Norman Lewis at the McNay

There were two paintings that particularly caught my eye in one of the American art galleries during my visit to the McNay Art. Museum in San Antonio a couple of weeks ago. They featured ordinary people in everyday situations, clearly belonging to the Social Realism school of painting. I liked the subject matter, the slightly simplified forms of the people portrayed and the flat, bright colours.

The artist was Norman Lewis, an African-American painter who was born in Harlem. In his early work he concentrated on painting the things he saw around him in the working class communities of New York. In the Dispossessed he shows a family being evicted from their home, their possessions on the street.

The second painting portrays a more positive image with an African-American woman being given a reading lesson by a white woman. Given attitudes towards race in America at that time, I wonder whether the white woman is a member of the Communist party who were active amongst the black community in New York and other American cities

In the late 1940s, his work became increasingly abstract and he became a leading exponent of the Abstract Expressionist movement. One of his best known paintings, Migrating Birds (1954), won the Popular Prize at the Carnegie Museum’s 1955 Carnegie International Exhibition. However, his work did not sell nearly as well as other Abstract Expressionists, his ethnicity no doubt being the reason for this, and he supported himself and his family through teaching.

The McNay Art Museum – the Collection

Marion McNay was an American painter and art teacher who inherited a substantial oil fortune upon the death of her father. She was an enthusiastic collector of Modern Art and on her death bequeathed her collection of some 700 paintings and other works of art to found the first Modern Art Museum in Texas. The Museum has built on the bequest and now has almost 20,000 works in their collection.

The gallery spaces are light, bright, spacious and airy and there was an excellent range of works on display.

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The collection particularly focuses on 19th, 20th and 21st-century European and American paintings, sculptures and photographs. It also includes medieval and renaissance works, art and artefacts from New Mexico and an extensive collection of theatre arts.

The 19th and early 20th Century is represented by artists including Monet

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Gauguin

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Modigliani

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Braque

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and Picasso

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Post War European art included works by

Ben Nicholson

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and Barbara Hepworth

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Not surprisingly there were a large number of works by American artists, including Joan Mitchell

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Hudson River Day Line (1955)

Willem de Kooning

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Eddy Farm (1964)

Sue Fuller

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String Composition #T220 (1965)

and two small paintings by Jackson Pollock

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I liked this little sculpture, Snake on a table (1944) by Alexander Calder

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This painting by Diego Rivera was one of the first works purchased by Marion McNay.

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Delfina Flores (1927) by Diego Rivera

Upstairs in the old house there works from the Medieval and Renaissance collection and the collection of artefacts from New Mexico. I wasn’t so keen on the former but rather liked the display of paintings, pottery, textiles and other objects that constituted the latter.

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I particularly liked the examples of Pueblo pottery, created by Native Americans, they had on display.

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Overall an excellent gallery, well worth the ride out there on the bus.

They also had a good collection of sculpture (besides the two works above). I’ll return to that in another post.