The Enduring Legacy of the James and Rebecca Beal Collection
Five of the six unique works in the exhibition CMOA Collects Edward Hopper, one of the oils (the important early work Sailing, the first painting the artist sold), all three spectacular watercolors, and the large drawing, Tree, Maine, came to the museum from a single collection, which was assembled over a quarter century by Pittsburghers James and Rebecca Beal. In addition to these works by Hopper, the Beals gave or bequeathed to the museum more than 250 other works, almost entirely by American artists. In all, their legacy to the museum includes some ceramics and a few sculptures, 27 paintings, and more than 200 works on paper. Though most of these are not big, splashy works—indeed many are small, intimate creations—they reveal a knowledgeable, advanced aesthetic and a collecting activity with a focus on artistic quality, though sometimes tempered by market realities, such as availability and prices.
It is certainly a great fortune for any museum to have generous, knowledgeable benefactors who enrich the museum’s holdings with donations of whole collections they have spent years assembling or with a series of gifts of individual works specifically chosen because of their importance in a local, national, or international context. In a period of less than 20 years, from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, CMOA benefited in an extraordinary way from such generosity. Over this span of time, the museum received a group of seminal contemporary works from G. David Thompson; the important bequest of Howard A. Noble’s collection of old master paintings, together with considerable funds to add to it; the magnificent gifts from Sarah Scaife and family, starting with old masters and culminating in a series of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces; the incredible collection of works on paper by Rembrandt, Dürer, Whistler, Van Gogh, Matisse, among others from Charles J. Rosenbloom; and the thousands of decorative arts works from the Ailsa Mellon Bruce collection. All these added complementary strengths to the museum and did so with minimal replication. Some 20 years after these, the Beal collection added comparable complementary strength in the area of American art, especially that of the first half of the 20th century.
Important patrons to our museum and other Pittsburgh institutions though they certainly were, the Beals were private people, who not only did not seek publicity, but actively avoided it. As a result, their contributions are still not as widely known as they should be. An important step in rectifying this was made more than 20 years ago. On the occasion of the exhibition Toward Modernism: American Art from the Beal Collection held at CMOA in 1994, Henry Adams, who had known the Beals during his brief tenure as curator at the museum in the early 1980s, wrote an important, informative essay on the collectors and the evolution of their collection to introduce the catalogue of the works they had acquired. This is the source of much of the personal information included here.
Both Jim and Rebecca Beal were born in 1898. They lived their long, productive lives (he died first, in 1987; she in 1993) in Pittsburgh. Jim, a successful and respected lawyer, was a graduate of Princeton who received a law degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1928. He was involved for many years on the boards of several civic and educational institutions. In 1948 he became trustee of Carnegie Institute and a member of the Museum of Art Committee (now the Carnegie Museum of Art Board), serving as chairman of the latter for nearly a decade. By the time he became honorary member of both boards in 1976, his formal service to the museum had lasted almost 30 years.
But, by all accounts, Rebecca (Becky) Beal, a proficient though not professional watercolor artist and art scholar—more about this later—was the primary force behind their collecting activity. Mrs. Beal had a direct, no nonsense personality. She maintained throughout her life a passionate interest in art, apparently demonstrated early on in art classes at Carnegie Institute, an institution she supported in many important ways for decades.
Becky Beal’s involvement in art history originated from her interest in the work of her great-grandfather, the 19th century American portraitist Jacob Eichholtz. She devoted nearly 30 years in a project to locate, research, authenticate, and catalog his work. This exhausting labor of love resulted in the publication of Jacob Eichholtz 1776-1842: Portrait Painter of Pennsylvania in 1969. It contains a biographical essay by E. P. Richardson to introduce Mrs. Beal’s catalogue. It had, to quote Henry Adams, “set a standard for intensive research that has probably never been matched in the field of American art history.”
It is entirely fitting that among the many Beal gifts to the museum is a fine pair of portraits of a husband and wife by Eichholtz, which was bought in 1957 and donated to the museum in 1972. Though unattributed when Mrs. Beal first saw the portraits during her research, she attributed them to Eichholtz and dated them; she turned out to be exactly right, when cleaning revealed both a signature and a date on the reverse.
