American art, from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century portraiture and landscape painting to modern abstraction and contemporary art forms, is the strength of the Palmer’s permanent collection.
Early American Portraiture and History Painting
Because of the absence of art academies, many early American painters sought instruction in Europe. Benjamin West left Pennsylvania in 1760, becoming the second president of the Royal Academy in London in 1792, where he gained fame for such history paintings as The Bath of Venus, in the Palmer Museum. Most eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century American painters, however, supported themselves as portraitists. The Palmer Museum has works by early practitioners in the genre, including John Brewster and Gilbert Stuart, as well as two important Pennsylvania artists, Jacob Eichholtz of Lancaster and Rembrandt Peale of Philadelphia.
Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Painting
The Palmer Museum is particularly strong in works by the Hudson River School of landscape painters. Works on display by Sanford Robinson Gifford, John F. Kensett, and William Trost Richards demonstrate the manner in which artists sought to preserve in paint a wilderness that was quickly disappearing amid the industrial revolution. Also included are tonalist pieces by George Inness and Charles Walter Stetson, works that document the transformation in landscape painting from a linear, celebratory Hudson River School style to a more painterly, subjective mode.
Gilded Age America
American art of the late nineteenth century is replete with allusions to other civilizations and expresses the complex values of an era that was simultaneously promoted by some as a golden age, yet reviled, by Mark Twain and others, as a “gilded age.” Gilded age works in the Palmer Museum by Frederick MacMonnies, Theodore Robinson, Edmund C. Tarbell, and Abbott Handerson Thayer demonstrate the strong influence of French Impressionism, as well as a new, modern approach to self-identity in portraiture.
Ashcan and The Eight
Led by Robert Henri, the so-called Ashcan School depicted the social transactions of an industrial, immigrant-laden, urban environment, capturing the thriving intensity of human beings. Several of these urban realists exhibited together in a 1908 exhibition—called The Eight—at Macbeth Galleries in New York, where they protested the official dictates of the art academy. The Palmer Museum collection includes several works by artists who participated in this exhibition: William Glackens, Robert Henri, Everett Shinn, Maurice Prendergast, and John Sloan.
Early American Modernism
The Palmer Museum has several pieces by twentieth-century American modernists—including Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Joseph Stella, and Marguerite Zorach—who experimented with the formal possibilities of the picture plane. Also in the collection are twenty-eight sculptures and maquettes and 248 drawings by the Abstract Expressionist sculptor Seymour Lipton.
Printmaking in America came into its own in the early decades of the twentieth century. While young modernists inspired by the Armory show sought to achieve a new sense of space and form in their work, the majority of printmakers remained devoted to the realist depiction of the American scene. The holdings of the Palmer Museum of Art include a significant survey of prints by American artists working in the first several decades of the twentieth century. Artists represented include Peggy Bacon, George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Isabel Bishop, Howard Norton Cook, John Steuart Curry, Fritz Eichenberg, Edward Hopper, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Doris Lee, Clare Leighton, Martin Lewis, Louis Lozowick, Reginald Marsh, Arnold Ronnebeck, Charles Sheeler, John Sloan, and Benton Spruance.
Picturing the 1930s
The Palmer Museum is fortunate to have in its collections several works produced by the so-called Fourteenth-Street School. Among these are Reginald Marsh’s painting-replete with Michelangelesque laboring—Gathering the Mail (1934) and Kenneth Hayes Miller’s The Little Coat and Fur Shop (1931) depicting the “new woman,” that quintessential shopper-provocateur of 1930s America.
Photography is a growing area of strength for the Palmer and is an important aspect of the museum’s sizable American works on paper collection. Early practitioners of the medium represented include Mathew Brady, William Henry Jackson, and Carleton Watkins. The permanent collection also includes such modern masters as Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, Karl Struss, Berenice Abbott, Lewis Hines, Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and W. Eugene Smith. The Palmer is also dedicated to collecting photography by notable contemporary artists and has works by Cindy Sherman, Carrie Mae Weems, Ana Mendieta, William Wegman, and Bill Jacobsen. The collection also features a select number of photographs by non-American artists, including André Disderi, Pierre Petit, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Alexander Rodchenko.
American art since 1945 is amply represented in the permanent collection of the Palmer Museum of Art and is on display in the Pincus Gallery of Contemporary Art and the Snowiss Gallery of American Art on the museum’s second floor. Particularly significant are the collection of Bay Area figurative painters, including Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, and Elmer Bischoff, and works by American Realist painters Philip Pearlstein, Jack Levine, and Jerome Witkin. Abstract art is represented by a major canvas by Jules Olitski, several works by Robert Goodnough, and important works by Lawrence Calcagno and Henry Pearson. Sculptural constructions by Richard Stankiewicz, Betye Saar, and Abe Ajay, a mobile by Alexander Calder, a large glass piece by Dale Chihuly, and several large-scale metal pieces by Seymour Lipton—some of which are currently on view in the Hamer Sculpture Garden—round out the museum’s collection of post-war sculpture.
The museum’s holdings in post-war art were significantly strengthened in 1999 with a generous gift from Joe and Janet Shein of ten works from the 1980s and 1990s, including major works by Roy DeForest, Jerry Kearns, Ed Paschke, Red Grooms, and Marisol. These pieces join works by Ann Hamilton, Whitfield Lovell, Julie Heffernan, Beverly Pepper, and Gilbert & George, bolstering the museum’s pursuit to create a lively environment for teaching and learning.
The museum’s collection of post-war works on paper contains a comprehensive survey of 1960s artists who worked in prints and drawings, from minimalism (Donald Judd, Ellsworth Kelly, and Sol LeWitt) to pop art (Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist) to op art (Victor Vasarely and Bridget Riley). The collection also includes several drawings and prints produced by artists better known as sculptors: Henry Moore, Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Louise Nevelson, and a significant group of preparatory studies by Seymour Lipton. Notable recent acquisitions include works on paper by John Biggers, Faith Ringgold, Alison Saar, Yvonne Jacquette, May Stevens, Kay Walkingstick, Willie Cole, Michael Ray Charles, and Glenn Ligon.
Pennsylvania Print Collection
One of several major collections to be added to the Palmer Museum of Art was the O'Connor/Yeager Collection of Pennsylvania Prints. Through a combination of donation and purchase from the collectors John C. O'Connor and Ralph M. Yeager, this collection of 330 prints came to the museum in 1986. It includes lithographs, engravings, aquatints, photogravures, and woodcuts created by artists of the late eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries. These prints, depicting Pennsylvania town views, portraits, and historical scenes, offer a unique glimpse into Pennsylvania's past.
The late John O'Connor and Ralph Yeager, original owners of The Tavern Restaurant in State College, began collecting prints in the 1950s, displaying selections from their collection in the restaurant for many years. The first major exhibition of the collection was held at the museum in 1980.