Originally named Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, the “Jewel Box in Overton Park” was essentially a gift to the people of Memphis from Bessie Vance Brooks, who donated $100,000 to the city to establish a museum in honor of her late husband, Samuel Hamilton Brooks. When it opened in 1916, the city’s only public art gallery displayed a collection of less than two dozen paintings. Expansions over the years, notably in 1955, 1973, and 1989, dramatically increased the exhibition space, which now exceeds 86,000 square feet, making it the largest art museum in Tennessee. Even so, with more than 9,000 works of art — paintings, drawings, sculpture, textiles, and more — in its permanent collection, only a small percentage of the Brooks Museum’s holdings can be displayed at a given time; some of the older works, because of their age or fragility, rarely if ever see the public eye.
Below, we help the Brooks celebrate its centennial with a look at some of the magnificent works that have transformed the little gallery in the park into a world-class showplace.
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American, 1855 - 1942 Portrait of Mrs. & Mr. Samuel
Oil on canvasPainting: 47 3/4 x 35 in. (121.3 x 88.9 cm)Frame: 52 3/8 x 39 3/8 in. (133 x 100 cm)Gift of Mrs. Samuel Hamilton Brooks16.1The idea of a Memphis art museum originated in 1906, with a society woman named E.A. Neely. With friends she formed a Park Museum Association, eager to help Memphis overcome its trading-post origins and become a cultural center. She enlisted Carl Gutherz, a prominent national artist with Memphis family connections, convincing him to produce a preliminary model of such a “museum in the park.” But the project did not get off the ground for nearly a decade, and only then when the Association received a $100,000 gift (well over $2 million in today’s terms) from Bessie Brooks, a wealthy widow. These portraits of the museum’s namesakes, the first donations to the institution’s permanent collection, were painted by Philadelphia-based artist Cecilia Beaux. They reflect the two Brooks’ different roles in the museum’s birth: Mr. Brooks, a Confederate veteran and successful grocer, exudes prosperity, while Mrs. Brooks is depicted as a woman of letters. She wears ermine fur (something that must have been a task, since the portrait was painted in August) and sits at a gilded French table. “She is really showing herself as someone who is incredibly sophisticated,” says Dr. Stanton Thomas, curator of European and Decorative art. “It is a very calculated portrait.” Samuel Brooks died in 1912, shortly after these portraits were painted, but Bessie Vance Brooks played a prominent role in the museum’s growth until her death in 1943.
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Africa, Cameroon (Grasslands) Elephant Society Mask,
Late 19th centuryRaffia, canvas embroidered with beadsObject: 62 3/4 x 18 1/2 x 8 1/4 in. (159.4 x 47 x 21 cm) Base: 62 1/2 x 10 1/8 x 10 in. (158.8 x 25.7 x 25.4 cm) Gift of the Director’s Council97.2.1 The Elephant Society Mask is one of the most important pieces in the Brooks’ African art collection. The object was created in a mountainous area of western Cameroon, and initially served as part of a masculinity ceremony for young Bamileke men. Says Thomas, “We tend to see something like this mask as an object because we are Western, as opposed to a traditional society in Africa that would see this as connected and kinetic and energetic. When we say ‘mask,’ we mean the object. But for someone of that society, the mask would mean the whole costume and the ceremony. So when you look at it, it is incomplete, but still a wonderful marker.”
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George W. Inness
American, 1825 - 1894 Mid-Summer, 1874 - 1876
Oil on canvasPainting: 18 1/8 x 26 3/16 in. (46 x 66.5 cm)Frame: 26 x 34 1/8 in. (66 x 86.7 cm)Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Morrie A. Moss59.14A New York native, George W. Inness was deeply influenced by the Hudson River School. With only a month of formal training, he managed to become one of the finest landscape painters of his generation. A follower of the spiritualist Emanuel Swedenborg, Inness sought to portray the presence of the spiritual in nature. “Inness is a part of a longstanding tradition of Northern, romantic landscape painters,” says Pacini. “There are different versions and understandings about what the spiritual in nature is — whether it is a Christian god or pantheism. But the idea of exploring the divine in the natural is a longstanding tradition in Western art.” Mid-Summer shows a single, shadowy figure standing in a small grove of trees. He is practically invisible, and that is intentional; the boundaries of the figure and the surrounding trees and hills are blurred, a technique that Inness employed in an attempt to communicate that life is unified through the spiritual.
