The history of American museums is rooted in narratives of individual lives. “Loving Art: The William & Anna Singer Collection,” at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown, Maryland, tells the story of an American couple who amassed a collection of over 3,000 objects between 1900 and 1940. The exhibition draws on the four institutions that share the Singer collection: the Washington County Museum (celebrating its seventy-fifth anniversary), the Singer Museum in Laren, the Netherlands (celebrating its fiftieth), Singerheimen (the Singer home in Olden, Norway) and the West-Norway Museum of Decorative Art in Bergen, Norway. In many ways, the story is a familiar one. William H. Singer, Jr., a painter who was the son of a Pittsburgh steel magnate, and his wife spent most of their adult lives in Europe. Like many Americans, Singer studied in Paris, forming friendships with American Impressionists Childe Hassam and Willard Metcalf. Two highlights of the exhibition are Hassam’s White House, Gloucester (1895), a sun-drenched view of a summer cottage, and Metcalf’s New England Afternoon (c. 1919), a cooler, greener landscape with distant houses and leafy shadows across a foreground field. Singer became friendly with dealers and acquired works by major French artists such as Auguste Rodin, Jean-François Millet and John Singer Sargent’s teacher, Carolus-Duran. He bought Harbor View (1885–90) by the marvelous seaside painter Eugène Boudin and Harvest (1852), one of Charles François Daubingny’s energetically painterly rural scenes.
Singer’s career, as painter and collector, took some surprisingly turns. He came under the influence of the Norwegian artist Martin Borgord at the artist colony on Monegan Island, Maine. William and Anna traveled with him to Laren in the Netherlands before making a home in Norway. Singer’s mature paintings focus on northern mountains and fjords. While not as familiar as some French and American artist colonies, Laren was an important center. The Dutch artists who worked there brought a somber, moody palette to the landscape and a realistic sense of physicality to the figure, a striking alternative to the brightly colored optical scrims of Impressionism. The leaders of what is sometimes called the Hague School included Anton Mauve (van Gogh’s uncle), Joseph Israels and the Maris brothers. Jacobus Maris’s The Bridge (1885)—a strongly composed flat townscape under damp skies—hangs in New York City’s Frick Collection, a reminder of how highly regarded Dutch artists were a century ago. The Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian spent time in Laren, as did the American tonalist John Twachtman. One of the highlights of the current exhibition is from the Singer Museum in Laren, Frans Deutmann’s little jewel Flemish Girl (1887), the stolid yet luminous figure of a girl in traditional dress set off by the velvety darkness of the background. Also striking and unusual are two watercolors by British artist Frank Morse-Rummel (1884–1960), a grandson of Samuel F.B. Morse. The Washington County Museum owns thirteen of these watercolors, designs for wall decorations based on Norse myths. Death of Baldr and Urd-Werdandi-Skuld are notable for their daring off-kilter compositions and pale, earth-toned palette. The Singers’ circle of friends included the Dutch artist Willem Dooijewaard and several art dealers, who helped them acquire Asian decorative art and some old master works. The accompanying publication, Loving Art: The William & Anna Singer Collection, developed by the Singer Laren Museum and written by Helen Schretlen, presents a “biography of the collection” and includes a provisional catalogue.
The Washington Country Museum of Fine Arts now boasts a permanent collection of 6,000 objects, including good examples of nineteenth-century American art, with paintings by members of the Peale family, Thomas Moran and Frederic Church. Church’s shimmering Scene on Catskill Creek (1847) is a standout. The landmark building that houses the collection, designed by the New York firm Hyde & Shepherd, opened in 1931, with additions in 1949 and 1994. In 2005, the landscaping of the surrounding public space, the Anne G. and Howard S. Kaylor Lakeside Garden, was completed. According to director Joseph Ruzicka, the museum has a master plan, over the next twenty-five years leading up to its centennial, to consolidate, renovate and expand. As the cultural center of Washington County (both Baltimore and Washington, D.C., are about 100 miles away), the museum presents an ever-expanding program of lectures and concerts. Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, 91 Key Street, City Park, Hagerstown, Maryland 21741. Telephone (301) 739-5727. On the Web at www.wcmfa.org