The Eichholtz multi-year project apparently also had a side-benefit. While visiting New York often to research her subject, Mrs. Beal took advantage of the many opportunities offered to her by museums and galleries in the city. Henry Adams, in his above-mentioned essay, quotes from a letter she wrote to him in 1984: “I was working hard on Jacob Eichholtz at the Frick Library, and on short-time, late in the afternoons, I gobbled up what art I could see—this went on for some years!” Judging by the results, they were years well spent.
The Beals indeed appear to have begun collecting in the very early 1940’s. Their first documented acquisition was in November 1941. Mrs. Beal subsequently kept records of their purchases, including general correspondence with galleries and artists. As a result, it is possible to establish the period of their collecting activities (1941 to the early 1960s) and, in most cases, the provenance, date of acquisition, and price paid. Mainly, the purchases were made at smaller galleries, in many cases the galleries representing the artists under consideration.
That first purchase in 1941 was a watercolor by Charles Burchfield. In the next five years, five more Burchfield watercolors were added. Eventually the collection contained 20 watercolors and drawings by this favorite artist, with whom Mrs. Beal established a warm relationship that lasted for more than two decades. As a watercolorist herself, his work and his favorite medium, in general, had a special appeal to her. In fact, the very first gift from the Beals to CMOA was Burchfield’s large and important watercolor The Great Elm, purchased from Frank Rehn’s gallery in New York in 1944 and donated to the museum later that same year. Eventually, all but one of the Beal Burchfields came to the museum; the only exception is that very first acquisition from 1941, which went to Princeton, Jim Beal’s alma mater, in 1962. All the other works mentioned below came to CMOA either as gifts or by bequest after Mrs. Beal’s death in 1993.
Charles Demuth, another favorite watercolor artist, is represented in the Beal collection by 12 works, acquired from various sources, including the artist’s heirs, in a period of more than 20 years. The Beal collection also included six daring works by Arthur Dove: four watercolors, a large work in pastel and tempera, and a small, abstract and very rare example of his assemblages, Huntington Harbor II from 1926; it was the Beal’s final purchase of a work by this artist, acquired from The Downtown Gallery in New York in 1955.
In addition to Edward Hopper, who has already been mentioned, the other 20th century American artists represented by multiple works in the Beal collection include Marsden Hartley (two oils and a drawing) and John Marin (a watercolor and a drawing). Benton Spruance, a Philadelphia artist who became a friend of the Beals, was heavily represented in the collection, especially by his lithographs, but also by several drawings. In fact, more than 100 works by Spruance were given to the museum, mostly in the 1950s and early 1960s. While not nearly as important as the other Beal purchases, they are of more than passing interest in that they provide a comprehensive view of the artist’s work in all stages of his career.
The Beal collection also included single works by such diverse artists as Preston Dickinson, Lyonel Feininger, John Kane, Walt Kuhn, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Alfred Maurer, Maurice Prendergast, Charles Sheeler, Mark Tobey, and Andrew Wyeth.
From the 19th century, in addition to Eichholtz, the Beals’ interests included David Gilmour Blythe. They gave the museum several works by this unique, Pittsburgh-based artist, including two important drawings, both acquired from his nephew’s estate. In addition, the Beal collection included an important sketch by Thomas Eakins for his painting Salutat and, admittedly, a rather minor watercolor by Winslow Homer. As Jim Beal was a sailing enthusiast, the latter’s sailing subject must have appealed to him, as did Hopper’s Sailing, which had hung in his law office for many years before it came to the museum in 1972.
Several works from the Beal collection are always on view in the museum galleries. Others, usually the works on paper, which cannot be exhibited for long periods because of the inherently fragile nature of the medium, are on view periodically, usually in special exhibitions. The range and quality of the collection continue to inspire, to generate discussion, to educate, and to give pleasure. Ultimately, this is the enduring legacy of any notable collector.