Docent’s Choice: The Arch of Titus

June 2, 2017 at 10:46 am Leave a comment


The Newark Museum was awarded a Bank of America Art Conservation Project grant for the conservation of George Peter Alexander Healy, Frederic Edwin Church and Jervis McEntee’s The Arch of Titus.

As you approach The Arch of Titus, think of a painting by committee.

This treasured piece, completed in 1871, was conceived and produced by three American artists living in Rome. George Peter Alexander Healy, who came to be known as the painter of Presidents (more of his portraits have hung in the White House than any other artist), settled in Rome in 1866 where he later encountered fellow artists Frederick E. Church – a student of Hudson River’s School Thomas Cole – and noted landscape artist Jervis McEntee – himself a one-time student of Frederick Church. All three of them had settled in the city in search of aesthetic enlightenment. Together, following an idea of Healy’s, they joined forces in painting The Arch of Titus. Healy painted the figures, including the American icon Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and his daughter Edith; Church painted the Arch; and McEntee painted the Colosseum.

This monumental collaborative painting, a rarity in American art circles of the day, was the result of Longfellow having commissioned Healy to paint a portrait of himself and his daughter Edith when they all happened to be in Rome at the same time. In the right-hand corner, we can see Church seated with pencil and pad sketching the landscape; Healy beaming over Church’s shoulder; and McEntee facing the viewer while gesturing towards Church’s hands. Longfellow and his daughter appear under the Arch.

The Arch of Titus, built between 81 and 96 A.D. to commemorate the sack of Jerusalem by Titus in 70 A.D., served as a scenic reminder of the large colony of American artists and writers, as well as wealthy American tourists, expatriates and art collectors, who flocked to the ancient capital of civilization for inspiration. In the aftermath of the Civil War, as America began to build factories, dig canals and construct railroads, artists as well as collectors saw the country evolving from an agrarian to an industrial economic society. American artists began to highlight landscapes as idyllic settings and American collectors began to prefer nostalgic art representing simpler and more certain times. With the growth of the middle class, as travel became easily accessible, the Arch and the Colosseum as well as other historic sites, became favorite landmarks to photograph, sketch, draw, or paint. They were all often used as backgrounds for portraits, another popular genre in 19th century American art. Consequently, The Arch of Titus is a “curious” historical American memorandum, as it commemorates the presence of American tourists and the body of work that visiting American artists produced in the “Eternal City” in the later decades of the 19th century.

George Peter Alexander Healy, a portrait artist born in Boston, was living in Europe having alternated residence between America and Europe, and in 1866 he moved with his family to Rome where he collaborated with Church and McEntee. It has been written that the sitters in Healy’s paintings evoke a sense of calmness, which can be seen in The Arch of Titus.

Unlike many of the artists of that period, Church did not study abroad. His father arranged for him to study with landscape artist Thomas Cole. However, after the loss of his wife and two children, he started a new life. Travelling to Jordan and Palestine, he ended his journey in Rome, where, day-to-day, he drew upon his memories and sketches to contribute to The Arch of Titus and other paintings.

Jervis McEntee, a student of Church, was born in Rondout, New York and educated in the tradition of the Hudson River School started by Church’s mentor, Thomas Cole. He traveled through Europe in 1869, the same year that Church visited Rome. Known for his diaries, which he kept from the early 1870s until his death in1891, McEntee depicted the day-to-day lives of his fellow artists, as well as the evolution of the 19th century’s art world.

The Arch of Titus speaks of the personal friendships between these three artists, as it celebrates and memorializes the camaraderie of American artists in Italy in the 19th century. As one stands before this treasure and meets the figures of Longfellow, his daughter and the three artists, we can feel like tourists from a bygone era on a walking tour, looking at the Arch and perhaps wondering about the reliefs on the walls, which are not clearly defined in the painting. Age has made many of the reliefs carved on the archway walls difficult to figure out, and hard to recognize what they describe and what stories they tell.

There are two scenes from triumphs that Titus celebrated. One of these, when he sacked the Great Temple at Jerusalem while fighting the Judean war, shows the loot including the golden table and silver trumpets; another shows the seven-branched candlestick (menorah) all taken back and deposited in his father’s (Vespasian) Temple of Peace. It is noted that the Arch was completed after his death and his figure appears riding heaven-ward on the back of an eagle. A Roman of that period would understand the stories behind the reliefs, and for us, it gives a sense of history. One relief shows captives carrying the Judean spoils back to Rome. Nero had sent Titus and others to crush the rebellion. In A.D. 70 Jerusalem fell; the Temple was burned; and the Judean state collapsed.

This painting invites a visitor to stand before it, noting its size, the figures, how they connect, and the choice of subject – and perhaps to opine about the subject.

And so, along with a heartfelt fatherly tableau of 19th century America’s beloved poet strolling with his daughter, we glean a bit of history and a bit of the lives of three master painters who, as chance would have it, came together, with Healy at the helm, to create this composite panoramic scene.

– Eleanor Barbash Berman, Volunteer Docent

Buckskin coat photoBank of America Art Conservation Project

Thanks to a generous grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project, the Museum is restoring a recently rediscovered and rare embroidered deerskin coat attributed to the Cherokee. This beautiful coat expands the scope of the Museum’s Native American clothing collection. After restoration, school groups, scholars and Museum visitors can enjoy seeing it up close. The coat will be ready for display in 2018 in the exhibition Native Artists of North America, the new permanent galleries highlighting Native American Art and part of the Museum’s newly reinterpreted Seeing America galleries.

Also restored through this grant is the 1871 painting The Arch of Titus, which has been part of the Museum’s American art collection since 1926. Recently completed and returned to the Museum’s Seeing America galleries, the large-scale work by George Peter Alexander, Frederic Edwin Church and Jervis McEntee will be on loan this fall to the Detroit Institute of Arts for its exhibition Frederic Church: To Jerusalem and Back.

The Museum began to collect Native American Art in 1910, and the collection includes holdings of Southwestern, Northwestern and Plains material from the 19th and 20th centuries. The embroidered frock coat is one of only about a dozen coats of this kind presently known in museum collections. Date estimates for this coat range from the late 18th to mid-19th century, which is fairly early among Native American artworks and clothing in museum collections. The conservation work consists of cleaning the entire coat, humidification to reduce the deerskin’s brittleness, seam repair, embroidery attachment and repositioning of the belt.

A few closely related coats are attributed to the Shawnee and Delaware and provide insight into indigenous arts of the Southeast and Oklahoma, which are poorly understood yet historically important, given the extreme cultural and material losses caused by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

“Close study of the Newark Museum’s coat through the opportunity of conservation will yield many details of fabrication, materials and design, and add tremendous insight to the understanding of this group of objects,” said Adriana Greci Green, lead curator of Native Artists of North America.



Entry filed under: American Art, Uncategorized.

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