Carving Up the Corcoran: An Art Collection, Redistributed

Even if you never visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art, which closed in 2014, chances are you’ve seen pieces which once belonged to the venerable institution, which was one of the first art museums in the country. With works by a host of artists stretching across centuries, it housed everything from Old Master paintings and Renaissance ceramics to substantial collections of American, Modern, and Contemporary Art. The final distribution of works from the now-shuttered museum has just been announced, and fortunately most of it will be staying here in DC.

The decline and fall of the Corcoran was a long, drawn-out, sad affair. As the museum lost its way in pricey projects which were never going to get off the drawing board, it entered a death spiral of financial difficulty, lawsuits, and bad press which ended up with its collection being given to the National Gallery to pick over. Having selected the pieces it wanted for its own collection, the National Gallery was charged by the courts to work with other institutions, particularly those in the DC area, to find a new home for a whopping 10,000+ items.

Not surprisingly, the National Gallery kept all of the best pieces for itself. It selected over 6,000 works from the Corcoran hoard, among which are this beautiful Cuatrocento Sienese altarpiece by Andrea Vanni (c. 1330-1413), which is quite a jewel:

converted to digital April 2006

Other pieces included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925)’s sunny, highly atmospheric “Setting Out to Fish” from 1878:

Sargent

And the stunning “Young Woman in Kimono” (c. 1901) by Sargent’s contemporary, Alfred Henry Maurer (1868-1932):

Mujer

Of the items being redistributed, 99.4% will be given to other DC institutions, including several universities, museums, government offices, and the Supreme Court, among others. As to this last recipient, the Justices will now be hosting this penetrating portrait of Chief Justice John Marshall painted in 1830 by Robert Matthew Sully (1803-1855), a scion of one of America’s most prominent family of painters. Somewhat unconventionally for a judicial portrait, it shows the Chief Justice staring pensively and perhaps even a bit wistfully off to his left, rather than at the viewer. For comparison, you can see a more conventionally Federal portrait by Sully’s uncle, Thomas Sully (1783-1872), which depicts a copy of an earlier portrait of President James Madison by Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828); this Corcoran piece is headed to the National Portrait Gallery.

Sully

The majority of the remaining works – nearly 9,000 works in total – will be headed up Massachusetts Avenue to American University, where they will be housed in the Katzen Arts Center. I must confess that, probably like many Washingtonians, I’ve never actually visited this museum. Once the acquisition of the Corcoran works is completed however, I will likely have to make that difficult, 15-minute cab ride to see the result. Most of what they are getting are Modern and Contemporary works, which interest me very little, but who knows?

If you really want to get into the weeds, a full distribution list is available here, divided by receiving institution. Among the more interesting, smaller transfers, I was pleased to note that two drawings by Armistead Peter III will be returning to Tudor Place in Georgetown, the Neoclassical estate where he and the rest of the Peter clan resided for centuries. Upon his death, the house was converted into a museum, and one well-worth your time should you happen to find yourself in the village.

While it is regrettable that the Corcoran went away, the legacy of the institution will live on in these collections, and perhaps serve as a cautionary tale to other art institutions who lose their focus while trying to be all things to all people.

The Presidency: Knowing When to Say When

Presidents Day is coming up here in the U.S. on Monday, and while these days there really are not any traditions to speak of for this holiday, it is a good opportunity to reflect on the limitations of that office.  Technically the holiday is the official celebration of the birthday of George Washington.  However its proximity to the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, not to mention laziness in both academia and in the popular press, has turned it into a day when we celebrate all of the U.S. Presidents.  Thanks to our incessant need for advertising of course, we are being bombarded this long weekend with images of Washington, Lincoln, and others – even non-Presidents like Benjamin Franklin – trying to sell us cars, bed linens, and so on.

That being said, Washington himself is someone for whom all Americans ought to be deeply grateful to Providence, particularly when we look at how the office of Prime Minister or President in other countries can lead to the implementation of policies completely at odds with the will of the people whom they govern.  Cousin George (he is a distant relation) did not make himself a king by setting up an American monarchy and accompanying aristocracy, even though he was certainly popular enough to do so.  Nor did he cling to power once he achieved it, but instead reluctantly served two terms and stepped down, leaving the office to his political successors rather than to his relations.

Yet historically speaking, our Presidents have not always known when to reign themselves in; we see occasions throughout our history when they have become drunk on power and their own opinion of themselves.  One reason why we have two-term limits for Presidents today for example, is because of the inability of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to cede power.  We are often told that thanks to Roosevelt’s inspiration, America got through the Great Depression and World War II, and no doubt he must be remembered for that service.  Yet we should also be aware that he was incredibly power-hungry, as we learned from his breath-taking attempts to bend the Supreme Court to his will.

