Written by Registrar Kristen Zimmerman
One of the Cummer Museum’s largest, heaviest, and most important paintings, which has not left the walls of the Museum since 1995, is now on a three-venue tour as part of a major exhibition, Bouguereau & America. The painting, William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Return from the Harvest, c. 1878, will travel to the Milwaukee Art Museum, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and the San Diego Museum of Art through January 2020. The Milwaukee Museum of Art has put together an interactive website to map the provenance of the works included in the exhibition.
The Museum has a rigorous and thoughtful process when it comes to lending works of art to other Museums and institutions. Our Curatorial team must consider the safety of the artwork, the thesis and scholarly merit of the exhibition, and whether the borrowing institutions are accredited by the American Alliance of Museums or are museums with which we have established relationships. While the decision to participate in an exhibition is not one that is made lightly, it can often further the research on the work of art and provides the opportunity for audiences around the country to have access to a piece they would not otherwise experience.
Bouguereau & America explores Bouguereau’s popularity in the United States during the late 1800s and the desire of serious collectors to add his work to their growing collections. Return from the Harvest was commissioned by Alexander T. Stewart in 1874. Stewart was a self-made millionaire of the Gilded Age and is very typical of the type of patron for whom the artist painted. In addition to these commonalities, Return from the Harvest illustrates the remarkable ability Bouguereau had in adapting the work of Italian Renaissance artists into more modern concepts. Here, Bouguereau depicts a scene that can at once be seen as having themes that are both distinctly Christian and distinctly pagan. If not for the title, it would be easy to wrongly assume the subjects to be that of Virgin and Child. All of these factors make our painting a crucial component to the exhibition’s thesis.
Of the 50 paintings in the exhibition, our piece is the second largest, coming in at a stifling 10 x 7 ½ ft. One of the most daunting challenges with lending a work of this scale is to ensure the painting is packed and transported safely to each venue. Simply to remove the painting safely from the wall takes a team of six art handlers. Due to the weight and ornate style of the frame, the painting is then secured into a travel frame before being placed in the outer crate. Each time the piece is moved, the Museum sends a courier from its Curatorial team to oversee the removal from the wall, packing, transportation, unpacking, inspection, and re-installation at each venue. Prior to the piece being hung on the wall at a new venue, a conservator must inspect the piece thoroughly to review its condition, check for damage, and note any changes since the last time it was inspected.
Over the coming year, Return from the Harvest will make its way across the country and back home to the Cummer Museum. If you happen to be traveling to Milwaukee, Memphis, or San Diego, stop in to view the exhibition, learn more about William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s impact on the art world, and visit with a familiar work of art from home.