Last week while preparing a brief lecture, I was reminded of my first introduction to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. In 1987, Doreen Bolger (then curator at the ACMAA and now director of the Baltimore Museum of Art) hired me to be a Philadelphia-based research assistant on an exhibition exploring the work of the American artist William Michael Harnett. Though I never made it to Fort Worth to see the beautiful paintings by Harnett in this museum’s collection, for more than a year I scoured the records in Philadelphia libraries and historical societies searching for information on the patrons who commissioned works from the nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil artist. As rigorous research will, mine on Harnett uncovered networks—relationships between the artist and his patrons that showed how Harnett’s realistic still lifes of “old things” captivated a new group of professionals at the center of the country’s modernization: the media, manufacturing, and retail shopping.
What impressed me at the time was how serious the Amon Carter’s leadership was about research. They clearly understood that when an exhibition project advances knowledge, related historical research makes the art all the more relevant to visitors’ own lives. The museum’s painting by Harnett, Ease (1887), benefited from my archival digging. I discovered that the original owner, James Abbe, belonged to that network of patrons transforming the modern American world. Abbe, a paper manufacturer and newspaper publisher in Massachusetts, ordered the work from Harnett. At the center of the composition filled with Abbe’s personal bric-a-brac and books, a newspaper rests on a tabletop where a burning cigar has been set, as though Abbe has just left the room and will return shortly.
William M. Harnett (1848–1892), Ease, 1887, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, 1972.2
Understanding how works of art gained meaning in their own day—how they were part of social networks—requires committed study; this is what I learned as an employee of the ACMAA more than twenty-years ago. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art has been committed to such study for all of its history. We are known as an art museum filled with masterworks, but we are also a known research destination for the city, the region, and the nation. Come to the museum to see a work like Harnett’s Ease, then visit our research library and archives to mine the riches of life.