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Italian (active in Urbino), Dish, 1549
Maiolica Gift of the Decorative Arts Trust 2014.11 This plate, from the high Renaissance, is both a functional object and a painting in microcosm. Acquired by the Decorative Arts Trust, an important adjunct of the Brooks, the dish is a companion to many of the paintings in the museum’s collection. Says Thomas, “It is this really rich, very complicated scene. It shows Aeneas stopping at the funeral pyre of his father. The Decorative Arts Trust is really good at finding things like this that complement the rest of our collection.”
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The Annunciation, ca. 1520 - 1525
Italian (Bergamasque-Venetian School), ca. 1470 - 1528Tempera on wood panelPainting: 61 1/4 x 63 3/8 in. (155.6 x 161 cm) Frame: 69 3/4 x 72 1/2 in. (177.2 x 184.2 cm) Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation61.197 Previtali lived and worked in northern Italy at a time in which oil painting was coming to dominate the form. This biblical scene, executed in jewel-tones, references the New Testament text in which the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she is with child. Says Thomas, “There is a great sense of color, lifelikeness, and movement in this image because of that northern tradition.” The angel Gabriel, complete with white robe and golden wings, carries a single stalk of lilies, while a dove, representing the holy spirit, descends from above.
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Thomas Hart Benton
Engineer’s Dream, 1931
American, 1889 - 1975Oil on panelPainting: 29 7/8 x 41 3/4 in. (75.9 x 106 cm)Frame: 35 5/8 x 50 3/4 in. (90.5 x 128.9 cm)Eugenia Buxton Whitnel Funds 75.1 © T.H. Benton and R.P. Benton Testamentary Trusts/UMB Bank Trustee/ licensed by VAGA, New York, NYThomas Hart Benton’s Engineer’s Dream was acquired by the museum in 1975, the year of the artist’s death. Benton’s painting — an American work indebted to European Mannerism — tells the story of a train’s derailment, as dreamt by the sleeping engineer. In a monograph called “Thomas Hart Benton: Painting the Song,” author Leo Mazow noted that the artist was “an active performer, collector, and transcriber of folk and classical music.” Based on an old song, the dream is actually a nightmare, since the scene depicts the engineer’s own son at the throttle of the doomed locomotive. From the song: “And then through the night came a message / And it told him his dream had been true / His brave son had gone to his maker / Along with the rest of his crew.” The piece was donated to the Brooks by prolific collector Eugenia Buxton Whitnel, a Memphis photographer and pianist, whose donation of American art still defines a large part of the collection.
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Sofonisba Anguissola, Italian, 1532/35 - 1625
Self-Portrait, ca. 1560
Oil on wood panelPainting: 5 x 4 5/8 in. (12.7 x 11.8 cm) Frame: 9 7/8 x 9 7/8 in. (25.1 x 25.1 cm)Memphis Park Commission purchase43.11Sofonisba Anguissola’s self-portrait is, according to Thomas, “kind of a mystery.” It is unknown why the snapshot-sized portrait was made, though historians speculate that it was likely a gift to the artist’s family. What is known is that this is a unique object made by a unique artist: Anguissola, who would have been in her late 20s when she painted this, was considered a prodigy in her native Italy. Everyone from Michelangelo to King Philip II of Spain valued her lifelike portraits. One of six sisters, Anguissola is notable not only for her work, but for her groundbreaking role as a woman in a time when portraiture was an almost exclusively male profession. Says Thomas, “She is really the first major artist who is a woman to emerge in Western art history.” But her position did not come without limitations: Anguissola painted many self-portraits, in part, because women of the period were not allowed to work from nude models. This small likeness, accompanied in the collection by a similar portrait of one of the artist’s sisters, was purchased in 1942 by the mayor of Memphis with city funds — an extremely controversial move at the time, but one that, in decades since, has proved priceless to the city and the museum.
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Unknown Maker, English,
Young Boy’s Waistcoat, ca. 1720
Linen with silk embroidered appliqués 20 1/4 x 21 1/2 in. (51.4 x 54.6 cm) Gift of the Decorative Arts Trust95.2 Says Thomas, “This waistcoat is a great example of how the British, even in the eighteenth century, were very good at finding ways to maximize profits. It is a very simple waistcoat covered in silk appliques. But instead of embroidering directly onto the waistcoat, they made silk appliques on smaller pieces of linen, and once they were done they sewed them onto the waistcoat.”
