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The Henry Celebrates 80 Years

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The Henry Behind the Henry

By Regina Hackett

The first public art museum in Washington state is 80 years old this year, with celebrations continuing throughout the year.

Considering that its namesake fought in the Civil War, 80 years is a young age, but considering that the museum has positioned itself as a bastion of the compulsively up-to-date, 80 is old indeed.

The University of Washington's Henry Art Gallery enjoys the contradictions inherent in its history. Horace Chapin Henry might well have enjoyed them too.

He not only picked the architect for the original building (the great art deco modernist, Carl Gould), he paid for it, donated his own collection, gave the enterprise his blessing and bowed out. Although he was inspired to create the museum because he wanted to share his art, he didn't insist that the museum value it as much as he did, and he didn't want his vision to be the Henry's vision forever.

"He added no stipulations to the collection," said Henry director Richard Andrews, meaning that from the beginning, it was up to administrators when and how his artwork saw the light of day.In this, he was remarkable. Charles and Emma Frye, founders of the Frye Art Museum, stipulated that their paintings remain on view. Forever. No deaccessioning for them, and no trading out one work from the same artist for another.

In Boston, Isabella Stewart Gardner opened the doors to the Boston museum that bears her name in 1903. According to the museum's website, it remains essentially unchanged since her death in 1924, just as she ordered and not counting a few spectacular thefts.

Richard E. Fuller, who founded the Seattle Art Museum in 1933, didn't feel the need to leave instructions for the care and placement of his collection, because he wasn't going away. He served as director for almost 40 years, paying the bills out of pocket and running the place as if he owned it, which he did.

Henry loved American and French landscape painting, which is the core of his 172-piece collection. While his taste was hardly daring in its era, he had what is still called a good eye (something that can't be said of the Fryes).

"Henry was a model patron," said Andrews. "He was generous to begin with and modest about his involvement afterward." Translation: He didn't get in the way. Thanks to his specific wishes, the Henry doesn't have to struggle with the dead hand of the past.

About a year after the Henry opened, said Andrews, a curator wrote the founder to ask if the collection might be taken down temporarily to accommodate a traveling exhibit featuring the Blue Four (German Expressionists Lyonel Feininger, Alexej von Jawlensky, Wassily Kandinsky, and Paul Klee), the first time that, then, daring work was exhibited in Seattle. "Henry replied that he had given the gallery and paintings outright and wanted no say about the way they were handled," said Andrews. "He wrote that he realized 'outside exhibits are of vital importance to the future of the artistic movement in the Northwest.'"

Henry loved landscapes and picked some gems, including William Merritt Chase's Over the Hills and Far Away from 1897; Julian Alden Weir's Farmhouse from 1888 - 1890; Frederick Childe Hassam's Old House and Garden, East Hampton, Long Island, from 1898 and above all, Winslow Homer's An Adirondack Lake from 1870.

 

Litzenburg: Horace C. Henry

Dola M.Litzenburg, Portrait of Horace C. Henry. c. 1925, oil on canvas, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Horace C. Henry Collection, Photo: Richard Nicol

Homer: Adirondack Lake

Winslow Homer, An Adirondack Lake. 1870 Oil on canvas 24" x 38". Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Horace C. Henry Collection

Hassam: Old House and Garden

Frederick Childe Hassam, Old House and Garden, East Hampton, Long Island. 1898. Oil on canvas. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Horace C. Henry Collection. Photo credit: Richard Nicol

Bouguereau: Child at Bath

William Adolphe Bouguereau, Child at Bath. 1886. Oil on canvas. Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington, Seattle, Horace C. Henry Collection. Photo credit: Richard Nicol

The cultural gap between these paintings and the Blue Four is enormous, and yet Henry, who was ill when he wrote the curator and died later that year, in 1928, had not one word of criticism about the dizzying pace of change. He expected no less.

Modesty better be its own reward, because few other rewards accrue to those who practice it. We know far more about Fuller and the Fryes than we do about Henry. They cut large figures, and he, in spite of his formidable accomplishments, remains a shadow. There is almost no mention of him on the Henry Gallery's website, and his paintings rarely see the light of day in its galleries.

And yet without him, where would we be? He set the tone for Fuller and the Fryes, encouraging them to think big. Seattle was a frontier town when he stepped up, but he left it with ambitions to cultural greatness.

Henry was born in 1844 in Bennington, Vermont and joined the Union Army before turning 18. Historian Tom Griffin noted in the University of Washington's Alumni magazine, Columns, that Henry's 2nd Vermont Brigade helped defend Union lines under siege in the last days of battle. "His Civil War years made such an impression that at age 80, he could still recite the names of all 103 members of Company A."

Because his family owned a construction business, he got into the railroad industry, supervising the construction of rail tracks in the Midwest and arriving in Seattle to oversee a branch line of Northern Pacific through to completion. In 1893, wrote Griffin, Henry's firm built the Great Northern Line from Stevens Pass to Everett and Seattle. (Where is he now, when public transportation is such a crucial need?)

He liked Seattle enough to move here with his family, wife Susan J. Henry and sons Walter, Langdon C. and Paul M. and daughter Florence. The Henrys later lost two of those children to illness, Walter and Florence. He donated the Florence Henry Memorial Chapel, in north Seattle, in honor of Florence and also donated the land and seed money for the Firland Sanitorium, a tuberculosis hospital in memory of son Walter. In 1920 he received the French Legion of Honor for his personal efforts to collect funds for the Fatherless Children of France after World War I.

Henry began collecting art in the early 1890s, after a visit to the Chicago World's Fair, and built a wing on his Capitol Hill mansion to exhibit his holdings to the public. How many of today's wealthy collectors would even consider letting the public into their private homes to view their art collections?

His open door policy was the precursor for what became the Seattle Art Museum, said Andrews, but unlike Fuller and the Fryes, Henry didn't think of the idea of building a museum by himself. He had to be talked into it, and University president Heny Suzzallo was on hand to supply the motivation. "Suzzallo told Henry that the best repository for his collection would be the university," said Andrews, where both the community and students could enjoy it.

In 1910, Gould sketched his master plan for the campus, with a theater and museum. (The theater didn't materialize.) Henry agreed to give $100,000 toward museum construction on one condition: The university act quickly. No bureaucratic foot-dragging for him. The regents met two days later to endorse the gift. The building was finished within the year.

Asked why the Henry doesn't celebrate Henry in a more overt way, Andrews said he thought that Henry's character and passions were the heart of the museum, its guiding principles. "He wanted us to use his collection through the eyes of the present, and to ask questions of it from our present perspective."

In 2005, the Henry mounted the most in-depth look at its collections in decades, but did so within the obscuring frame of a contemporary view. Titled "150 Works of Art," all the paintings, drawings and photographs it featured were mounted with plywood backing and placed on poles positioned in a row formations throughout the gallery.

I'd never seen anything quite like it, and neither had anybody else. The installation came from the Seattle art team Lead Pencil, and in the end, it was more about them than the art displayed.

For that reason I came to dislike it, but I suspect Henry would be intrigued.

Regina Hackett is the art critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.


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