to reside at the Art Center?

The answer may be seen through the important gifts to the Art Center from the three generous alumnae on view in the exhibition. Several key works are also on view in the permanent collection galleries. One section of the exhibition explores mid-century works given by Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller (1909-1992), Vassar class of 1931. The remaining two sections explore works donated by Edna Bryner Schwab (1886-1967), Vassar class of 1907, and Virginia Herrick Deknatel (1906-2009), Vassar class of 1929. Some of the works include:

• Paul Klee’s drawing Schwanenteich (Swan Pond), William Baziotes’s Night Mirror, Bradley Walker Tomlin’s No. 4, and Karel Appel’s Child and Beast II given to the Art Center by Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller.

• John Marin’s turbulent and groundbreaking watercolor Thirty-Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue at Noon, and several of his transformative landscapes dominate the works given by Edna Bryner Schwab to the college.

• Virginia Herrick Deknatel’s gifts encompass a wide arc, from several works by Picasso to drawings by Cézanne to bronzes by David Smith and Anthony Caro.

All three of these women collected in close concert with authorities in the field of modern art. Blanchette Rockefeller sought advice for her collection primarily from Alfred H. Barr, Jr., the first director of the Museum of Modern Art. Edna Bryner Schwab and her husband Arthur purchased numerous works of avant-garde American art from Stieglitz. Virginia Deknatel partnered with her husband, Frederick Deknatel, professor of modern art at Harvard University, in collecting post-impressionist and modern art. After his death, she continued this tradition.

Background on collecting in the early 20th century
In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Old Masters and French Impressionists garnered most American art collectors’ interests, and modern art appealed to a small audience. In New York City, Stieglitz premiered the first American exhibitions of the European avant-garde and a handful of American modernists at his 291 gallery, and in his journals Camera Work and 291. He maintained his prominence with the Anderson Galleries in 1921-25, and then with his later galleries, the Intimate Gallery of 1925-29 and An American Place of 1929-46.

The large, much-publicized display of modern art at the Armory Show in New York in 1913 and subsequent showings in Chicago and Boston threw contemporary, controversial European art into the public arena with puzzling oils by Marcel Duchamp and others. Progressive individuals, however, began to acquire these works. Soon, collectors Mary Quinn Sullivan, Lillie P. Bliss, and their friend Abby Aldrich Rockefeller initiated and advanced the idea for what became the Museum of Modern Art, which opened in New York in 1929, with post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne becoming the aesthetic foundation for its permanent collection.

Blanchette Hooker Rockefeller
The Museum of Modern Art became a crucible for Blanchette Rockefeller as an art collector. A culture of collecting and interest in the arts informed her earlier life, but the museum and several of its associates were instrumental in her development and taste as an important collector of modern art.

Born in 1909 in New York City, Blanchette was the youngest of four daughters of Blanche Ferry Hooker (1871-1956) of Detroit, and Elon Huntington Hooker (1869-1938) of Rochester, New York. Blanchette majored in classical piano at Vassar and graduated in 1931. In 1932 she married John D. Rockefeller 3rd (1906-1978), who shared her deep interest in social issues. In the late 1940s, brother-in-law Nelson Rockefeller, who was president of MoMA’s board of trustees, asked her to become involved at MoMA by forming a Junior Council to attract younger committee members. This invitation was the beginning of her lengthy, close tie to MoMA.

In addition to these formal activities, Blanchette collected art with her husband. The couple became well known for their collections of historical American art, as well as Asian art. Even before the Asian and American collections were begun, however, Blanchette began collecting contemporary art as her primary interest, though her collection and its development have never been documented fully.

By the late 1940s, Blanchette Rockefeller was beginning to think of starting her own collection. With her involvement at MoMA, she began acquiring contemporary art, advised primarily by Barr. She had started the process of collecting in this area at least by 1948. Her earliest recorded purchase within the Vassar gifts is Paul Klee’s abstract gouache, Schwanen Teich (Swan Pond), a pictographic nature scene bought from Curt Valentin’s Buchholz Gallery in 1948, and on view in the exhibition.

