SAM curator brings love of artA four-talk series will share the wealth of the museum.
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:42 PM
"In 18th century America, the equivalent of today's family photo album was the formal portrait. In the early 19th century, large-scale landscape paintings brought the Western wilderness to city dwellers with all the impact of big-screen special effects on today's audiences. Painting is the visual history of who we were as Americans, and what we are about now, said Ann Barwick, president of the Seattle Art Museum's Council of American Arts. That's why we can't ignore it. Barwick's lectures at the Bainbridge Public Library, which begin March 25, span two centuries of a maturing art that reflects the growth of America from colony to world power. In four evenings, Barwick will take listeners from the uncertain beginnings of American art - an art informed by Puritan distrust of the ornate and Catholic - to tentative self-definition, as American painters mirror European genres, and, finally, to painting that manifests the growing national self-confidence - unmistakably and unapologetically American. Barwick believes these works have been little-viewed in the Pacific Northwest.We don't see 18th and 19th century paintings in this part of the world. They simply don't exist here, Barwick said. Hopefully, with the John Singer Sargent show at the Seattle Art Museum, people will have had their interest piqued.While East Coast art collections coalesced into museums in the 19th century, Northwesterners were living in log cabins.Seattle's major collections were formed later, from the Asian art Eugene Fuller favored, to the German academic painting that Charles and Emma Frye found compelling.Barwick's own interest in 19th century American art started with a chance encounter; she and her husband both fell in love with a painting.They knew the title, Chrysanthemums, but not much more when they purchased the 19th century piece at a gallery in New York City. The obsession with a single work of art led the Barwicks to research the painter, John LaFarge, and to study more art from the same era.We found books on the 19th century, Barwick said, and we read them. The more we read, the more we learned.Soon, we found ourselves traveling to all the 19th century American galleries around the country.Barwick left her job teaching language arts at a secondary school in Pennsylvania to earn a degree in art history. Despite their cognoscenti status and now-large collection, the Barwicks purchase paintings for pleasure, not investment. We still buy when we can't live without a painting, Barwick said. We fall in love with every artist we collect. "