Editor’s note: The new exhibition Louis IX: King, Saint, Namesake will take Museum visitors back to the reign of the city’s 13th-century namesake, Louis IX. But the works on view in the free show aren’t the only connections to St. Louis — the city, that is — that you’ll find in the collection. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the city’s founding, Museum educator Ann Burroughs this year put together a list of her favorite works of art with distinctive, and sometimes unexpected, connections to St. Louis. (Ann’s list originally appeared in the pages of Missouri Life magazine.)
The Saint Louis Art Museum’s close connections to the city of St. Louis are evident before you step inside. The Cass Gilbert-designed Main Building was built for the 1904 World’s Fair, and it stands today as the only surviving building from that moment when the world came to St. Louis. An even earlier scene of city life is captured by one of the museum’s most beloved works of art–Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham’s painting of jolly flatboatmen dancing and reveling at the city’s wharf. But there are other, less familiar connections between St. Louis and the museum’s collection of art spanning six continents and five millennia.
A majestic feline, made from bronze over 2,500 years ago, Cat stands watch in the Museum’s Egyptian galleries. Cats may have been revered and prized in ancient Egypt, but this was an unpopular acquisition in the Depression. When the cat joined the Museum’s collection in 1938, a public uproar ensued over the sculpture’s $14,400 price tag. Generations later, the cat has earned the city’s affection and is a favorite for visitors.
Our African galleries feature two wooden masks (this and this) whose finely carved features are the work of a 20th-century artist from the Ivory Coast. Once owned by Vladimir Golschmann, the longest serving conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, his widow, Odette, gave the masks to the Museum as a gift in his memory. Golschmann led the symphony from 1931 to 1958 – a period in which the stylish French couple took the city’s social scene by storm – and helped develop the orchestra’s reputation as one of the nation’s best.
In our Decorative Arts and Design galleries, the graceful curves of a plastic and fiberglass armchair recall the elegant form of the Gateway Arch. These two objects have something in common: their designer, the architect Eero Saarinen. When the Arch was completed in 1965, Saarinen’s armchairs already were popular in homes and offices.
In our European galleries, Louis IX of France can be recognized in Vincent Voiture as St. Louis by the crown of thorns he holds in his hand. The 13th-century French king bought the relic from the emperor of Constantinople, and later built one of the architectural masterpieces of Paris, la Sainte-Chapelle, to house the crown. Louis was known as a great patron of the arts, so it’s fitting that the French founders of St. Louis named the city in his honor.
In 1846, St. Louis was one of the nation’s busiest river ports, as seen in a landscape painting by Henry Lewis in our American galleries. Steamboats line up along the bustling city’s edge, a scene that contrasts sharply with the painting’s foreground scene of pioneers in covered wagons rest on their journey west.
6. SLAM’s Max Beckmann collection
The museum devotes an entire gallery to the work of Max Beckmann, a rising star in Germany in the years before World War II. The Nazis labeled his art “degenerate,” state-owned museums took down his paintings, and the artist was forced to resign his teaching position. Beckmann fled to Holland, where he painted works such as the museum’s Acrobats, and in 1947 settled in St. Louis, where he taught at Washington University.
7. University City ceramics
Several beautiful vases featuring abstract organic forms and a dramatic set of fireplace tiles grace a gallery devoted to early 20th-century ceramics made in University City, Missouri. These works of art are products of one of America’s most distinctive art potteries, which was located just a few miles from the Museum in the St. Louis suburb. Entrepreneur Edward G. Lewis aspired to make University City a center of educational and economic opportunity for women in the early 20th century, and he hired renowned ceramic artists as instructors for aspiring local artists.
The Museum is home to several art works by self-taught artist Joe Jones (such as this, this, and this). Born in St. Louis in 1909, Jones painted portraits, landscapes, and scenes of everyday life in an early modernist style that featured recognizable subjects, smooth planes of color, and minimal details. Jones’ work was featured in New York’s Whitney Museum exhibition of contemporary American painting (1934-35) and in the pages of Time magazine.
9. Tom Friedman’s Untitled (Seascape)
In the museum’s new East Building, visitors can see an unusual seascape created by another native St. Louisan, contemporary artist Tom Friedman. The image of wavy water and a horizon line is created entirely by manipulating the paper itself. A close inspection of this art work reveals the intricacy of the folds depicting the water, while a view from a distance offers the balance and harmony of the entire composition.
When he was studying art history at Harvard in 1936, a portrait of a graceful woman with almond-shaped eyes caught the attention of Joseph Pulitzer, a scion of the famous St. Louis journalism family. Pulitzer purchased this painting, Elvira Resting at a Table, and hung it in his dormitory room. Pulitzer went on to become publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 38 years, as well as one of the world’s foremost collectors of 20th-century art. Pulitzer donated this painting to the museum in 1968, in memory of his first wife, Louise.