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Carroll Cloar, American (active in Memphis), 1913 - 1993
Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog, 1965
Casein tempera on MasonitePainting: 23 x 33 3/4 in. (58.4 x 85.7 cm) Frame: 28 3/4 x 39 5/8 in. (73 x 100.6 cm)Brooks Fine Arts Foundation purchase65.17 © Estate of the artistCarroll Cloar’s Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog doesn’t fit easily into any category: somewhat regional, somewhat magical realist, Cloar’s paintings defy definition. Generally considered today Memphis’ greatest twentieth-century painter, he used tempera and faux-pointilism to create his transcendent images. “I always associate this image with the second migration,” says Thomas. “These people are leaving the South. Leaving from Morehead, Mississippi — you can imagine how bad the conditions were there for African Americans. It’s a tragic picture, even though the colors are so light and beautiful.” Cloar, who mostly sold work out of his home studio, was both an observer and interpreter of the civil rights movement and the decline of American rural life. “I think one of the reasons Cloar is so popular,” says Thomas, “is that this small town exists inside everybody in the United States.”
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Florine Stettheimer, American, 1871 - 1944
Still Life Number One with Flowers (Flowers Against Wallpaper)
ca. 1915Oil on canvasPainting: 36 x 26 1/8 in. (91.4 x 66.4 cm)Frame: 40 1/2 x 30 5/8 x 2 1/2 in. (102.9 x 77.8 x 6.4 cm)Gift of the Estate of Miss Ettie Stettheimer60.21 Florine Stettheimer was a poet and painter who, alongside her sisters and mother, ran a European-style intellectual salon in her New York City home. Her friends and fans included Marcel Duchamp and Henry McBride, artists who made sure her legacy endured despite lack of popular interest. She is best known for her vibrant paintings of flowers and social scenes, executed in a signature style. Still Life Number One with Flowers is an early example of her work, made soon after Stettheimer returned from a stint in Europe. In counterposing the floral wallpaper and the bouquet, the artist explores the interplay of dimension and color. The painting has recently been conserved and will be on display when the museum re-opens this year after extensive renovations. “I love the bizarreness of her paintings,” says Pacini. “This is so full of life. It pulls you into this game of trying to figure out what is going on.”
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Burton Callicott, American, 1907 - 2003
The Gleaners, 1936
Painting: 40 1/4 x 28 1/8 in. (102.2 x 71.4 cm)Frame: 47 1/2 x 35 3/4 x 2 3/8 in. (120.7 x 90.8 x 6 cm)Gift of Evelyne and Burton Callicott94.7 © Estate of the artistAlong-time faculty member of the Memphis Academy of Art (now the Memphis College of Art, located next door to the Brooks), Memphis-bred Burton Callicott was an early disciple of the social realist and Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. The Gleaners, obviously inspired by Jean Francois Millet’s 1857 masterpiece of the same name, replaces Millet’s peasant women in the fields with three downtrodden African Americans “gleaning” pieces of coal shaken off passing railway cars. Callicott’s powerful piece was funded by the Depression-era Federal Art Project and exhibited at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, to great acclaim. In later years, Callicott changed styles dramatically, becoming one of the region’s foremost Abstract Expressionists. The Gleaners was donated to the Brooks by the artist and his wife in 1994.
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Carl Gutherz, American (b. Switzerland), 1844 - 1907
Light of the Incarnation (Lux Incarnationis), 1888
Oil on wood panelPainting: 77 x 114 in. (195.6 x 289.6 cm)Frame: 82 1/4 x 122 x 3 1/2 in. (208.9 x 309.9 x 8.9 cm)Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Marshall F. Goodheart68.11.1Light of the Incarnation is considered one of Carl Gutherz’s best works, winning a major prize at the Paris Exhibition Universelle de 1889. Born in Switzerland, Gutherz spent much of his artistic career working in the Mississippi River Valley (he married a Memphian), going back and forth to Europe regularly, and developing an international reputation as a leading American Symbolist. Writing about this piece’s religious motif, Brooks registrar Marilyn Masler notes that “Gutherz chose opalescent colors to paint this immense ethereal scene, using flowers, birds, and butterflies as symbols of purity and rebirth.” Gutherz was a consultant for the original ”museum in the park” committee, and produced a design for an arts and sciences pavilion that evolved into the Brooks Arts Gallery.