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PORTRAITURE AND GENRE

Like many college and university museums throughout the United States, the James E. Lewis Museum of Art can boast of having a distinguished collection of portraits and genre paintings. Within this compendium are works executed by some of the most renowned artists of their generations, including Allan Ramsay, Henry Raeburn and Gilbert Stuart to name a few. The presence of these three artists alone, two of which were portrait painters to Kings George III (Ramsay) and George IV (Raeburn), and the other the unofficial painter of presidential portraits (Stuart), would be enough to secure JELMA’s status as a major university collection. But the existence also of genre paintings (scenes of everyday life) by two other celebrated artists: Gabriel Metsu, a seventeenth-century Dutch master and Thomas Sully, who is perhaps best known for his signature portrait of Queen Victoria done in 1838 during her coronation year, further reveals the depth and singularity of JELMA’s collection.

 

The portraits and genre paintings seen in this exhibition belong to part of a bequest given to the then Morgan State College Gallery of Art in 1964 by the Hirschl & Adler Galleries in New York. Presently located on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan, the Hirschl & Adler Galleries specialize in the American and European paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. When Professor Lewis arrived at what was then Morgan State College in 1950 to create an art department, he understood the necessity of establishing relationships with reputable art dealers in the region in order to build a lasting legacy for Morgan. Thus, it was through his friendship with Norman Hirschl and Abraham Adler, that Lewis was able to amass an art collection that surpasses those at universities that are much larger and better endowed than this institution.

           

Without question, the Hirschl-Adler Bequest forms the bedrock of the JELMA collection. This is significant, because the majority of the works contained within it are not representative of African or African-American artists, which may seem at odds with the supposed mission of a HBCU. However, Professor Lewis belonged to an era in which black artists and scholars, such as Alain Locke, who, while encouraging blacks to discover and celebrate their ancestral roots in Africa, did not narrowly define blackness in terms of essentializing notions of “Afrocentrism.” Rather this earlier generation of scholars understood that notions of race were complex, and that the people who comprise the African Diaspora represent a number of different racial and ethnic populations. Thus, rather than restricting JELMA’s collection to African and African-American artists, Professor Lewis assembled a collection that reflected the plurality of humanity’s artistic achievements. Moreover, because Professor Lewis recognized that art transcends racial categories, he appreciated the value of Mr. Hirschl and Mr. Adler’s generous gift as a cultural and educational resource—not only for Morgan, but for the region. By including artists from every region of the world and historical period in JELMA’s collection, Professor Lewis not only created an artistic legacy for Morgan for decades to come, but also reaffirmed the University’s commitment to educating its students for global citizenship.

Dr. Lori Nel Johnson