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The Art of Golf tees off season at Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg, Florida
Charles Lees (Scottish, 1800-1880), The Golfers (1847). Oil on canvas. Collection of the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.

ST. PETERSBURG, FL.- The Art of Golf is the first major museum exhibition in America devoted to this popular game, so rich in history and tradition. Organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the National Galleries of Scotland, this show features approximately 90 works by Rembrandt, Childe Hassam, George Bellows, Norman Rockwell, and Andy Warhol, among others.

Some of these works have never before been on public display. They all point to golf’s ability to inspire extraordinary works of art. The exhibition is on view from November 3, 2012-February 17, 2013.

The centerpiece is Charles Lees’ The Golfers (1847), the world’s greatest painting in this genre. Reproductions of the work hang in golf clubhouses around the world, but this masterpiece has never before traveled to the United States. It depicts a match played on the Old Course at St. Andrews, with a wealth of fashionable observers gathered around the athletes.

Preparatory sketches (portraits of individuals in the painting) and an early photograph by Hill and Adamson, to which Lees referred, will provide context. So will “golfiana”—antique balls, clubs, and clothing—to illustrate the sport’s earliest days.

The Art of Golf takes a chronological approach to the paintings, as the history of the game unfolds. It begins with images of kolf, a cousin of the modern game, in seventeenth-century Dutch landscape and genre paintings. The exhibition even includes winter scenes of kolf being played on Holland’s frozen canals. Rembrandt’s famous etching, The Ringball Player (1654), is also part of this section.

Golf really had its foundation in Scotland. This development is brilliantly documented by the earliest known depiction of the game in the country (around 1740) and a series of Scottish golfing portraits from the National Galleries of Scotland. William Mosman’s charming full-length double-portrait of the tartan-clad youngsters Sir James Macdonald and Sir Alexander Macdonald (about 1749) is a high point. So, too, is the dignified portrait of Dr. William Inglis (about 1790) by Sir Henry Raeburn, one of Scotland’s leading artists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Inglis’s elegant silver club is displayed on the adjacent table as a sign of aristocracy or perhaps meritocracy.

The internationally known Royal and Ancient Golf Club in St. Andrews, Scotland has lent many objects.

Sir George Reid’s portrait of Old Tom Morris, for example, honors one of the first golf legends, who won four British Opens in the 1860s and later earned fame as a club-maker and course-designer.

Golf found a larger audience in the twentieth century. Sir John Lavery’s golfing scenes convey the sport’s glamour and increasing appeal in the Roaring Twenties. Art Deco railway posters promoted Scotland’s premier courses to new fans in Britain.

The sport has now become an integral part of American culture. The construction of public golf courses during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal made it possible for more people to participate. President Dwight David Eisenhower’s devotion to the game helped increase its popularity in the 1950s. A growing middle-class increasingly took to the courses. With its warm climate year-round, Florida has become a haven for golfers. The state now has more than 1,400 golf courses, the most in the nation.

In turn, quintessential American artists like Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol, who are both represented in the exhibition, treated the game in their work. Warhol selected Jack Nicklaus for his well-known “Athlete Series” (1977), and Larry Rivers produced an innovative drawing of Arnold Palmer (1989). Warhol and Rivers were more interested in these golfers’ role as celebrities than as athletes.

Charles Schulz made Snoopy a celebrity in his Peanuts comic strips, and yes, the famous beagle took up the game in the early 1970s. He even played at the Masters. A number of Schulz’s original drawings are in the exhibition.

The major networks have broadcast the top tournaments for years and the Golf Channel concentrates on the sport, as do numerous magazines. The tradition that Eisenhower, in particular, established has led to photo ops of subsequent presidents and other government leaders playing the game. It has almost become a trapping of the presidency.

The Art of Golf also spotlights the accomplishments and celebrity of the dashing Robert Tyre “Bobby” Jones Jr. (1902-1971), an Atlanta native who attracted new admirers to the sport internationally. Portraits and photographs illustrate his importance and the bond he forged between the United States and Scotland, where he loved the Old Course at St. Andrews. The noted American photographer Harold Edgerton, the inventor of a high-speed stroboscope, captured Jones hitting a golf ball. His image provides a nearly cinematic view of a gifted athlete in motion, revealing his powerful swing.

In addition, aerial photographs by Patricia and Angus Macdonald, newly commissioned by the National Galleries of Scotland, capture the beauty of Scottish golf courses and the impact of human activity on the land. The Art of Golf will earn new enthusiasts for the game and its history—and for art.

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