The late 1940s and the early 1950s saw Blanchette Rockefeller’s heaviest collecting of modern art. She bought contemporary and international paintings, drawings, prints, and sculptures by American, European, Japanese, and Latin artists. Many were on view at the Rockefeller guesthouse, a townhouse on E. 52nd Street remodeled by MoMA’s director of architecture Philip Johnson, expressly for displaying her modern art collection and entertaining visitors. The guesthouse was essential in her development as a modern art collector, for it gave her an actual living space where she could hone her tastes.

Photographs of the New York guesthouse published in magazines in the early 1950s reveal Blanchette Rockefeller’s modern art collection in situ. Klee’s gouache drawing, Schwanen Teich (Swan Pond) was installed in the foyer. Mark Rothko’s painting, No. 1 (No. 18, 1948), with its floating reds, appeared in a photograph Aaron Siskind made of the guesthouse in 1951. She purchased the Rothko canvas for the guesthouse the year before with input from Barr, Johnson, and MoMA curator Dorothy Miller. Matisse’s esteemed portfolio of lively prints, Jazz (1947), was also at the guesthouse and is now at the Art Center. It is represented in the exhibition by Le cow-boy, plate XIV from the album.

As with MoMA, Blanchette Rockefeller was involved with her alma mater for decades. She was a trustee of Vassar from 1948 to 1956, gave generous, regular funds to the college, and kept in close contact with it. Though it is little known beyond Vassar College, she gave the school 105 works of art, between 1952 and her bequest. They include some of the most important modern works in the collection, such as the oil by Rothko, Francis Bacon’s canvas Study for Portrait, IV, and the print portfolio, Jazz, by Henri Matisse. Her gifts also include William Baziotes’s Night Mirror, Bradley Walker Tomlin’s No. 4, and Karel Appel’s Child and Beast II. While the Rothko and Bacon are on view in the permanent collection galleries, the Baziotes, Tomlin, and Appel are presented in the special exhibition.

These and other works from Blanchette Rockefeller’s personal collection left a rich resource at Vassar College for the study of mid-20th-century modernism. They preserve her vision as an art collector. Many of these works are on view in this exhibition and in the modern and contemporary galleries highlighting the permanent collection of the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Distinctive stories also lie behind the arrival of other modern collections given by Vassar alumnae, such as Edna Bryner Schwab and Virginia Herrick Deknatel.

Edna Bryner Schwab
Edna Bryner Schwab’s 51 works of modern art from her collection came to Vassar at her death in 1967, long after most of Blanchette Rockefeller’s gifts had arrived at the college and before the majority of Virginia Deknatel’s gifts had been donated. Little on Bryner and the development of her modern taste in art has been published. Only one article on her collecting of modern art has appeared, whereas her collecting of Tibetan objects, such as the manuscripts, paintings, and bronzes bequeathed to Yale University, has received more scholarly attention.

She wrote nationally recognized stories and novels in the 1920s and 1930s under her maiden name, Edna Bryner. At the same time, she collected modern paintings, watercolors, prints, and photographs with her husband Arthur Schwab. They acquired post-impressionist and modern drawings and prints by Cézanne, Picasso, and others. The two were patrons of Stieglitz and purchased numerous American modernist works from him from the mid-1920s until at least 1940.

As a writer and nature-seeker, Bryner felt a keen kinship with Stieglitz’s modern landscape artists, especially Georgia O’Keeffe with her oils and John Marin with his watercolors. These two artists were trying to express nature’s lively moods and forces. Bryner’s rural upbringing and her own irrepressible creative temperament fed this connection.

Bryner was born in 1886 in Tylersburg, Pennsylvania, a small community in the northwestern part of the state. She graduated from Vassar in 1907, and after several jobs worked at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City, an institution fostering better living conditions in the United States. In 1916 she married Arthur Schwab of St. Louis. By 1919 he was director of the Bureau of Factory Practice and Industrial Relations under the International Association of Garment Manufacturers in New York City. By this year, Bryner began writing full-time. She turned her attention to stories, which were soon published to acclaim in literary magazines such as Dial and Bookman. Two novels, Andy Brandt’s Ark (1927) and While the Bridegroom Tarried (1929), were published.

