Works by Agnes Pelton and Edmonia Lewis among Colby College Museum of Art's newest acquisitions

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Works by Agnes Pelton and Edmonia Lewis among Colby College Museum of Art's newest acquisitions
Edmonia Lewis, Arrow Maker, c. 1866–72. Marble. 11 1/2 × 8 1/2 × 6 1/2 in. (29.2 × 21.6 × 16.5 cm). Gift of Jane, Richard, and David Moss in honor of Doris Rose Hopengarten '40, Fred Hopengarten '67, Annie Hopengarten Mooreville '06, Phyllis Rose Baskin '39, and Michael Baskin '70.

WATERVILLE, MAINE.- Works by groundbreaking female artists Agnes Pelton and Edmonia Lewis are key among more than 300 new acquisitions approved by the Colby College Museum of Art’s Board of Governors during the 2022–2023 academic year.

Among other notable acquisitions are a group of paintings, drawings, and works on paper by Roy Lichtenstein from the Lichtenstein Foundation; important gifts of art from Norma B. Marin (1930–2022), a longtime supporter of the Colby Museum and artist-advocate; and a series of new purchases and commissions of art by contemporary Native artists. The Lunder Collection has also grown, gaining watercolors by Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent, among other works.

Being (c. 1923–26), an oil painting by Agnes Pelton joins the Colby Museum’s collection thanks to a combination of generous partial gift from Laurie M. Tisch and with support from the museum’s Jere Abbott Acquisition Fund and Peter and Paula Lunder. The work is currently on view as part of Constellations: Forming the Collection, 1973–2023, open now through November 26, 2023.

Born in 1881 in Stuttgart, Germany, to American parents, Agnes Pelton grew up in Brooklyn. After studying with Arthur Wesley Dow and Hamilton Easter Field, she gained early success in New York, where she also began to immerse herself in New Thought, Theosophy, astrology, and other alternative spiritual practices. In 1921, Pelton withdrew from New York City and the art world, moving to Watermill, Long Island, where, in the mid-1920s, she radically reoriented her art from the figurative to the abstract in pursuit of depicting the spiritual realm in paint and achieving enlightenment through the act of making.

Executed from c. 1923–26, Being is the first abstraction that Pelton produced, making it an immensely important painting in the arc of her oeuvre and in the history of American art. “Being established a number of the symbolic and formal conventions that Pelton would employ for the remainder of her career as she continued to develop her painting practice and became more deeply involved in the spiritual occult,” noted Sarah Humphreville, Lunder Curator of American Art at the Colby Museum. “In this work, she sought to portray her wonder for the divine, the profundity of the passage of time, and the mystery of creation.”

Alongside works by artists such as Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Flora Crockett, Being contributes to new narratives in the collection around early American abstraction along with other 2022–23 acquisitions of the works of John Ferren, Raymond Jonson, and Charles Green Shaw. These last three works also are now part of the Lunder Collection at the Colby Museum. The pieces by Pelton and Jonson, both members of the Transcendental Painting Group, also strengthen the museum’s holdings of Southwest American art, which is well-represented within the Lunder Collection and is the subject of the current exhibition Painted: Our Bodies, Hearts, and Village.

Arrow Maker (c. 1866–72), a marble sculpture by Edmonia Lewis, comes to the Colby Museum from Jane Moss, Robert E. Diamond Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of French, emerita, who received the work from her mother, Doris Rose Hopengarten, class of 1940, who in turn inherited it from her parents. This gift to the museum honors the long and deep connection between the Moss family and Colby College, where many family members have studied and where Moss’s husband, Richard Moss, also taught. Despite the work’s well documented chain of provenance, the creator of Arrow Maker was unknown to the family—and to art history—until this fall, when Moss undertook significant research to determine the sculpture’s maker, including consultation with curators, conservators, and Lewis scholars across the country who confirmed its authenticity and importance.

Edmonia Lewis was the first sculptor of Black American and Native American heritage to receive international recognition, which she gained for her portraits, literary subjects, and works that addressed Indigenous themes, Black oppression, and women’s issues in a Neoclassical style. She initially established herself in Boston, where she sought out other artists to mentor her and obtained support and patronage in the city’s abolitionist circles. However, despite this success, she felt racially tokenized in the city and, in 1865, moved to Rome, where she became part of an American expatriate artist community that included figures such as Hiram Powers and Harriet Hosmer.

In Rome, Lewis became an artistic celebrity, expanding her practice beyond portraits to include Classical themes, literary references, and overtly political topics. Among these new subjects was a series inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Song of Hiawatha,” on which she worked from 1866–72. Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem tells the life story of the Ojibwe warrior Hiawatha, including his marriage to Minnehaha, a member of a rival Dakota tribe and the daughter of the Arrow Maker. Lewis carved marble sculptures of all three of these characters, executing multi-figure scenes alongside portrait busts in her typical vivid realism. The portrait bust Arrow Maker is a powerful example of Lewis’s commitment to depicting the humanity of Native American subjects rather than relying on stereotypes.

With the decline in popularity of Neoclassicism in the 1880s, Lewis began to recede from prominence. She moved to Paris in 1896 and then to London in 1901, but little remains known about her later work and life, though she did continue to sculpt. She died in obscurity in 1907, and her reputation only began to be resurrected in the 1980s. Since then, scholars have written about her life and work and museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and the Detroit Institute of Arts have collected her sculptures.

“Reflecting how much remains to be learned about Lewis, until Arrow Maker was offered to Colby, a solo bust of this character was unknown as part of her visual lexicon. This work thus represents not only a significant gift to the museum as the first Lewis work to enter the collection but also a significant discovery for art history,” said Humphreville.

Arrow Maker is currently on view in the museum’s Lunder Wing. Other new additions to the collection that have recently been installed include works by Emma Amos, Jennifer Bartlett, Darrel Ellis, and David Wojnarowicz in the recently opened exhibition Come Closer: Selections from the Collection, 1978–1994; pieces by Berdina Charley, Jody Naranjo Folwell, Susan Folwell, Jason Garcia, Jessa Rae Growing Thunder, Dan Namingha, Michael Namingha, Madeline Naranjo, Virgil Ortiz, Cara Romero, Yellowbird Samora, and Sarah Sockbeson in Painted; a print by Alex Katz in Alex Katz: Repetitions; and a mosaic by Shahzia Sikander, on view in the museum’s lobby. These objects are joined by a number of other key works by artists such as Alexander Calder, Jess Dugan, Margaret French, Roy Lichtenstein, Gamaliel Rodríguez, Stephen Shore, John Mix Stanley, and Saul Steinberg.

This year’s terrific acquisitions have been transformative,” notes Carolyn Muzzy Director Jacqueline Terrassa, “we’ve deepened areas of strength, such as American Modernism and art of the United States Southwest. This allows us to feature more layered narratives and present artists who, in their own communities and times, have influenced the course of art. Taken as a whole, these acquisitions reflect our mission to explore and expand how the idea of America is understood and how art is made, interpreted, and shared.”

Founded in 1959, the Colby College Museum of Art is a teaching museum, a destination for American art, and a place for education and engagement with local, national, and global communities. Part of Colby College, the museum is located in Waterville, Maine, and actively contributes to Colby’s curricular and co-curricular programs and to the region’s quality of life. It inspires connections between art and people through distinctive exhibitions, programs, and publications and through an outstanding collection that emphasizes American art and contemporary art within holdings that span cultures and time periods. The Colby Museum actively seeks to increase diversity, equity, inclusion, and access across all of its work and to advocate for the community value of art, artists, and museums in engaging with today’s most vital questions.

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