Buyer of acclaimed Berkshire Museum painting extends free offer to view it

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PITTSFIELD — A celebrated Berkshire Museum landscape painting that failed to sell at auction Wednesday was sold to a Philadelphia museum shortly afterward.

And for Berkshire County residents who want to see the work on display at its new home, the visit will be on the house — forever.

On Wednesday, Frederic Edwin Church's "Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada" failed to sell at Sotheby's on the last day of May auctions to benefit the Berkshire Museum, despite receiving a high bid of $4,250,000. Works can be subject to reserves that bar sales below a set price.

But in a private transaction shortly after, the work was scooped up by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which was founded in 1805 and claims to be the nation's oldest art museum.

The museum's director, Brooke Davis Anderson, told The Eagle on Thursday that acquiring the Church work fills a hole in its collection.

In gratitude, Anderson says residents of Berkshire County, by showing ID when they visit her institution, will have "free admission in perpetuity," which, she agreed, is a very long time.

"We really want you to know that you're welcome here any time," Anderson said. "We feel we now have a relationship with the community and with Berkshire County."

Anderson said trustees and staff of her institution share that view, as they take possession of a well-known work by a prominent representative of the Hudson River School of landscape artists.

Church, who lived from 1826 to 1900, painted the work in 1875. It was newsworthy enough to merit an article in The New York Times that April headlined, "Mr. Church's New Picture."

It was given to the Berkshire Museum by members of the Buckingham family, of Chicago and Pittsfield, in 1909; the family had owned it since the year it was created. The painting's frame remains the same one created by the artist.

Anderson declined to say what the museum paid for the painting, which had received a presale low-bid estimate of $5 million. She said that adding the Church painting to its holdings helps fulfill her institution's mission.

"We tell the sweeping and extensive story of American art," Anderson said. "He fits in every way with PAFA's permanent collection."

Elizabeth McGraw, president of the Berkshire Museum board, said she and others are pleased that the private sale will result in the work remaining accessible to the public.

The museum secured permission in April from the Supreme Judicial Court to sell up to $55 million worth of works from its collection and use the money to cover recurring deficits, address problems with its 39 South St. facility and invest in renovations in pursuit of what it terms a "new vision."

In its descriptions of the oil-on-canvas work, Sotheby's called the painting a "superb" example of the artist's use of tropical settings. Though South America was changing and being developed at that time, Church's vision kept it pure.

"He depicts an Edenic landscape suffused in warm light and imbued with tranquility — a scene of the tropical bucolic," Sotheby's said of the work in its auction catalog. "He masterfully renders the atmosphere so as to convey the heat and humidity of the thick, tropical air radiating off the lush greenery. The scene is reverent to the power and scale of the landscape, which is underscored by the figures in the foreground that are dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape."

In a 1989 essay, Franklin Kelly tried to explain the enduring appeal of works like Church's "Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada," writing: "His paintings are still undeniably capable of evoking thoughtful wonder about the mysteries of art and the complexities of the natural world and of providing delight and fascination."

Anderson said she feels a kinship with the painting's longtime home, and with those who live in Berkshire County and have now lost easy access to the work.

"We really see that our two communities have joined together," she said. "We are honored to become the custodians of this important painting."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-496-6214.


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