Object of the Week: Day into Night

In 1945, the first work by a Black American artist entered the Seattle Art Museum’s collection. The watercolor, by Blanche Morgan Losey (1912–1981), is titled Day into Night. First exhibited in the museum’s 31st Annual Exhibition of Northwest Artists, the work was purchased from the artist with funds from the Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, and officially entered the collection on October 3, 1945.

Having lived in the Pacific Northwest for only three years, I will be the first to admit my deficiencies when it comes to knowing the breadth of the region’s 20th-century artists. However, I imagine I am not alone in knowing little about Losey. In the dominant narratives of American art history, the household names of Northwest artists such as Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, and Guy Anderson have been canonized at the expense of the region’s vibrant communities of women artists, Indigenous artists, and artists of color.

Born in Los Angeles but raised in Olympia and Tacoma, Losey studied architecture and interior design at the University of Washington.[1] After graduating in the 1930s, she turned to art while working at Seattle’s Frederick & Nelson department store, going on to hold the position of Senior Interior Designer from 1939 to 1977. As if that weren’t enough, she maintained a consistent studio practice––producing crisp, precise watercolors such as Day into Night––and worked on design projects for the Seattle Opera House and, later, the Seattle World’s Fair. She was an active member of many associations: the Women Painters of Washington, the Northwest Watercolor Society, and the National Association for Women Artists, to name only a few.

The geometric precision and realism evidenced in Losey’s work was influenced by the rise of Cubism, and––known as Precisionism––quickly became integral to American Modernism, and a visual analog for the industrializing cities of the United States. In this work, the view looks west onto the Grand Pacific Hotel, a historic building located just blocks south of SAM at 1115 1st Avenue.[2] Not only does this watercolor capture part of the city’s architectural history, but connects to another aspect of Losey’s civic engagement and prominence within Seattle’s Black artistic community.

During the Great Depression, the Works Project Administration funded the Federal Theater Project and its Negro Reperatory Company, for which Losey designed sets and costumes. While a few Black theater companies operated in other cities through the Federal Theater Project, it was Seattle’s unit, along with New York’s, that gained national recognition and acclaim. Originally conceived as temporary (mounting two productions in five months), the Negro Repertory Company continued on until the end of the Federal Theater Project in 1939. As noted by one critic who reviewed the 1937 production Androcles and the Lion, “better mention goes to Blanche Morgan [Losey], who design[ed] colorful scenery and effective costumes” for the play. Like her set designs, such as the set for One Third of a Nation (1938), Day into Night evokes a strong sense of time and place.

It is important to reflect on this milestone acquisition for many reasons, not least of all for what it tells us about SAM’s past and Seattle’s history. This acquisition is just one example of Dr. Fuller’s commitment to supporting Seattle artists, but, as the first acquisition by a Black artist, it is disappointing that it was made twelve years into the museum’s operations.

As museums across the country contend with the structural racism that has shaped their collections and organizations––SAM included––it is time to seriously reflect on the individuals and communities represented in these collections, and who is not. In the decades since acquiring Day into Night, SAM has certainly collected more artworks by Black artists, Indigenous artists, and artists of color, but that is just the beginning of the anti-racist work that needs to be done. Structural changes are rightly being demanded of our institutions, but the least we can do to begin this anti-racist work can start here: by researching, sharing, and acknowledging the stories of artists in our collection whose biographies and artistic practices have been occluded by insidious forms of racism and white supremacy.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

[1] The Blanche Morgan Drawings and Watercolors Collection is housed in the University of Washington’s Special Collections.

[2] The building was constructed in 1890 following the 1889 Seattle Fire. The hotel is a four-story building, constructed from brick and stone in a Richardsonian Romanesque style.

Images: Day into Night, ca. 1945, Blanche Morgan Losey, watercolor, 18 1/4 x 23 1/4 in., Eugene Fuller Memorial Collection, 45.95 © Artist or Artist’s Estate. One-Third of a Nation, ca. 1938, Blanche Morgan Losey, ink and watercolor on paper

Object of the Week: Painting Number 49, Berlin

This Object of the Week is inspired by SAM’s special tour series, part of “For Freedoms’ 50 State Initiative,” which features programming held at arts institutions across the US to create civic dialogue about the 2018 midterm elections. Reflecting on artwork and exhibitions on view at SAM, staff members are presenting in-gallery tours that consider each of the four freedoms and connect to contemporary society.

“For Freedoms,” a collaborative project founded by artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman, is inspired by artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” (1941)—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

This week’s post by SAM staff member Rachel Eggers explores freedom of speech in the work of Marsden Hartley.

Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) was an innovative Modernist artist, incorporating elements of abstraction, Expressionism, Cubism, and Primitivism in his paintings. Born in Lewiston, Maine, Hartley is known for expressive visions of his home state, including landscapes and portraits of fisherman.

