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Date posted:  February 3, 2016

Building the Gilcrease Collection

Typical of the committed collector, Thomas Gilcrease put his collection together in various ways. Almost certainly he envisioned the end result as a museum, and he worked to acquire important pieces that would reveal the many aspects of the nation’s growth. So Gilcrease instinctively followed the primary method of most collectors: to develop a direction or plan and then work to implement it. And, with income from oil revenues, he had the resources to back up his aspirations.

Although Gilcrease began collecting in the 1920s, some of his most significant artworks were not acquired until the late 1940s and early 1950s. Working with prominent galleries and dealers, such as M. Knoedler & Company, Victor D. Spark, and Kennedy Galleries in New York, he sought out fine examples by artists outstanding in the American canon. From Knoedler came Thomas Eakins’s Frank Hamilton Cushing, Winslow Homer’s Watching the Breakers, James McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne, the Solent, John James Audubon’s The Wild Turkey, John Singleton Copley’s Portrait of Mrs. John Apthorp, née Hannah Greenleaf, and Charles Willson Peale’s James Madison. Knoedler was also responsible for bringing to Gilcrease’s attention the availability of the Thomas Moran studio collection of more than 1,300 works, exemplified by the stunning Shoshone Falls on the Snake River. Kennedy Galleries provided Albert Bierstadt’s beautiful Sierra Nevada Morning, and Victor Spark sold Charles Deas’s Siouxs Playing Ball, Jasper Cropsey’s View on Lake George, and John Singer Sargent’s Arrival of the American Troops at the Front.

A private dealer, Daniel B. Browne, alerted Thomas Gilcrease to an opportunity that expanded the already significant museum collection with 800 pieces of western art. Gilcrease purchased the Philip G. Cole estate, which included such outstanding paintings as Frederic Remington’s Indian Warfare, Charles M. Russell’s Carson’s Men, Charles Schreyvogel’s Breaking Through the Line, and Frank Tenney Johnson’s California or Oregon. Prior to this acquisition in 1944, the Gilcrease collection included none of the western American art for which it is so well known today.

The sheer depth of holdings by individual artists makes the Gilcrease art collection unique among American museums. The Thomas Moran collection, for example, includes not only finished work, but also sketches, prints, letters, ledgers, and ephemera. Another example of an extensive assemblage is the work of George Catlin, acquired from the English bibliophile Sir Thomas Phillipps through the efforts of dealer William Robinson, Ltd. Hundreds of oils, watercolors, lithographs, and letters make this one of the largest groups of Catlin material in any single institution. Clearly, Gilcrease saw the importance of supportive material that enhanced our understanding of an artist’s career and working process.

Gilcrease also gathered the art and documentary material of several other artists. Alfred Jacob Miller’s Sir William Drummond Stewart Meeting Indian Chief is one of a number of Miller oils and watercolors he acquired from various Miller heirs. He bought directly from Joseph Henry Sharp more than half of the artist’s 250 artworks now at Gilcrease Museum. Sharp collected Native American artworks, and several of the objects featured in Crucita—Taos Indian Girl in Old Hopi Wedding Dress and Dried Flowers are also now in the Gilcrease collection. Gilcrease’s rapport with living artists is revealed by direct acquisitions of Bert Phillips’s The Corn Maidens and Ernest Blumenschein’s Superstition. The artists knew that Gilcrease was developing a world-class collection and each held in reserve for him some of their most important works.

The appeal of the Gilcrease fine art collection is appreciated nationally, evidenced by the number of people from throughout the country who visit it annually. The inclusion of works from the collection in numerous critically acclaimed exhibitions demonstrates their importance to the history of American art. The Eakins and Whistler have traveled to exhibitions in New York, Paris, and London. The Moran and Bierstadt were featured in Washington, D.C. The Sharp and Blumenschein were showcased in a significant exhibition dedicated to the artists of Taos, New Mexico.

Yet the greatest significance of Gilcrease Museum is, as its founder envisioned, that in the heart of America an outstanding collection of materials relating to the country and hemisphere exists for the entertainment and enlightenment of the public.