Sunday, December 23, 2012

Let Us Buy the Hassam and Grow Up To It

Childe Hassam painting "Summer Afternoon, Isle Of Shoals."
Jennie Cleveland's letter in defense of the purchase of the Childe Hassam painting 'Summer Afternoon, Isle of Shoals' was published in the Erie, PA Sunday Messenger-Graphic on March 13, 1904:

"Whenever there is any discussion as to the purchase of pictures for our Public Art Gallery, the question arises, 'What kind of picture shall we buy? Shall we get one that pleases the people now, or something to grow up to?'

Now, the central thought, around which our Public Library is built, is to educate, to elevate, hold up higher standards.

The idea of a library is not to fill the shelves with books of any and every kind, just to make possible the boast of the great number of publications we possess. We want to put better books into the hands of children and adults, and want them to learn to enjoy them. It is quality not quantity for which we must stand, if we would not go backwards.

This thing is equally true of our picture gallery. People say, 'Wouldn't it be better to buy two cheaper pictures, rather than a more expensive one?' Well, a cheap picture is much like a tolerable egg- we soon wish we had a better one.

What is the use of buying pictures simply to fill the gallery? Every housewife, when she sees a piece of handsome furniture, bemoans her already crowded rooms. Every book lover regrets his filled shelves. Let us leave some space on the gallery walls for the picture that, ten or twenty years hence, is so beautiful that its purchase is compulsory. But this is for the future. 

For the present the picture we need is the one which we cannot comprehend at a glance. We do not want to read 'Mary had a little lamb' all our lives, although that poem served its purpose very well when we were children. We must progress to Milton, to Tennyson, to Shakespeare, to Browning.

Just so, we want to progress in our study of art, and to progress we must have mental exercise; we must study pictures for their technique, their drawing, their color, their meaning.

As to who shall say how hard a lesson shall be given us, how high our standard shall be, let me use a material illustration: If one wanted to buy a reaper he would care more for the opinion of an intelligent farmer than for Paderewski's. Why? Because such a farmer has used the machine, and Paderewski has not. But if he wants to buy a piano the situation is reversed. The farmer's opinion on the subject is worth nothing except to himself.

If a man is ill, he does not trust his precious anatomy to a barber or to the blacksmith- that is, if he is a wise man- but to the skilled physician. Apply the same principle to the judging of pictures. Is not the opinion of those who have made a special study of the subject more reliable and valuable than the hap-hazard opinion of the many who simply know what they like?

Would an audience expect Thomas's orchestra to play popular airs and rag-time simply because the people like such music? That we would soon tire of it, our street pianos are noisy witnesses. 

Now the one picture that fulfills the conditions that we think indispensable, is Childe Hassam's New England Coast, a picture correct in topography, fine in drawing, unique in method and style, beautiful in color. Let us buy the Hassam and grow up to it."

Miss Jennie R. Cleveland (1859-1937) taught at the old Erie High School in downtown Erie, PA. Her family home at 8th and Peach is currently the site of the Masonic Temple Building. Miss Cleveland was a charter member of the Art Club of Erie.

The community raised $1,000 through popular subscription to purchase the Hassam painting.

The Childe Hassam painting 'Summer Evening, Isle of Shoals' is on display at the Blasco Memorial Library, 160 East Front Street, Erie, Pennsylvania.

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