C. Griffith Mann Chief Curator
In 1957, the transformative gift of a longtime Cleveland trustee, Leonard C. Hanna Jr., created a giant of an acquisitions fund totaling more than $33 million. But it was the accession of Sherman E. Lee as director that gave the infant giant a brain to match its strength, allowing the museum to join the ranks of the most astute of the world’s collecting institutions as well as the most powerful. The current exhibition, Streams and Mountains Without End, celebrates this legacy by showcasing some of Lee’s most important acquisitions of Asian art. Yet, despite Asia’s geographical extent (almost one-third of the world’s land area) and the comparable breadth of Lee’s scholarship in Asian art, any celebration of his achievements would be incomplete without considering the impact of his acquisitions of European and American art. Today, visitors to the galleries in the 1916 building and the recently opened east wing can revel in the fruits of Lee’s remarkable legacy, commemorated in works by such artists as Frederic Edwin Church, Caravaggio, Jacques Louis David, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Nicolas Poussin, and Diego de Velázquez, to name only a few.
Though Hanna’s endowment was indispensable to Lee’s work as director, it was the combination of Lee’s rare intellectual and visual acuity, honed over years of looking at art, that produced such remarkable results for Cleveland. Recognizing the strength of the museum’s holdings of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, Lee focused on growing the collection forward and backward, devoting nearly half of the museum’s acquisition resources to purchases of American and European painting. During the first year of his directorship, he purchased Pablo Picasso’s The Harem (1958.45), and jumped again at the opportunity to purchase Picasso’s Harlequin with a Violin (1975.2). Lee’s purchase of Frederic Edwin Church’s Twilight in the Wilderness (1965.233), a painting he first saw in the conservation studio at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, added a magisterial keystone to an already strong American painting collection.
Lee’s success in collecting relied on a mixture of knowledge, experience, and partnerships, especially those between museum professionals and dealers. As he acknowledged: “The art market has been overglamorized. It’s hard work. It requires good relationships, a good eye; you’ve got to know market prices. You’ve got to deal with all sorts of people.” When Velázquez’s Portrait of the Jester Calabazas (1965.15) appeared at auction in London, experts debated the painting’s authorship. Lee compared the brushwork of a small section of the painting with known Velázquez pictures in Madrid. Convinced that the work could be securely attributed to the painter, he won it at auction for one-third of the price he was authorized to spend.
Thanks to his disciplined preparations, connections, and broad knowledge, Lee added works of international significance to the collection with astounding regularity. In addition to prime works by such painters as Caravaggio and Poussin, he acquired comparably important furniture, metalwork, ceramics, and other decorative objects, which he valued as major achievements in their own right, such as the tureen (1977.182) designed by Juste-Aurèle Meissonnier and crafted by Henry Adnet and Pierre-François Bonnestrenne.
In the galleries of European and American art, visitors can experience the other half of the brilliant legacy represented by Streams and Mountains Without End, formed by Lee’s commitment to assemble a collection devoted to the highest achievements of humankind, from across the globe.
Cleveland Art, July/August 2009