WHEN you walk in the door, the picture in front of you
announces that something good's awaiting. That picture is a still
life of fruit painted by Henri Matisse about 1899, radiant in
oranges and yellows and greens. It is extraordinary in its
foretelling of things to come from its extraordinary creator.
On the wall opposite are three cubist pictures of conspicuous
vitality: one each by Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris and Georges
The first of them, the enigmatic "Glass and Bottle of Suze," is
from 1912, the year that Picasso began his brilliant experiments
with collage and papier colle, cut-paper assemblages. "Bottle of
Suze" is a fascinating example of what was, 82 years ago, a radical
and potential-filled way to make art.
Keep walking through Washington University's Gallery of Art in
Steinberg Hall and you'll find pictures and sculptures by many
20th-century masters: Jacques Lipchitz, Paul Klee, Max Beckmann,
Edvard Munch, Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Willem de Kooning,
Robert Rauschenberg. Guston and Beckmann, by the way, taught at
Washington University in the 1940s.
Take the stairs to the gallery's lower level and look at
paintings by Thomas Cole and Frederick Church and George Caleb
Bingham and sculptures by the courageous American sculptor Harriet
Hosmer. All those objects are from the last century. It was then
that this collection of Washington University's was begun.
From the time the university was chartered, almost 150 years
ago, it has collected art of one sort or another. The collection
grew and in 1881 a building to accommodate it was completed at 19th
Street and Lucas Place downtown. At the conclusion of the 1904
World's Fair, St. Louis came into possession of the stately art
palace on Art Hill. The university's collection moved into the
building from its downtown location in 1906, and it was still a
In 1907, however, the city voted to support its municipal art
museum with tax money. Because Washington University was a private
corporation, it could not receive public funds. So the St. Louis
Museum of Fine Arts was independently chartered, even though much
of what it had to show continued to be the property of Washington U.
Gradually, as the museum's own collection began to grow, art
belonging to the school began to migrate into storage. Although
there were many works of art of the highest quality in the
university collection, there were also many things that barely
escaped classification as gimcracks, and had no place in a museum
In the 1940s, a young art historian named Horst W. Janson came
to Washington U. and decided to do something about the collection.
Janson's name may sound familiar: He wrote the basic art history
text that has been used by generations of college freshmen in the
United States and by students around the world.
Janson took an inventory of the collection and sent about 750
pieces from it off to auction. With the money raised from the sale
in 1945, about $40,000, Janson bought a number of works of art that
would form the nucleus of a great university collection.
He spent the money with astonishing prescience: The pictures he
bought are now worth hundreds of times more than what he paid for
them. And in artistic terms, they are of the highest quality.
Friday night at a reception in Steinberg Hall - the building
that in 1960 gave the collection its first permanent home in more
than a half century - the Washington University Gallery of Art will
show off many of its masterpieces and at the same time will
celebrate the publication of a bright new book about the collection. …