Art Collector Owes It All to Mummy

By Shaw-Eagle, Joanna | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 25, 2000 | Go to article overview

Art Collector Owes It All to Mummy


Shaw-Eagle, Joanna, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Barney A. Ebsworth's passion for art began with a mummy.

Mr. Ebsworth, who is showing selections from his distinguished collection at the National Gallery of Art, was a sports-minded youngster in St. Louis in the 1940s who wanted to play baseball. But his parents insisted he see the 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy at the local art museum. "I wanted to see it, but I was afraid it might come get me," he says with a laugh.

The mummy got the future collector into museums and was the catalyst for his long love affair with art. He calls it "my wonderful lifelong education in museums."

Mr. Ebsworth, 65, later replaced the mummy for the St. Louis Museum of Art when the one he saw as a child was returned to its owner. It is the museum's biggest attraction.

Experts rank Mr. Ebsworth's collection of American masters, which ranges from modernist artists who showed in the groundbreaking 1914 Armory Show in New York to post-World War II painters such as Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, as one of the best in private hands.

Though the collector has gone on to amass millions of dollars' worth of art, the purchase of the mummy is at the heart of his collecting. He selected art, starting with William Glackens' "Cafe Lafayette (Portrait of Kay Laurell)" (1914), to later enrich museums with gifts from his collection.

Mr. Ebsworth was determined to choose only the very best. For many years, he concentrated on the American modernists who revolutionized the older academic styles of painting, artists such as Charles Burchfield, Alexander Calder, Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler, Georgia O'Keeffe, O. Louis Guglielmi, John Marin, William Glackens, David Smith and Edward Hopper.

The exhibit, which presents more than 70 works, opens with Marsden Hartley's symbolic portrait of a German World War I officer, his friend Lt. Karl von Freyburg. Hartley (1877-1943) was part of the avant-garde "Alfred Stieglitz group" in New York and was influenced by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse in Paris. He traveled to Germany in late 1914 to paint a series of "war motif" works after fighting had begun.

Twelve paintings made up the war-motif series - the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden has one from its collection on view - but Mr. Ebsworth's of 1914-15 is believed to be the first. The military parades in Berlin, as well as the painter's friendship with von Freyburg, affected him deeply. The painting shows colorful military emblems in a flattened cubist space, a kind of tightening he learned from Picasso. The work is perfectly symmetrical, with a white dress-helmet cockade and a black iron cross at its center. Numbers were significant for Hartley - "8" and "9" appear throughout. Also important is the number 24, the age at which von Freyburg was killed in the war.

This first gallery of the exhibition contains more surprises, with then-innovative works by Mr. Smith, Miss O'Keeffe and Suzy Frelinghuysen. Mr. Smith, primarily known as a sculptor, is represented by a rare early untitled painting (1936) made just after his first trip to Europe. He too was looking at Picasso's work. Miss Frelinghuysen (1912-1988), a New York opera singer, was a talented cubist painter, as "Composition" of 1943 shows. She layered sharp-edged picture planes, contrasted textures, favored cool colors and collaged corrugated paper and musical scores in her paintings.

Miss O'Keeffe (1887-1986), whose watercolors and oils from the earliest part of her career are shown, created emotion through color. She painted the enchanting watercolor "Sunrise" (1916) in Canyon, Texas. It was done in delighted response to the Texas landscape.

The artist made "Music - Pink and Blue No. 1" (1918) when she moved to New York and turned inward for inspiration. A violinist - she often wrote of her frustrations in playing the instrument, according to the catalog - she aimed to imbue painting with the abstraction of music. …

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