Uniquely American art subject of Cummer exhibit


“Ars longa, vita brevis.”

An aphorism by Hippocrates (translated from the original Greek) and a summation by Dr. Diane DeMell Jacobsen describing the value of preserving art for future generations.

That’s something the philanthropist and her Thomas H. and Diane DeMell Jacobsen PhD Foundation have been striving to accomplish for several years. Toward that end, Jacobsen has acquired about 270 masterpieces created by some of the best American artists working in the 19th and 20th — and even the 21st — centuries.

Now through Sept. 24, the fruits of that effort are on exhibit at the collection’s home gallery, the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, in a show titled “American Made: Paintings and Sculpture from the DeMell Jacobsen Collection.”

Here, museum visitors will see works from the Colonial era by Sarah Miriam Peale and Benjamin West, sweeping landscapes from the 19th century by Thomas Cole and Jasper Francis Copsey and art by 20th century masters like Elizabeth Catlett and John Marin.

Viewing the show’s 104 works awakens the visitor to the full range and diversity of American art. The exhibit makes a point of including artists who, by virtue of their race or gender, have not received the attention they deserve.

“Most Americans don’t know about the great art that they have,” Jacobsen said. “They don’t know about all the artists. They certainly don’t know about women artists, people of color, Asians.”

“Dr. Jacobsen had thoughtfully and carefully amassed an impressive collection that captures the breadth and dynamism of American artistic production,” said Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, Ph.D., the George W. and Kathleen I. Gibbs director and CEO of the Jacksonville museum. “‘American Made’ exemplifies her keen eye, highlights her informed understanding and, moreover, offers an extensive examination of American art from the past two centuries.”

Pieces showcased in the exhibit have been on view at other museums, some of them, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, among the most important venues in the United States, if not the world. However, this is the first exhibition that features a comprehensive collection of the works.

“When we put this show together, we had to call back loans from museums all across the country to assemble the show,” said Jonathan Stuhlman, Ph.D., senior curator of American art at The Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, and one of the curators of “American Made.”

The impetus for the collection was a request by Jacobsen’s late husband.

Thomas H. Jacobsen had a successful career in banking, including stints as director of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and president of the Federal Reserve Advisory Council; chairman, president and chief executive of the Mercantile Bancorporation; board chairman of Firstar Corp.; and vice president of First National Bank of Chicago.

But in 2002, before leukemia claimed his life at the age of 62, it was art that occupied his thoughts.

“When he sat in his hospital bed with his yellow legal pad, he said, ‘I need you to build an American art collection that would be transformative,’” said Diane DeMell Jacobsen. “So that’s what I tried to do.”

Her goal in setting up the foundation was to create this collection, one that “would not only honor his legacy — I made a deathbed promise that I would do that — but that would be a gift to America and a gift to all the young people in America.”

Each painting in the collection is studied under microscope and UV light. Great care is taken to restore works where necessary.

One landscape by William Bradford was very dirty at the time of acquisition. Over a period of two years, it was cleaned, inch by inch.

Framing, too, was not taken for granted. When a portrait of Martha Washington did not share a matching frame with that of a companion portrait of her famous husband, one was created and today is indistinguishable from the other.

Another frame encircles a work of art with an ornate inscription in Arabic. Jacobsen searched 18 years before she had the right frame for that piece.

“Great frames are really hard to find,” she said.

That painting was the subject of an architectural and geographic mystery of sorts. It was rumored to depict a structure in Cordoba, Spain, but that turned out not to be true. Eventually, a friend of Jacobsen discovered the painting’s actual subject in Granada.

A more recent work — “Black and White #8” by Charles Alston — an abstract done in the 1960s during the civil rights era, depicts black and white elements clashing in some areas and coming together in others.

The entire exhibit is roughly chronological, though there are some subsections arranged in accordance with approaches to art, styles and subject matter.

The exhibit is part of a national tour that originated at The Mint Museum. After closing in Jacksonville, it will move to the San Antonio Museum of Art (Oct. 14 to Jan. 7), Dixon Gallery & Gardens in Memphis (Jan. 29 to April 16) and the Huntsville Museum of Art (March 24 to June 16).

It is curated by Todd Herman, Ph.D., president and CEO of The Mint Museum; Kevin Sharp, director of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens; and Stuhlman; with contributions by William Keyse Rudolph, Ph.D., deputy director, curatorial affairs at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

During the month of June, three programs related to the show were conducted: “The Red-Haired Beauty: Private Art, Public Art and Access to Beauty in American Society” with Scott Brown, Ph.D., professor of art history at UNF; a lecture by Jacobsen, who lives in Ponte Vedra: “An ‘American Made’ Collector’s Story”; and an artist meet-and-greet and demonstration with Gail Beverage.

An afternoon tea, “American style,” is scheduled for Sept. 17. Paid ticket and pre-registration are required. Go to cummermuseum.org/events to register.

“Art is so important in our lives,” said Jacobsen, “and its endurance is something I felt would represent my late husband. … Ars longa, vita brevis.”

For further information about the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens’ permanent collection and special exhibitions, go to cummermuseum.org/visit/art.