I’ve been a museum-goer my whole life, but now I look with new eyes. My new love is late 19th-century, academic-style art. In trying to imagine what Donatus Buongiorno would have seen and been influenced by in New York (and a few other American cities I know he travelled to), I am interested in art collections that were on exhibit from 1892 to 1931, the period when he lived and worked in the U.S.
For the last five years, I have revisited New York’s museums and galleries with a focus on what they owned by 1931 and what they were exhibiting in the early 1900s. Below are my notes on which have substantial collections of paintings from this period and active curatorial interest in the realistic, academic art which many now consider hopelessly old fashioned.
Well-known for its European art, Henry Clay Frick’s collection includes this full-body portrait of Comte Robert de Montesquiou-Fezensac by James McNeill Whistler which I imagine might have some semblance to Buongiorno’s lost portrait of William Faversham.
Metropolitan Museum of Art
The American Wing of the Met pays substantial attention to artists who were contemporaries of Donatus Buongiorno, including many who lived and worked in New York. The museum opened in 1870, and the Met’s labels are very clear on when paintings were acquired and, presumably, exhibited.
Also helpful in recreating this world in my head, the Met publishes catalogues about the collections by its curators, and there are stories by others about specific paintings which recreate their periods in vivid detail.
Two recent books that I devoured with delight are about John Singer Sargent portraits: Strapless by Deborah Davis which tells the story of Madame Pierre Gautreau, the not-very-admirable woman who was the model for “Madame X” in this painting, and Love, Fiercely: A Gilded Age Romance by Jean Zimmerman which tells the life-long love story of Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes, the very admirable couple shown in this stunning portrait.
New York Public Library
Not just a repository for books (see my love letter to the New York Public Library under Libraries),
the New York Public Library also hosts exhibits of its extensive art, map and photograph collections, many relating to New York City in the era of the library’s founding in the early 1900s.
New-York Historical Society
Also more than a library, the New-York Historical Society has galleries and exhibits art and other objects related to the history of New York. I have seen 19th-century paintings here (by lesser-known artists) which I haven’t seen elsewhere, and in 2013 the New-York Historical Society mounted a spectacular re-creation and re-assessment of the seminal 1913 Armory Show.