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Discovering Hidden Gems – Visiting Regional, State and Local Museums

Most of us are familiar with great works of art housed at museums across the globe like the Girl with the Pearl Earring at the Hague, Venus de Milo at the Louvre, and the Creation of Adam at the Vatican. We also likely know of masterpieces across the United States: Madame X at the Met, Rembrandt Laughing at the Getty. We may recall masterworks featured at well-known museums in our city or state, but what about the hidden gems tucked away at smaller, less celebrated museums? What about portraits and figurative works in our backyards at local museums?

Masterworks are sprinkled all around. It’s just a matter of finding them! This article is the first in a series of museum adventures designed to uncover the hidden treasures in my region and in yours.

I recently discovered a great way to find master portraits online. The Art Renewal Center (ARC) is an online visual compendium of “traditional, realistic images touching upon universal and timeless themes.” It was the perfect place to start the hunt for the portraits I wanted to visit. The online ARC museum has a handy map feature. You can search for a past or present artist, click on the map icon, and find precisely where particular works are housed. I wanted to know where I could find works by portrait artists like Sargent, Beaux, and Henri within the southeasternmost state of the U.S. With a few leads, I grabbed some eager, like-minded family members and headed out for a holiday museum tour of the Morse Museum of American Art, the Cornell Museum, and the Appleton Museum.

Our first stop was The Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida, which is recognized as the most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany in the world. Tiffany, best known as a glass artist and jewelry designer, was also a masterful landscape architect, photographer, ceramist, furniture designer, decorator – and painter! In fact, Tiffany was first appreciated for his paintings, having studied under George Inness, Léon Bailly, and Léon Belly. Upon entering, I was struck by the skill, beauty, and sheer magnitude of Tiffany’s massive triptych painting of 24 figures representing art and science.

Detail from Tiffany's triptych

The Morse permanent collection includes portraits by great painters, several of whom – including Cecilia Beaux, Charles Hawthorne, and Luigi Lucioni – were a part of Tiffany’s inner circle. During our visit, I was fortunate to have an impromptu interview with the Director of Public Relations, Catherine Hinman. Ms. Hinman said that Cecilia Beaux served as an advisor at the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation from 1925 to 1933. Cecilia Beaux’s Portrait of Mrs. Henry LaBarre Jayne, along with John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Richard Aldrich C. McCurdy and William Merritt Chase’s Portrait of Sylvester S. Marvin, are just a few fine examples of portraits in the Morse permanent collection.

Just down the street from the Morse Museum in Winter Park is the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College. The Cornell permanent collection features portraits by William-Adolphe Bouguereau and Childe Hassam among its holdings of more than 5,500 art objects including 500 paintings from the 14th through 20th centuries.

The Cornell museum was exhibiting Dangerous Women: Selections from the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art (another southeastern museum to add to the list). Robert Henri’s Salome lured us into the exhibit, which featured courageous heroines and femmes fatales from biblical times. Salome is a superior example of contrast and texture, standing nearly 6.5 feet tall. It was also a treat to see Fede Galizia represented, with her depiction of Judith with the Head of Holofernes, painted in 1596 when Galizia was only 18. And Francesco Cairo’s 1633 painting by the same name, of the widow Judith who beheaded an Assyrian general in defense of her village, is a prime representation of the masterful use of chiaroscuro to tell a story. The curators clearly hit the mark – as the collection was as dark, twisted and enthralling as they had described.

Our final stop, about an hour away in Ocala, Florida, was the Appleton museum. Ocala, dubbed the “Horse Capital of the World,” is relatively rural, so it was surprising to discover paintings by Bouguereau, Rosa Bonheur, and Elizabeth Gardner along with the Appleton’s vast collection of works. When sitting amongst these works of art, I realized that although I have always appreciated art museums, I am now learning to “see” on another level. Because I am drawing, painting and studying art myself, I can begin to understand their brushstrokes, their intentions, their use of light and color. To me, the development of this newfound perspective is one of the great joys of becoming an artist.

What started as a desire to study masterpieces in person without a lot of travel helped me keep it local. Discovering new Museums and collections has now blossomed into an obsession to explore my state, my region, and eventually the country. I do believe that sometimes, the very best adventures are just off the beaten path and perhaps in our backyards. Artists have a knack for knowing where great works of art are curated, so please share your favorites with us. Where should we go next? What’s in your backyard waiting to be discovered?

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