But Hartley was more than a regionalist. Perhaps his most intriguing body of work is his “German officer paintings,” created while living in Berlin from 1914 to 1915. SAM has one of these extraordinary paintings in its collection, and Painting Number 49, Berlin is now on view in tribute to the late arts patron and collector, Barney A. Ebsworth, who gifted it to the museum. The painting’s thick brushstrokes, vivacious primary colors, and mysterious abstracted symbolism reveal an artist enraptured and enrapturing, enticing the viewer with a deeply personal vision that melds the physical and spiritual—and, sometimes uncomfortably, the political.

Hartley arrived in Berlin in May 1913, though it felt to the artist like a homecoming. The imperial German capital was a hub of industrial innovation and social life; it also had a relatively liberal attitude toward homosexuality. He was delighted by the city’s grand military parades, with their ostentatious display of banners, flags, plumage, and men on white horses. In them, he saw a heroic ideal of Man.

He had befriended a Prussian officer named Karl von Freyburg, who may have been the love of his life. When von Freyburg died in battle at the age of 24, Hartley plunged into a deep grief—and eventually to the creation of this fascinating series of paintings.

Painting Number 49, Berlin is exuberant, loose, and colorful—but, at its heart, it’s a memorial portrait rendered in abstracted symbols. At the center is the Iron Cross, the medal for bravery that von Freyburg was awarded. There’s an officer’s plumed helmet and epaulets; the number “24” refers to Karl’s age when he was killed. Across the bottom blooms a setting sun, radiating red: the color of martyrdom.

The painting bursts with uncomfortable—even heartbreaking—tensions between youth and death, the state and the individual, openness and restriction, color and darkness. Unable to express his sexuality and his love, Hartley turns to a network of symbols and signs. In his unimaginable grief, he merges the physical, the spiritual—and of course, the political—inventing a highly personal visual language.

–Rachel Eggers, Manager of Public Relations

Image: Painting Number 49, Berlin, 1914-15, Marsden Hartley, oil on canvas, 47 x 39 1/2 in., Partial and promised gift of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2001.1067.

A Lasting Echo: Barney Ebsworth (1934–2018)

Seattle and the nation have lost a great businessman, arts patron, and collector. The Seattle Art Museum community was saddened by the news that longtime museum Trustee, Barney A. Ebsworth passed away on April 9. Barney was one of the top art collectors in the country, a supporter and advocate for great art, and a generous philanthropist.

Collecting became a way of life for Barney as he focused on great works worthy of a museum. He honed his eye for art by visiting the Louvre museum in Paris every weekend when he was stationed with the army in France during the 1950s. With works from Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Marsden Hartley, to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Jasper Johns, Barney built one of the most significant collections of American Modernism in the world. In a 2009 article, he said:

Before I bought a picture, I wanted to know two things: do I really understand this artist, and do I know where he or she was really best in his or her career? If I don’t, I probably shouldn’t be buying. So it’s been a lifetime study.”

Fortunately for all, Barney was exceptional in his study, and from the start he was committed to sharing his remarkable collection with others. In 1996, SAM first showed paintings from the Ebsworth Collection as part of a traveling exhibition. At the time, Barney was still living in his hometown of St. Louis where he had founded numerous travel companies including INTRAV, Royal Cruise Line, and Clipper Cruise Line. In addition to businesses in real estate and venture capital, he was the angel investor in Build A Bear Workshop.

In the summer of 2000, SAM welcomed Twentieth Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, a major exhibition organized by the National Gallery of Art. It was the first chance for Seattle to see the collection in its entirety and before the year was out, Barney joined SAM’s Board of Trustees.

As a member of SAM’s board, Barney brought a wealth of experience. He served as a dedicated Trustee of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and Honolulu Museum of Art. He was also a member of the Trustees Council and Co-Chairman of the Collectors Committee at the National Gallery of Art. At SAM, Barney was as an officer; an active member of the Committee on Collections; and served as co-chair of the 75th Anniversary Acquisitions Committee. He was a generous contributor to our major campaigns, including SAM Transformation—for which the museum named its double-height gallery in his honor—and most recently the Fund for Special Exhibitions. He gifted or pledged many works of art to SAM and helped with the purchase of many others. Of course, Seattleites may know him best for his gift of the monumental sculpture Echo, Jaume Plensa’s four-story head, serenely looking out towards the Olympic Mountains from the Olympic Sculpture Park.

Barney Ebsworth had a fun sense of style, a quick wit and loved telling jokes. Nothing brought him more joy than traveling with his family, and introducing someone to a new place or introducing them to art. SAM mourns the loss of a great friend, but Seattle will continue to cherish Barney’s generosity and the art he championed that enriches our city’s culture.

Image: Bettina Hansen  / The Seattle Times