Thomas Doughty (1793-1856)
“Harpers Ferry, Virginia,” 1825
Oil on canvas on board
16 3/4 x 24 inches
HMA Purchase, 2019
Photo by John Spurlock
Oil on canvas
26 x 30 1/4 inches
HMA Purchase, 2019
Photo by John Spurlock
The Huntington Museum of Art is excited to announce the acquisition of two important paintings for its collection. Both works are masterpieces that relate to the history of art in the Mountain State and are among the rarest of their kind created by their respective artists.
“This is a wonderful addition to the collection of the Huntington Museum of Art and to West Virginia,” noted West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History Curator Randall Reid-Smith. “Visitors to HMOA will now be able to appreciate these two amazing paintings that have contributed to the history of art in the Mountain State.”
The first work, “Harpers Ferry, Virginia,” was created by the important landscape painter and lithographer, Thomas Doughty (1793-1856). Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Doughty was the first American artist who shied away from portraiture and worked exclusively as a creator of landscapes. In 1827, he was elected to honorary membership in the National Academy in New York City, one of the first important art organizations founded in the United States.
The painting depicts the intersection of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers and is infused with the atmospheric qualities that are a hallmark of Doughty’s paintings. Dated 1825, the painting was likely begun in 1824 when the famous ferry that gave Harpers Ferry its name was discontinued and was replaced with a covered wooden bridge. The bridge itself was completed in 1825 and two of its newly constructed masonry piers can be seen in the background. Harpers Ferry was an important junction point during colonial times, located both at the confluence of two major rivers and the site of the first reliable and regular ferry service that crossed the Potomac in that region.
“This work was an amazing acquisition for our museum as it has now become one of the earliest dated landscapes depicting West Virginia to be housed in the collection of any museum in the state,” commented Geoffrey K. Fleming, Executive Director of the Huntington Museum of Art. “It has been a privilege to bring this work back home where it belongs.”
The second work acquired by the museum is “Tranquility” completed between 1939 and 1941 by the most famous naive/surrealist artist to ever come out of West Virginia, Patrick J. Sullivan (1894-1967). Sullivan, who was also born in Pennsylvania, moved with his widowed mother to Wheeling, West Virginia, around 1910. He worked only briefly as a painter, completing just 15 easel paintings during his short career. Discovered by the important art collector and gallerist, Sidney Janis, Sullivan’s works were featured at Janis’s gallery and during the late 1930s and 1940s were included for exhibition at the prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. “Tranquility” itself was exhibited at MOMA in 1943. Though he achieved a brief period of fame during that period, Sullivan became embittered that he could not seem to make a living as an artist, so he abandoned painting. Thus, there are few existing works by this uniquely talented artist.
While Sullivan was somewhat better known for works that utilized a mix of landscape and elaborate symbolism, “Tranquility,” which is considered the last of his masterworks, is a pure landscape, containing the only known anamorphic device in any of his paintings. Sullivan himself wrote about his reason for creating “Tranquility” in 1941, remarking:
“In these days of nerve-wracking events, it would be well for the artist to wield his brush in the furtherance of a letdown in emotional disturbances which are inimical to the welfare of a mighty nation such as ours... Artists should assist, therefore, in portraying work that will help keep the nation calm and cool in all its deliberations so that it may have the full use of its prowess to erase from the earth the foul, nauseating thing called Nazism . . . It is my sincere wish that those who look upon "Tranquility" will be emotioned the way the artist intended: that it will give them a feeling of tranquility which is sorely needed in today's emotionally upset world.” Sullivan wrote further, "After you have looked at Tranquility awhile turn it to your right and look at it sideways. You will notice the mountains form a sleeping figure resting in a calm, peaceful manner. All is quiet and undisturbed. The trees, water, everything in the picture is in a tranquil state, yet the picture is full of life - it sings. The face of the sleeping figure may be seen between the branches of the tree on the left."
With the majority of Sullivan’s works already in important museum collections, including two at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and two at the Oglebay Institute in his adopted hometown of Wheeling as well as several whose locations are today unknown, it was thought to be unlikely that the Huntington Museum of Art would ever be able to acquire one of his works for its collection.
“It had been four decades since one of his paintings appeared for sale, so it became a do-or-die moment for us,” noted Fleming. “We needed to act as quickly as humanly possible to secure this work as it might have been another four decades before another became available. Being able to acquire one of his masterpieces, and one that had been exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art during his lifetime, was a miraculous opportunity.”
The two paintings will be shown later this year at the museum when the stay-at-home order in West Virginia is lifted. For more information on events and programs at the Huntington Museum of Art, visit hmoa.org or call (304) 529-2701. HMA is fully accessible.
West Virginia residents may obtain a summary of the registration and financial documents from the Secretary of State, State Capitol, Charleston, WV 25305. Registration does not imply endorsement.