During this decade of the 1920s the Schwabs patronized Stieglitz, buying works from him in installments and visiting Stieglitz and O’Keeffe at their country home at Lake George in the Adirondacks in New York. Bryner and Schwab acquired paintings by O’Keeffe and watercolors by Marin as well as works by other New York City modernists that are now in the permanent collection of the Art Center.

A steady rapport developed between the couple and Stieglitz through their letters, with reports on what each was reading and doing. Bryner was particularly interested in talking to Stieglitz about writing and writers. She seems to have felt great empathy with Marin who wrote in a vivid, poetic style that she found to be of “unusual interest.” Indeed, in his letters to Stieglitz, Marin wrote eloquently, weaving together fantastic images. For example, around 1911 he described some of his New York City watercolors as “piles” of paint that approximated the close, “piling-up” of grand buildings one sees in Manhattan. That same sense of crowding and movement affects his turbulent and groundbreaking watercolor Thirty-Fifth Street and Fifth Avenue at Noon, on view in the exhibition.

The lyrical and transformative cityscapes and landscapes of Marin, O’Keeffe, and others dominate those works she gave to Vassar. She wrote of these artists’ unique “American” approach to modernism in her own writings, including “An American Vision” and “A Marin Water Color Adventure.” The latter was a rhapsodic appreciation of those watercolors and prints by Marin with which she had lived. Consequently, the exhibition features several works by Marin. His themes on the city and the coast of Maine, another favorite subject, were endemic to the Stieglitz Circle’s search for a specifically American, local modernism, and both Edna Bryner and her husband agreed wholeheartedly with this philosophy.

Of a philosophical nature, Edna Bryner turned more and more of her attention to Asian cultures, and in 1939 she became a student at Columbia University, studying Eastern literature and religion. With time she became a specialist of Tibetan Buddhist literature and wrote her well-received Thirteen Tibetan Tankas, a scholarly book on Tibetan scrolls that was published in 1956. Clearly, the theme of religious transcendence in this later period of her life connected with the transformative nature of the art she and her husband had collected in earlier years. These works, given to Vassar in 1967 at the time of her death, remain a testament to her and her husband’s engagement with the Stieglitz circle’s great empathy with the forces of nature.

Virginia Herrick Deknatel
From 1975 until her bequest, Virginia Deknatel gave Vassar 36 works of art. Her highly significant donation in 2005 of the collage-inspired painting Verre, guitare, partition (Glass, Guitar, and Musical Score) (1922-23) by Pablo Picasso was the artist’s first cubist oil to enter the permanent collection. Because of cubism’s strategic importance in the history of modern art, the painting is a major contribution to the Art Center. Her bequest of important post-impressionist to contemporary drawings, prints, and especially sculptures anchored the Vassar collection still deeper into a multi-layered study of key moments in modern art,. Her gifts have encompassed a wide arc, from drawings by Cézanne to linoleum cuts by Picasso to bronzes by David Smith and Anthony Caro.

The development of Virginia Deknatel’s modern art collection has received little scholarly attention. Born in 1906 in Erie, Pennsylvania, she was reared in Olean, a small city in western New York. Her father, John Pierce Herrick, was a newspaper publisher, editor, and highly successful oil producer, and investor. Her family did not collect art. In fact, her interest in art developed later, at Vassar, where she graduated in 1929. She showed an early interest in modernism with a trip to the Soviet Union with Hallie Flanagan, drama professor at Vassar, to study experimental theater. On her travels to Europe, she met Frederick B. Deknatel. Deknatel graduated from Princeton University in 1928 and was studying for a Ph.D. in art history at Harvard University. They married in 1931 as he was researching his dissertation on medieval sculpture of cathedrals in Burgos and León in northern Spain. In 1932 he joined the Harvard Department of Fine Arts faculty as assistant to Paul Sachs, associate director of the Fogg Museum.

