NY Times: Green-Wood Cemetery Builds a Collection

December 7, 2008
Green-Wood Cemetery Builds a Collection

It is the city’s most monumental art collection. Literally.

For the last four years, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, the 170-year-old resting place of entombed luminaries from Boss Tweed to Leonard Bernstein and the original Brooks brothers, has been acquiring paintings created by the artists — both legendary and obscure — who have taken up permanent residence.

“It’s one thing to stand at the grave site,” said Richard J. Moylan, the president of Green-Wood. “But seeing the works of art these people created in their lifetimes gives them a kind of immortality.”

The collection began with a small oil by Louis M. Eilshemius, a visionary painter of cavorting nymphs, and has grown to 70 works by the likes of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Eastman Johnson, William Merritt Chase, George Wesley Bellows, George Catlin, Daniel Huntington, John George Brown, Philip Evergood, Vestie Davis, Bruce Crane, John La Farge, the printmakers Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives, and William Holbrook Beard, famed for his satiric paintings of animals engaged in human activities, including his influential 1879 depiction of Wall Street bulls and bears (which is on view at the New-York Historical Society).

As part of an effort to recover its past, the cemetery has discovered more than 3,000 Civil War soldiers and sailors whose graves dot the manicured hills, as well as hundreds of important figures from the early days of baseball. Now the cemetery has identified 220 artists at Green-Wood, “and we expect there may be many more,” said Jeffrey I. Richman, the cemetery’s historian.

They range from Jean-Michel Basquiat and Samuel F. B. Morse (both of whose paintings are out of the cemetery’s price range) to lesser-known artists such as Samuel S. Carr, whose works are definitely within its means.

“The collection is unique,” Mr. Richman said, because “none of the nation’s other historic cemeteries have substantial systematic collections of deceased artists.”

The nonprofit cemetery has an annual budget of $13 million for operations, maintenance and the restoration of the monuments of nearly 600,000 people in the 478-acre cemetery. “So we don’t have a huge amount of money for art,” Mr. Moylan said, adding that “originally, I never thought we could afford original works by artists.”

But Green-Wood’s historic fund has so far paid some $250,000 for paintings, and Mr. Moylan has been persistently on the hunt, buying artworks at auctions after painstaking research, sometimes abetted by Mr. Richman. “The economic downturn is horrible, but it has made a lot of art more affordable, so we’re hoping to keep acquiring,” Mr. Moylan said.

Some of the works in the collection would probably not interest major museums, “but most are fair representations of the artists’ work,” Mr. Moylan said. For example, its Eastman Johnson portrait is an 1848 painting of his grandmother when he was in his 20s. “We couldn’t afford any of his greatest paintings.”

One of the cemetery’s prized possessions is a portrait of DeWitt Clinton by George Catlin, now famous for his hundreds of paintings of American Indians in the 1820s and 1830s. “I love this painting,” Mr. Moylan said, “because it was a doubleheader, a painting by one of our own — and a portrait of one of our own,” he said of those in the cemetery.

Mr. Moylan, who bought it for $5,875, was unsure of its provenance, and called in a foremost Catlin researcher, Joan Carpenter Troccoli, senior scholar at the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum.

“There is no question that it is by Catlin,” Ms. Troccoli said in an interview. “It has Catlin’s hand.” Dr. Troccoli will deliver a lecture on Sunday — titled “Is this Painting Real?” — at 1 p.m. in the Green-Wood chapel about her detective work on the Catlin portrait.

She added that the painting of Clinton was probably painted in the late 1820s, just after Catlin created a full-length portrait of Clinton that is prominently hanging in City Hall. The one in Green-Wood “is not a masterpiece, but is lighter, less worked-over and more approachable.” Of Clinton and Catlin, Dr. Troccoli said that “their fate is so strange — they both ended up in Green-Wood.” But Clinton was accorded a grand, sculpted monument, while Catlin “was buried without a gravestone.”

She explained that Catlin’s in-laws’ family felt that he had deserted his wife, Clara, so the artist, who was destitute when he died, wound up relegated to a far corner, without a marker, in her family’s plot at Green-Wood. Finally, in 1961, a plain granite stone was placed at the grave by his descendants and others.

He was not the only artist to be unrecognized. One work in Mr. Moylan’s collection, from Philip Evergood — who is considered an important W.P.A. muralist and painter — is unfinished, and his grave is unfinished as well, lacking a stone.

Some of the artists who do have monuments have been accorded gravestones that reference their works. For example, the burial plot of William Holbrook Beard, the painter of humanlike animals, is adorned by a bronze bear.

Though much of the collection is centered in the 19th-century heyday of the cemetery, it has some relatively recent works, including “Coney Island Beach,” a 1963 work by Vestie Davis (which cost $4,750). But Mr. Moylan said that the cemetery could never afford the multimillion-dollar works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, who was interred in the cemetery after he died in 1988 (his mother, Matilda, was recently buried in the artist’s plot).

But works new and old have proved difficult to house: the collection temporarily populates the walls of Green-Wood’s crowded administrative offices, and some recently arrived paintings are stacked amid file cabinets and desks. Mr. Moylan is planning to establish a permanent gallery space at the cemetery that will display these and future acquired works. Ultimately, a mapped, self-guided tour of the artists’ graves is planned, and Mr. Moylan hopes to publish a book celebrating their works.

Assembling the art collection, said Mr. Richman, “has taught us much about the history of the cemetery.” For the most part, the cemetery’s massive 22-by-16-inch, hand-inscribed burial ledgers did not list the occupations of occupants. And so, identifying artists has required intensive research and, occasionally, luck.

“We just found another painter on Tuesday,” Mr. Richman said referring to Mary McComb, daughter of an architect of City Hall, John McComb Jr. She painted a well-known image of the Montauk Point Lighthouse, “which her father also designed,” said Mr. Richman, who discovered that she is in the McComb burial plot. “So our process of discovery keeps unfolding.”

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