After three years of renovation and redesign, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum reopened its doors this past December. While the institution is unquestionably devoted to the study and display of designed objects, there is ample reason for painting enthusiasts to check out the museum’s opening exhibitions. Some of our favorite artists including Frederic Edwin Church, Lockwood de Forest, and Winslow Homer are well represented in the Cooper Hewitt collection and many of these painters’ works are currently on view.
Perhaps surprisingly, Cooper Hewitt has the largest collection of Frederic Edwin Church objects in the world. The majority of the works was donated by Church’s son, Louis P. Church, including an oil sketch of the Parthenon from 1869 and drawings of Olana from 1872, all currently on display in the permanent collection galleries. In addition, the museum has collected over 250 drawings and twenty-two oil paintings by Winslow Homer. Most of these pieces came from the artist’s family, and today the museum holds the largest collection of Winslow Homer work in any public or private collection.
One noteworthy aspect of the new Cooper Hewitt experience is the dichotomy between the modern museum aesthetic―including the custom sans serif typeface and sleek exhibition spaces―and the ornate structures preserved from the original mansion built for the Carnegie family at the turn of the nineteenth century. The Teak Room on the second floor exemplifies the latter style and serves as a reminder of the building’s history. Originally, this small yet lavish space was the Carnegie family’s library. It was designed in accordance with Aesthetic principles by Lockwood de Forest. Today the Indian-inspired interior architecture is retained, with a hand-painted ceiling and walls and carved teakwood accents. The room is used to showcase a display of objects inspired by de Forest’s and Church’s travels abroad such as sketches by Church, objects designed by de Forest, and a painting of Henry de Forest’s home by Walter Launt Palmer.
One general takeaway from my visit to Cooper Hewitt is the interrelatedness and inseparability of fine art and design. This confluence of made objects is evinced in the oeuvre of artists in the Cooper Hewitt collection, who often lived in interiors they designed and painted the interiors they lived in. I look forward to seeing other ways Cooper Hewitt incorporates their impressive collection of American art in their exhibitions, encouraging us to consider the work from a different perspective.