The Currier Museum of Art is marking its 80th anniversary by celebrating its own collection this year. Frequently, the Manchester museum hosts visiting special exhibits, but the Currier at any given time usually only has a small percentage of its own works on view.
The Currier Gallery of Art opened in October 1929 through the bequest of Moody and Hannah Currier, said museum director Susan Strickler. It was the couple’s wish to establish an art museum, she said.
Moody Currier was a New Hampshire native who came from fairly modest means but became a banker and was involved in several different enterprises, including newspapers, Strickler said. At one point, he was the governor of New Hampshire, she said.
“I think ... he recognized that there needed to be a balance ... within an industrial city like Manchester,” Strickler said.
You also see strong art museums in cities like Worcester, Detroit and Toledo, she said. “I think these museums were founded for the benefit of the entire community and as a balance between the industrial nature...” Strickler said.
“From Homer to Hopper: American Watercolor Masterworks from the Currier Museum of Art,” opening Saturday, March 6, at the Currier Museum of Art, is one of the exhibits focusing on the Currier collection this year.
Some of the Currier’s watercolors have not been shown in about 20 years, Strickler said.
Currier staff had been thinking about doing another showing of their American watercolor collections for a long time. Watercolors are subject to fading when exposed to light, so most museums these days only exhibit them periodically, Strickler said. It’s kind of like deciding when you want to light a candle, although that’s probably over-dramatizing, she said.
Two Winslow Homer watercolors in the Currier collection are regularly requested for loan, but the Currier usually doesn’t loan them out, in order to preserve them. One has been exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., though.
This exhibit will be shown at the Currier at lower light levels, with most of the windows blocked.
Watercolor is a portable medium, Strickler explained. The earliest practice of it in North America was by explorer artists in the early 1500s documenting their finds. Some of the earliest works in the Currier’s collection are watercolors from the 1820s.
Folk artists or itinerant portrait painters also used the portable medium to paint portraits of “an aspiring middle class,” Strickler said.
Watercolor was used frequently for landscape painting as well, and then more academically trained artists began using the medium in the third quarter of the 19th century, including Winslow Homer. “And he really merged his ability to convey a narrative subject with the ... expressive potential of the watercolor medium,” Strickler said.
Homer mastered the watercolor techniques to paint watercolor narratives about America, “his time and place,” Strickler said. “It’s really that moment that watercolor becomes an American art,” she said.
In the 20th century, many modern artists began to think about abstraction, Strickler said. The Currier has borrowed an early Georgia O’Keefe watercolor from 1916 for this exhibit.
Edward Hopper took up watercolor in the 1920s and first gained recognition as a watercolor painter, Strickler said. Andrew Wyatt in the late 1930s achieved his first national recognition as a watercolor painter and is seen as a successor to Winslow Homer, Strickler said.
After World War II, watercolor waned some as artists started looking at new media and large-scale work, which watercolor doesn’t generally lend itself to, Strickler said.
More than 75 pieces are in this exhibit, of watercolor and other media by exhibited artists.
“From Homer to Hopper” continues through June 7. The Currier is also hosting “Celebrating New Hampshire Art & Artist,” on view now, through June 7. The museum had “such a wonderful response” to an installation of a selection from its collection of New Hampshire artists that they’ve done another variation with pieces by New Hampshire Furniture Master Jon Brooks, painter James Aponovich, potters Mary and Ed Scheier and others, Strickler said.