In the 1930’s when FDR and his brain trust came up with sweeping legislation to get Americans to work and to create the foundations of the social welfare system, to his fury he found that lawsuits were being brought against some aspects of his plans, challenging their constitutionality.  Upset that conservatives on the Supreme Court were determining aspects of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” to be unconstitutional, Roosevelt attempted to pass legislation that would have allowed him to pack the Supreme Court with his own appointees, in order to pursue his agenda.  You can learn more about this often-forgotten chapter of American history in Jeff Shesol’s fascinating book, “Supreme Power: Franklin Roosevelt vs. The Supreme Court”.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis – certainly not the most conservative of jurists – reacted to the news that FDR was going to attempt to manipulate the Supreme Court with the kind of gravitas with which the old look at the impatient, doomed-to-failure plans of those younger and more foolish than themselves.  On February 5, 1937, Roosevelt sent attorney Thomas Corcoran to hand-deliver a press release to Brandeis before the proverbial poo hit the fan, as Shesol describes:

The president has sent me, Corcoran said. He handed Brandeis a press release. If there had been any way to exclude you from the plan, Corcoran continued, the president would have done so; no offense was intended. Brandeis scrutinized the release, was silent for a moment, then looked up. He asked Corcoran to thank the president for the courtesy. But “tell your president,” Brandeis said gravely, “he has made a great mistake. All he had to do was wait a little while. I’m sorry for him.” Corcoran wondered what Brandeis meant by “wait,” but lacked the nerve to ask. With that, Brandeis shook the young man’s hand and passed through the red velvet curtain.

Fortunately for all of us Roosevelt’s plans eventually fell apart, and after he died during his fourth term in office, Americans had the common sense to pass legislation preventing a President from staying in power again for so long, in so doing looking back to the example of Washington for inspiration.

So as we near George Washington’s official birthday celebration, we Americans can still hope that the tension between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of government will provide at least the possibility for compromise, and also for prevent those in power from riding roughshod over the will of the people.  Unlike in countries such as Britain, France, and Russia, the head of the ruling political party in the United States does not always get his way.  And that, in my view at least, is a very good thing indeed, as no doubt Washington himself would agree.

George

Detail of “Portrait of George Washington” by Rembrandt Peale (c. 1823)
The White House

Thoughts on the Red Mass

The 60th annual Red Mass, sponsored by the John Carroll Society, took place this past Sunday, September 30th, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral here in Washington. I was fortunate enough to attend, and to have a great view of the proceedings from the St. Anthony of Padua chapel (as you can see below.)  I entered into this event thinking that it was a way of honoring the work that work that other, important people in government do, and asking God’s blessing upon their efforts, but it ended with my realizing, with gratitude, that as a member of that professional community myself, I needed some blessings as well.

If you are wearing a coat and tie early on Sunday morning in Georgetown, it is reasonably obvious that you are probably going to church, since before the tourists descend on the village for brunch and shopping, we locals have it to ourselves for a few hours. I had to leave the house rather early, since previous experience of attempting to get to the Red Mass only half an hour before it started had taught me that was not going to ensure me a seat. As I walked past a cafe in my neighborhood, I saw one of my neighbors in a high-priced fleece, khakis, running shoes, and sunglasses, sipping a tall paper cup presumably filled with a caffe latte, and reading a book entitled “Existentialist Philosophy”. The contrast between the two of us did seem rather a cliché, and I chuckled to myself that it would have made a great Vanity Fair caricature or New Yorker cartoon, but there you are.

Once at the Cathedral the somewhat substantial line moved rather quickly, and I managed to obtain a seat which allowed me to stretch out my legs without striking my shins on the pew in front of me. More importantly, it allowed me to have unobstructed views of both the altar and the ambo. I managed to spot both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas, though with their seating area being partially hidden by an arcade of columns from where I was, that was the full extent of the six Supreme Court Justices in attendance whom I happened to see – let alone any of the diplomats, members of Congress, or Cabinet officers.

The mass itself had all of the pomp and circumstance one could wish for on such an occasion, as the congregation asked the Holy Spirit to bless the workings of our legal system. I will admit that for much of the first part of the mass, I remember thinking that I was very small – despite towering over everyone seated around me, as I normally do. St. Matthew’s is a very grand church, decorated in a rather imperial, Tolkien-esque fashion, and to be in that physical environment, surrounded by all sorts of powerful office-holders who guide the nation was rather humbling. From the opening welcome by Cardinal Wuerl, acknowledging all of the dignataries seated in the congregation that morning, I really did feel a bit out of place for a time.

Yet during the homily by Archbishop Broglio, His Excellency spoke about something which he himself witnessed during his first year of seminary in Rome. He noted that one of the grand, 19th century Ministry of Justice buildings in the city had begun sinking into the ground, because it was built on poor foundations, and he noted that by contrast, ancient structures like the Colosseum and the Pantheon were still standing despite millennia of abuse and neglect. The idea to take away from it, he suggested, was that the fashionable is transitory: what matters is building on a firm foundation.  The danger was in allowing what might be currently popular in our country to take away from what is true, and he warned us strongly against letting that happen.

This was a great observation to take it and to take away with me, as I reflect on my professional future, but I also realized that there were a few other things to take away as well. The first and most important, was that no matter how important the people inside of that church might be, none of them are as important as the One whose house it is. Yet the second, on a more immediate level perhaps, was to recognize that in praying for our legal system to work justly, and for its ministers to execute their authority rightly, I was also praying for myself in the process. For in my own way I, too, am a part of that system, and hopefully I will be able to do my best to make sure that it is as fair and equitable, as much as any human institution can be.

As a postscript, to my great surprise and delight, one of the lectors at the mass turned out to be a mentor of mine from my undergraduate days at Georgetown, and at the conclusion of mass I must confess I had to “ditch” catching up with friends whom I knew were in the congregation in order to go find her. It was wonderful to catch up and meet her family, and it just so happened that in the process I suddenly found myself being presented to Cardinal Wuerl, whom I have heard speak many times but had never formally been introduced to before. Fortunately I had the presence of mind to kiss his ring before he could shake my hand, but then of course, you would not expect me to do any less.


St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. before the 60th Annual  Red Mass