RAM Talks Art: Museums work to interpret collections for our community

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118539038312565.jpg’, ‘Photo provided’, ‘One of Scottish painter George J. Robertson’s 11 works that make up an important part of Rockford Art Museum’s collection of work by regional artists.‘);

In 1857, Rockford was a very young city of only a couple thousand residents. That year, Rockford opened its first two public schools, and an iron foundry had been established more than a decade prior—the first factory drawn to the power of the Rock River—which eventually helped establish Rockford as a national industrial capital.

But when Scottish painter George J. Robertson decided to establish himself in the city, the landscape was much more true to its natural state.

Robertson was a painter who earned esteem after immigrating to the United States sometime shortly after 1836.

Remaining in Rockford until his death in 1894, his landscapes and portraits of many Rockford founders and other important people provide valuable insight about the early years of our city.

Today, 11 Robertson works make up a very important part of Rockford Art Museum’s collection of regional artists.

Museums try to collect objects important to their missions; these objects constitute a permanent collection for each museum.

For the Burpee Museum of Natural History, this may constitute its collection of fossils, geological specimens and Native American artifacts. Midway Village & Museum Center houses historical items important to the people of the Rockford region, such as clothing and household items from the 1900s, among others.

In its permanent collection, Rockford Art Museum collects work by artists that reflect several areas: glass art, outsider art, American photography, regional and national historical and contemporary art.

These permanent collections exist to provide an educational backbone to the respective museum’s programming, material for research, preservation for the items, and retention of items significant to the community.

Another important aspect of a museum’s collecting is the interpretation of its collection.

There was a portrait on our walls for some time, painted by Robertson, that featured a 3-year-old child wearing a dress. Because of the outfit, most visitors assumed his subject was a little girl.

Many viewers may not have been aware of the 19th-century custom of clothing boys—until about 5 years old—in dresses. Robertson produced this painting of his son, who passed away at the age of 3. This is an example of artistic misinterpretation.

However, artwork, if enjoyed—even though misinterpreted—is still enjoyed.

There is no doubt, though, that having insight into the artist’s process and background, as well as the historical context of an artwork, can further the appreciation of viewing a piece of artwork.

Collectors of any sort—whether of coins, toy trains, Civil War memorabilia or works of art—not only collect the object, but also they collect information surrounding the object, which leads to a deeper understanding of and appreciation for their collections.

This is how any museum interprets its collection—through research, by applying it to the object in the collection, and creating an interpretation from that research to its visitors.

As much as we can admire the technical skill of a painter like George Robertson—his delicate brushwork on the foliage or attention to the smallest detail—a deeper understanding of his paintings can be known by the context in which he painted them.

For example, Robertson trained in art at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from 1827 to 1836, which enables one to see the Realist tendencies of John Constable in Robertson’s landscapes, such as “Home of Alex Strachan.”

Constable, an English painter mostly known for his landscapes, believed that landscapes should be painted simply and unadorned.

Unlike the American tradition of the time—widely practiced by Hudson River School artists, who emphasized the vastness of the American frontier with a slight bird’s-eye view and the illusion of being able to see rock formations a mile away—Constable emphasized an intimacy with the landscape, often choosing to use the human eye level and the viewable distance, rarely going farther than a line of trees or a bend in a river.

He would have been a very popular figure in England during the time Robertson was a student at the Royal Academy, and Robertson seems to have been influenced by his style.

Museums also act as educational tools for the public they serve; one way they accomplish this is to provide a permanent collection with interpretation.

Take a look at your Rockford museums—whether it be Burpee, Discovery Center Museum, Erlander Home Museum of the Swedish Historical Society, Ethnic Heritage Museum, Midway Village, Tinker Swiss Cottage Museum or Rockford Art Museum.

They are all busy interpreting collections for the preservation and advancement of history, science and art for the Rockford community and its visitors.

Rockford Art Museum Registrar Jeremiah Blankenbaker can be reached at blankenbaker@rockfordartmuseum.org.

from the July 25-31, 2007, issue

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