PAFA acquires painting from Hudson River School that couldn’t sell at auction

Frederick Edwin Church's Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada, 1875. (PAFA)

Frederick Edwin Church's Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada, 1875. (PAFA)

The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has acquired a major work of art by a Hudson River School artist after it failed to sell at auction.

“Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada” (1875) by Frederick Edwin Church was made available from a controversial purging of art at the Berkshire Museum in Massachusetts.

The large-scale painting (about 5 feet by 3 ½ feet) depicts a hazy lake in the mountains of what is now Colombia. The grandeur of the landscape dwarfs three small figures in the foreground.

The Berkshire Museum has been getting heat for selling a dozen pieces of art; it plans to use the proceeds to pay for capital improvements and bolster its endowment. That goes against museum best practices, which stipulate that any funds raised by the sale of art go toward the growth and maintenance of a museum’s collection.

For several years, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts has been selling certain valuable pieces of art — including a painting by Edward Hopper — to finance increasing its collection of Hudson River School paintings.

PAFA has also been aggressively expanding its collection of contemporary art, last year acquiring about 500 pieces, according to museum director Brooke Davis Anderson.

The Berkshire Museum’s sell-off in a series of auctions is not bringing in as much money as it had hoped. The Church painting was expected bring as much as $7 million, but it failed to find a buyer at a Sotheby’s auction Wednesday.

Immediately after that, PAFA snapped it up in a privately brokered sale.

“PAFA is committed to telling the sweeping, comprehensive story of American art. Frederick Church is clearly a part of that narrative,” said Anderson. “Until this week, we didn’t have a Church in our permanent collection.”

The price PAFA paid has not been made public, and Anderson would not say if the museum participated in the initial auction.

PAFA’s Hudson River School collection includes work by Albert Bierstadt, David Johnson and Thomas Moran. Some kind of exhibition is expected next year.

When museums auction off artwork, it can be considered a violation of public trust. The Church painting was donated to the Berkshire Museum in 1907 by Henry and Clifford Buckingham of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who likely intended it to stay in the Berkshires.

One of the fears accompanying any museum’s deaccessioning of artwork is that pieces once in the public domain can slip into private ownership, never again to be seen publicly. In this case, the Church painting landed in another museum, 250 miles away.

PAFA is extending an olive branch to the people of Berkshire County by offering them free admission to its museum in perpetuity.

“It has been in the Berkshire County area for more than 100 years,” said Anderson. “The citizens of that county are now part of our community. We want to extend ourselves to them. We want them come to see the Church and all the companion pieces in our collection.”

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