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Edwards Place, Springfield’s oldest home on its original foundation, is furnished in Victorian style.
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Art history
The Springfield Art Association looks back
By Janet Seitz Carlson

The Springfield Art Association is going back in time to show its vision of the future.

The January exhibit, "Art is Not a Trifle: The Springfield Art Association and its Collections, 1914-1930," showcases works brought together in the organization's early days.

"This exhibit is the first glimpse into the rich history of the art association," says SAA executive director Betsy Dollar. "In the early years, the SAA was truly at the forefront and cutting edge of the art world - not just in Springfield or the Midwest, but the United States. As we move toward our centennial year, 2013, we are attempting to reintroduce the public to our history as a leader in the visual arts in Springfield."

The association is housed in the 1833 Edwards Place, Springfield's oldest home on its original foundation, at 700 N. Fourth St. The Italianate mansion, home to Benjamin and Helen Edwards from 1843 to 1909, was a hub for activities where prominent citizens and politicians, including Abraham Lincoln, were often found.  

The home is endowed with Victorian furnishings, including the "Lincoln Courting Couch," which is parked beneath portraits of the Edwardses painted by George Peter Alexander Healy. He was one of the mid-19th century's most successful portrait painters, particularly of royalty and prominent individuals. In 1857, Congress commissioned him to paint a series of presidential portraits for a visual archive of the White House's former inhabitants. The association owns seven Healy portraits.

Erika Holst, the association's curator of collections, reports that eight Springfield women founded the Amateur Art Study Club in May 1909. The purpose, according to the Springfield Art Association's Eighth Annual Report, 1916-1917, was "creating an art atmosphere in Springfield and for the purpose of increasing the interest and appreciation of art and all things beautiful as well as for the technical development of the students along art lines."

Alice Edwards Ferguson donated her parents' home to the Amateur Art Study Club in 1913 for use as meeting and gallery space, which then incorporated as the Springfield Art Association.

Holst says the association began holding regular art exhibits, inviting artists to give lectures and developing a permanent artwork collection. "It aspired to essentially be a downstate version of the Art Institute of Chicago," she says. "They brought in quite a number of big names: exhibitions by Winslow Homer, James Whistler, Rookwood Pottery, Marie Danforth Page, to name a few; lectures by Lorado Taft, Vachel Lindsay, Gutzon Borglum; and a burgeoning art collection."

The exhibit will include 10 items from the original collection of 1914, including a landscape by Hudson River School artist William Hart, paintings by Roy Brown and C. Arnold Slade, Satsuma vases and an etching by Everett L. Warner. The exhibit also includes paintings, prints and sculpture acquired between 1915-30, either by purchase, donation or as a gift from the artist.

The goal of the exhibition, says Holst, is to highlight the collection and the association's contribution to Springfield in its earliest days. Text displays explain who the artists are and why they were important at the time and how the association acquired the piece. Items from the archives are on display to help flesh out the story of the organization's mission.

For Holst, one of the more fascinating finds for the exhibit is a piece by Leon Dabo, an American tonalist landscape artist best known for his paintings of New York, especially the Hudson Valley.  Dabo exhibited in the Armory Show of 1913, officially known as The International Exhibition of Modern Art, which was the first large exhibition of such works in America.

"It's interesting to see just how the art association had its finger on the pulse of national art trends," Holst says. "By bringing art to the people of the community, there was this Utopian view of uplifting society as a whole. It's interesting to see what the wealthy people here had in their homes - the wherewithal and taste."

The exhibit is "both a window into art and into history in the first quarter of the 20th century. It's a history of our town's inhabitants, what spoke to them and what moved them."  

While some of the pieces can otherwise be found as part of the Edwards Place home furnishings, some will be coming out of storage for display for this limited viewing. "They are rare treasures held out for the public to see," Holst says. "It's like the thrill of going through the attic."


Story published Friday, January 7, 2011 ( Volume 5, Number 8 )

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