In 1956, Childe Hassam’s Building the Schooner, Provincetown (1900) became the first American painting of major significance to enter the Museum’s permanent collection. This early commitment to landscape painting established a tone for the Museum’s collecting habits, and landscape has emerged as the collection’s single greatest strength. The Museum has significant works by Thomas Doughty, Robert Scott Duncanson, Jasper F. Cropsey, Martin Johnson Heade, William Louis Sonntag, Sr., and George Inness, to name just a few. However, no painting has made a greater impact on the permanent collection than Albert Bierstadt’s massive and commanding canvas, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1875). The painting first came to the Museum as a loan from the Birmingham Public Library in 1974, and was permanently given to the Museum in 1991. It has provided a clear focal point, prompting the Museum to acquire two additional Yosemite views by Bierstadt, as well as a sketch album from his first trip to the scenic valley.
The Museum possesses a fine collection of American genre painting, including works by Francis William Edmonds, John George Brown, Enoch Wood Perry, Charles Courtney Curran and Francis D. Millet, among many others. In 2007, the museum acquired a significant history painting, Asher B. Durand’s The Capture of Major André (1845), which complements an already excellent group of historical and literary subjects, including works by Benjamin West, Thomas Sully, Francis William Edmonds, and George Bellows. The Museum is also fortunate to have Gilbert Gaul’s twelve-painting Civil War series, With Confederate Colors (1882–1911). The paintings, which formerly hung in Nashville’s Hermitage Hotel, are Gaul’s best-known works, and are perennial favorites with the Museum’s visitors.
Among the Museum’s most significant American portraits are examples by Gilbert Stuart, members of the Peale family, John Neagle, and Mary Cassatt. Among the most admired portraits in the collection is John Singer Sargent’s Lady Helen Vincent (1904), one of three works by Sargent in the permanent collection. The work was acquired in 1984, with funds donated through the Museum’s annual dinner and ball. The previous year, those funds were used to acquire a major work by Georgia O’Keeffe, The Green Apple (1922). Not only does this painting serve as the most important example of early modernism in the American collection, but it also adds to an excellent collection of still lifes, including works by John Peto, William Mason Brown, and Joseph Decker. Of particular note is William Merritt Chase’s Still Life with Watermelon (1869), believed to be his earliest extant work.