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Rochester’s Museum of Fine Arts

Painting by George Inness, Jr.

Painting by George Inness, Jr.

By Lu Harper, Librarian

Sometimes in the course of archival research we find information that not only helps document artwork in the Gallery’s collection but helps tell part of the story of art in Rochester.  Recently, I found information about a painting by George Inness, Jr., “Bringing Home the Cows,” which was donated to the Memorial Art Gallery by the Rochester Art Club in 1915.  In checking the exhibition catalogues of the Rochester Art Club, I found that a similarly titled painting (“Leading the Cows“) exhibited in Rochester in 1903, with the notation “given to the Rochester Museum of Fine Arts.”

How did the Art Club acquire the painting?  While we may not find the painting of particular interest today, in 1903 the acquisition was a newsworthy event.  An article in the New York Times dated 11/22/1903 stated that “A characteristic example of his paintings has been presented by Mr. George Inness, Jr., to the Art Club of Rochester, N.Y., to be placed in the proposed Rochester Museum of Fine Arts.  In case the club should be dissolved, the picture is to become the property of the city.”

What was the Rochester Museum of Fine Arts?  Clifford Ulp’s 1946 article “Art & Artists in Rochester” says that “In 1903, an attempt was made [presumably by the Art Club] to establish quarters for museum purposes in the Cutler Building, but after a year and a half was abandoned because of lack of funds.”

This short-lived attempt at a municipal art museum followed the dissolution of the Powers Art Gallery in the 1890’s. The Powers Collection was exhibited to the public on the upper floors of the Powers Building, and was sold at auction in New York City in 1899 after the death of collector Daniel C. Powers.  Members of the Rochester Art Club and others in the community felt strongly that Rochester needed a local museum to protect and exhibit fine art, and made several attempts to bring art to a larger audience through large exhibitions at various locales in the city after the closure of the Museum of Fine Arts.  Emily Sibley Watson showed her sympathy for this aim when in 1912 she donated the Memorial Art Gallery to the University of Rochester “for the benefit of the University and of the citizens of Rochester.”

While we have not yet found photographic evidence to confirm that the painting Inness donated to the Art Club in 1903 is the same painting the Art Club donated to the Memorial Art Gallery in 1915, the circumstantial evidence is strong.  A case can be made that by donating the painting to the Gallery, the Art Club was acknowledging the Memorial Art Gallery as the de facto successor to the “Rochester Museum of Fine Arts.”


Comment from Marie Via
Time: May 28, 2010, 9:53 am

So interesting, Lu. Every painting, like every person, has its own secret history. And sometimes it’s that history that captures our imagination. Yes, some might argue that this is a very pedestrian painting . . . but in it was the seed of hope for a museum in Rochester! Thanks for sharing your research!

Comment from Sarah Hart
Time: May 31, 2010, 9:52 am

Thank you Lu for sharing this story. George Inness is my favorite landscape painter. I first saw his work when I was a student in Paris. It is curious to me that the painting can be categorized as not particularly interesting or even pedestrian. I have noticed that it is fine for people to make comments like this about art that I consider superior. If I were to make the same comments about modern styles folks would consider me unsophisticated. While I find endless education with painters like Inness, those whose talents are grounded in novelty and shock successfully convince the general public that they are the ones who are educated. It is truly fascinating!

Comment from Lu Harper
Time: June 1, 2010, 10:27 am

Sarah & Marie–thanks for the reminder that we each see art with different eyes! As a librarian and archivist, I am thankful for the opportunity to make images and information about artworks available online–especially those who are only known locally and those who over time have not reached a wider audience. George Inness, Jr. (1853-1926) is best known as the editor of the Life, Art & Letters of George Inness, his more famous father. While the Inventory of American Paintings ( lists 539 paintings by the son, few images are available online.

Comment from Marie Via
Time: June 4, 2010, 2:00 pm

Lu and Sarah — Please know that I personally don’t think this is pedestrian — I LOVE painting like this (Lu, you KNOW I’m a sucker for George Herdle . . .). What I meant was that looking deeper at any work of art is likely to yield an interesting back-story, whether you particularly respond to that work or not.

Comment from Portrait artist Anna Bregman
Time: January 25, 2011, 1:27 pm

Isn’t it a little startling the way the cow is making eye contact with the viewer! This is a good book on George Innes which I happen to have:
It’s out of print now but sometimes turns up on Abe Books….

Comment from Jennifer
Time: March 25, 2011, 7:08 pm

I am an aspiring photographer and I was wondering how I would go about entering my photographs into your museum. If this is not something you do, would it be possible for you to direct me to a place that I could show them?

Thank you for your time with respect to the above addressed matter.



Comment from Larissa Masny
Time: March 28, 2011, 10:43 am

Thanks for your comment, Jennifer.

You’re in luck! We are now accepting applications to our Rochester-Finger Lakes Exhibition. They are due March 31, 2011.

It includes photography entries. Here is the link:

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