The Deknatels began collecting in the 1930s and 1940s and continued doing so into the 1960s. They traveled regularly to Europe, especially to London and Paris, and met contemporary artists and collected late 19th- and 20th-century art. According to their son John, “She grew up in an era when the art world wasn’t the big deal it is now…. They really knew Picasso’s dealers in Paris and collectors in London. That small world was their life in the ’30s and ’40s.”

Professor Deknatel showed great interest in the history of modern art, and he devoted himself to this area of instruction for forty years. Both in his early tenure and in later years, from 1953 to 1973, as the William Dorr Boardman Professor of Fine Arts, he taught the history of modern art to Harvard students, inspiring and influencing generations of young scholars and curators.

Teaching at Harvard was essential to the development of Frederick and Virginia Deknatel’s collecting, for they acquired the works of those artists such as Delacroix, Cézanne, Bonnard, and Picasso who were central to Frederick’s courses on 19th- and 20th-century art. Mrs. Deknatel said later, “We bought everything together. … We never thought of ourselves as being collectors, we never thought of these things as a collection. We bought for our own enjoyment.”

Naturally, the Harvard Art Museums became beneficiaries of several works of art. The Deknatels also gave works to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Thereafter, from 1975 after her husband died through the years to her bequest, Virginia Deknatel collected late 19th- and 20th-century prints and sculpture, and gave dozens of works to the MFA, where she was very active. She gave money to the MFA from the Deknatel family foundation to set up a fund for purchasing modern and contemporary drawings and prints. She also funded the Virginia Herrick Deknatel Paper Conservation Laboratory at the MFA, renamed in her honor.

Virginia Deknatel was generous to Vassar. In 1975, she gave to Vassar the first of 36 works to eventually come to the college from her collection. She kept several others destined for Vassar on view in her house in Cambridge. Her bequest in 2009 to the Art Center at Vassar revolved around these works of art that she lived with in her home in Cambridge.

The works in the Deknatel bequest to Vassar represented decades of collecting. She inherited works from her husband’s estate, including Picasso’s black-inked lithograph La Mère et ses Enfants, on view in the exhibition, which hung in the study over her desk. Picasso’s brilliant Le Chapeau à Fleurs, a bold color linoleum cut also on view, met guests in the entrance hallway. In the mid-1970s, after her husband’s death, she bought color lithographs by Bonnard and Vuillard, and selections of these are displayed in the exhibition. She also acquired sculptures by Anthony Caro and George Rickey, who are represented in the exhibition, and David Smith, among others. In 1979 Vassar Art Department Chair Linda Nochlin had described the calligraphic sculpture by Smith, Ten Arcs, One Ring as “a remarkable work, full of abstract energy, yet with beguiling anthropomorphic overtones at the same time.” The sculpture by Smith is on view in the permanent collection galleries. Her decision to collect sculptures was made in the mid-1970s with the intention of giving them to Vassar.

Like Blanchette Rockefeller, Virginia Deknatel became very active at Vassar, her alma mater. In 1975, the very first year she gifted art to Vassar, she joined the Board of Directors of the Friends of Vassar College Art Gallery. She made enthusiastic appeals to fellow alumnae/i for gifting and membership, and by 1979 she was elected an Honorary Director of the Friends Board and had joined the gallery’s acquisitions committee.

Virginia Deknatel’s knowledge, eye, and experience of collecting modern and contemporary art, from Cézanne to Picasso to sculptures by David Smith and others, contributed to the shaping of Vassar’s permanent collection. As with gifts from Blanchette Rockefeller and Edna Bryner Schwab, the results of years of acquiring work are on view in this exhibition and in the permanent collection galleries. The ventures of all three of these collectors came together through their gifts to Vassar, and profoundly affect and will continue to influence the Vassar student’s experience of exploring modern and contemporary art at the college.

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