Along with portraiture and genre painting, another key area within JELMA’s collection is its remarkable selection of Anglo-American landscapes. Beginning with a masterful piece executed by the Welsh artist Richard Wilson, who is widely considered to be the founder of the British school of landscape, to Theodore Robinson, an American Impressionist who settled in Giverny to work near Claude Monet, JELMA’s holdings in this area show the evolution of landscape painting in the West from a low genre when the “hierarchy of genres” was codified by the French Royal Academy during the seventeenth century to perhaps the dominant form of artistic expression by the end of the nineteenth century. Following the trajectory of artists in this exhibition, one sees the shifts in cultural perspectives of the natural environment, moving from picturesque and naturalistic. These varying views of landscape reflect not only the evolution of artistic styles (from Romanticism to Impressionism), but also the ever-changing historical conditions that shaped the modern world, primarily the transition from a feudal to a capitalist social order.
As in the case of the portraits and genre paintings within JELMA, the majority of the works that comprise the landscapes in this museum are from the Hirschl-Adler Bequest. This is no surprise given that Mr. Hirschl was one of the foremost experts in nineteenth-century American paintings, particularly the Hudson River School, which was the first truly American movement of landscape painting, and is well-represented in this collection. Indeed, several key artists associated with this movement are present in this exhibition including Thomas Cole (the founder of the movement), Robert S. Duncanson (its sole African-American member), as well as John Frederick Kensett and Alexander Wyant, (two members of movements that grew out of the Hudson Rivers School—Luminism (Kensett) and Tonalism (Wyant).
Having these Anglo-American artists assembled together in the same collection, along with their French counterparts, makes JELMA unique among university museums and galleries, particularly amongst HBCUs. Indeed, Mr. Hirschl and Mr. Adler’s decision to give a historically black college such a distinguished collection of paintings, reveals the little-known history between Jewish academics, and cultural leaders, and HBCUs. When Jewish intellectuals fled Europe during 1920s and 1930s to escape Nazi persecution, many of them settled in the United States where found a more welcoming environment on the campuses of what would be known following the Civil Rights Era as HBCUs than the cool reception they often encountered on the campuses of traditionally white institutions (TWIs). HBCUs provided a haven for many Jewish scholars, who had to confront anti-Semitic discrimination not only in Europe, but also in the United States. While both Mr. Hirschl and Mr. Adler were from New York, as members of the Jewish Diaspora, they certainly understood what it meant to be a member of an oppressed population, and therefore supported the mission of black colleges as a site where African Americans could receive an exceptional liberal arts education, which by definition includes the study of art and the history of art.
Dr. Lori Nel Johnson