Category Archives: Fine Arts

What Was Lincoln Really Like?

David Gilmour Blythe, Abraham Lincoln, Rail Splitter, 1860, oil on canvas, Gift of Paul Mellon, 63.19
David Gilmour Blythe, Abraham Lincoln Writing the Emancipation Proclamation, 1863, oil on canvas, Museum purchase: gift of Mr. and Mrs. John F. Walton, 58.56.2

This weekend marks the opening of Lincoln, a film examining the last months of the president’s life. If you haven’t yet seen the newly renovated Scaife Galleries here at the museum, we currently have four portrayals of this great American figure on view. Two by Lincoln’s contemporary David Gilmour Blythe were painted during the heat of Lincoln’s campaign for the presidency in 1860 and in the aftermath of his famous Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 (above). They depict Lincoln as his contemporaries knew him: an ambitious young politician surrounded by symbols of his messy fight for the Republican presidential nomination, and then in his notoriously disorganized White House office, in shirt sleeves and slippers as he drafts the document that would define his presidency. Blythe died in 1865, the year of Lincoln’s assassination.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Abraham Lincoln: The Man, 1884–1887, bronze, Gift of Charles J. Rosenbloom, 43.8

The Museum’s other portraits reflect the transformation of Lincoln into a national hero and paragon of virtue following his death. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze Standing Lincoln is a small scale version of a monument erected in Chicago in 1887. The contrast with Blythe’s casual portraits could not be greater—the formal attire, dignified posture, and oversized chair decorated with a symbolic eagle represent Lincoln’s moral character and his place in American history. The enduring power of this portrait is suggested by Teenie Harris’ image of two students in Pittsburgh’s Rochester High School in 1950, carefully posed with a photograph of the Chicago monument. This work is not currently on view in the galleries, but here it is:

Charles “Teenie” Harris, Ray Whittington and Gloria Puryear, at drinking fountain, with picture of Abraham Lincoln above, in Rochester High School, December 1950, photographic negative, Heinz Family Fund, 2001.35.23961.

As the president who ended slavery, Lincoln had special significance for African American painter Horace Pippin, who ranked him with Jesus Christ and John Brown as one of the three greatest men in history. Pippin chose to depict a story from Lincoln’s youth that neatly encapsulates his moral and political virtue. He shows the young Lincoln in his garret late at night, tucking away a borrowed book about George Washington which he has been reading by candlelight. When the book was ruined by rain, “Honest Abe” repaid its owner with hours of free labor.

Horace Pippin, Abe Lincoln’s First Book (detail), 1944, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James L. Winokur, 68.20

Lincoln continues to fascinate us as an exemplar of personal virtue and political courage, especially when times are hard. To what extent does the new film Lincoln embody the concerns and desires of the 21st century—or perpetuate the stories, legends, and myths found in the art of Blythe, Saint-Gaudens, and Pippin? Send your comments to, and we’ll post some responses on our blog and Facebook page—we’d love to hear your thoughts!

Scaife Galleries Renovation

scaife13Preparators Matt Cummings and Rob Capaldi hanging the first paintings in the newly renovated galleries.

Rosemary Sprig. Castleton Mist. Stuart Gold. Pomegranate. Tarrytown Green. Mysterious. Venezuelan Sea. Smoke Embers. Yes, the new paint colors for the Scaife Galleries renovation do sound like racehorses. Which makes sense because we’re nearing the final stretch.

scaife11Since this past spring, staff members from a range of departments—including the workshop, registrars, conservation, exhibitions, curatorial, publications, and others—have been busy updating five of the galleries, from refinishing floors and painting surfaces to selecting, refurbishing, and reinstalling some artworks that have been off view for a while. We think you’re going to like the changes.

scaife3There’s still plenty of work to be done in the next couple of months, but the reinstalled and renovated galleries will reopen September 15. Here’s a list of the popular works that are currently off view or are temporarily on view in Impressionism in a New Light. And here are some photos from the past few weeks:

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Impressionism in a New Light

impressionism4Linda Benedict-Jones, Amanda Zehnder & Akemi May

We are asked all the time how long it took to put together Impressionism in a New Light. When we tell people that it took more than two years, they always wonder why. Well, there are lots of reasons for that. To begin, we had to simply sit down and discuss whether it made any sense to try to merge paintings, pastels, prints, and drawings with photographs. We had to survey our collection to see what we had, and this is more complicated than most people can imagine because it means looking at each possible work of art individually. Many of them are in storage; works on paper are fragile; and, frankly, lots of them had not been looked at for years and years.

After a lot of brainstorming that came from frequent get-togethers, we concluded that this curatorial partnership could make this show unique for the audience. Somewhere along the way these ideas had to be pitched to the director and the rest of the CMA staff. These shows never happen without careful planning, a well-designed budget, and help from colleagues in the development department to secure important sponsorships. Once we got the green light to move forward, we decided that most of the show could come from our own collection, but to include additional artists that would support specific points in the exhibition, we decided that the show would be enriched by a few carefully selected loans.

It’s probably safe to say that most people don’t realize what goes into securing loans for a museum exhibition. In our case, it meant setting up appointments with private collectors and at many different museums, including some that didn’t result in useful material for the show. Once we finally determined what our wish list would be, paperwork flew back and forth between our colleagues and potential lenders, with emails and phone calls that dealt with shipping, insurance, light levels, facility requirements, and much, much more. We were thrilled by the loans we secured for the show largely because we know that our visitors in western Pennsylvania have never had a chance to see these specific works from distant collections.

2012-04-27 14.59.52Akemi & Amanda marking final placement of the works

Planning for the actual installation took about a year. We had to figure out how best to present Monet’s Water Lilies, for example. We had to sort out how to recycle the carpeting from the Teenie Harris show for the second gallery. The workshop and conservation departments were key for these tasks and for the successful physical manifestation of the show; we worked with them hand in glove. Our curatorial assistant, Akemi May, was indispensable on every level and she helped us supervise three CMU interns to research period quotations for the walls. We relied on them to use a complicated computer program to determine how many works we could actually fit into the show, given the size of each and their placement on the walls. And as with any exhibition, we had to choose paint colors and work with the designer on graphics and the overall look of the show.


P1010145CMOA art handlers preparing to move Monet’s Water Lilies from Scaife Galleries for the exhibition

Throughout it all we worked closely with our colleagues in the publications department, too, to attend to a wide variety of needs such as the 150 wall labels and text panels for the exhibition. These took an eternity to write and required lots of skillful editing. We watched with glee as they designed and printed these as well as 10 distinct bookmarks for the audience to enjoy. Speaking of writing, we also were interviewed for an extensive feature article in Carnegie Magazine that really showcases the exhibition and the depth of the content.

With our colleagues in the education and IT departments, we spent time exploring the advantages of including digital interactive devices for the galleries. We agreed that these would enhance the visitor’s experience by bringing some aspects of the show up to date. The amazing corps of docents worked really hard leading up to the opening date and we enjoyed talking with them on several occasions to get them geared up for some new ideas.  Thanks to our meetings with folks in the education department, we prepared for a nerve-wracking but exciting Opening Night with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra which meant that we got to visit the Maestro’s Suite at Heinz Hall to plan our “casual discussion” that would take place in front of 1,400 at Carnegie Music Hall. Speaking to such a large audience was a new experience for us both and the preparations for this program were at least a year in the making. In the end it went well and we were ready for our glass of champagne.

It truly takes a village to mount an exhibition like Impressionism in a New Light and we feel really fortunate to have the professional and skillful support network that helped us on this show.