Frederick Hartt and American Abstraction in the 1950s at Kemper Art Museum May 4

New exhibition explores building of the modern collection

Marsden Hartley, The Iron Cross, 1915. Oil on canvas. Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. University purchase, Bixby Fund, 1952. Hi-res image available upon request.

During World War II, as a young lieutenant and Renaissance scholar, Frederick Hartt was assigned a jeep and a driver and charged with locating, securing and repatriating hundreds of works of art. He later chronicled the experience in Florentine Art under Fire (1949), the first book of his long and storied career.

Less well known is Hartt’s engagement with American abstraction. As a professor and curator at Washington University in St. Louis from 1949-1960, Hartt helped build one of the nation’s finest university collections of 20th-century modernism.

This summer, the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum will highlight Hartt’s tenure with Frederick Hartt and American Abstraction in the 1950s: Building the Collection at Washington University in St. Louis.

Organized by Karen K. Butler, the museum’s assistant curator, Frederick Hartt and American Abstraction will feature 27 paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture by Stuart Davis, Arthur Dove, Lyonel Feininger, Arshile Gorky, Philip Guston, Marsden Hartley, Hans Hofmann, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and many others.

Also included will be a handful of Renaissance and Baroque works, reflecting Hartt’s own scholarly interests as well as his conception of the museum as a teaching institution.

Florentine Art under Fire

As a monuments and fine arts officer for the Allied Military Government in Florence, Hartt skirted landmines and a retreating enemy while searching for priceless artworks that had been removed from the museums and churches of central and northern Italy.

“Hartt contributed mightily to the protection and preservation of Italy’s incomparable patrimony, as well as helping to track down more than $500 million dollars worth of stolen art,” says William Wallace, PhD, the Barbara Murphy Bryant Distinguished Professor of Art History and Archaeology in Arts & Sciences, who first met Hartt as a college senior.

“To encounter Botticelli’s Birth of Venus stacked against the wall of a gloomy stone cellar, along with innumerable other masterpieces,” Wallace says, “was a life changing experience that launched a storied career.”

Art of the time

After the war, Hartt completed his doctorate and, in 1949, arrived at WUSTL, where he succeeded the distinguished art historian Horst W. Janson. Over the next decade, Hartt would publish books on Botticelli (1953) and Giulio Romano (1958) as well as an important article on the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1950).

Hartt also was appointed curator of the university art collection. Founded in 1881, the collection had been assembled, historically, by collecting the art of the time. Janson, who’d served as curator from 1944-48, was the first to extend that mandate to modernism, purchasing 40 works by many of Europe’s leading artists. Hartt, building on Janson’s framework, expanded the focus to include American abstraction.

“For Hartt, who saw the devastating consequences of World War II firsthand, large-scale gestural abstraction was the aesthetic form that most captured the qualities of the postwar human condition,” Butler says. “Although he celebrated its American qualities — particularly its emotional intensity and scale — he saw its formal roots in European modernism.”

Frederick Hartt and American Abstraction

Hartt’s acquisitions largely fall into two groups: works by early practitioners of abstraction, whom he called “the pioneers”; and works by the post-war generation of New York artists associated with abstract expressionism.

Representing the pioneers will be two seminal examples of early modernism: The Iron Cross (1915) by the American Marsden Hartley, and Brücke I (Bridge I) (1913) by the future émigré Lyonel Feininger. Both works were created in Germany, thus linking thematically to Janson’s focus on European cubism, constructivism and surrealism.

Also included will be Stuart Davis’s Max #2 (1949) and Arthur Dove’s Sand and Sea (1943), which combine modernist form and subject matter with distinctly American iconography.

The abstract expressionists are represented by a series of major works, which Hartt acquired at the rate of approximately one per year. These include Willem de Kooning’s Saturday Night (1956) and Philip Guston’s Fable I (1956–57), each purchased shortly after completion.

Also on view will be Arshile Gorky’s large-scale Golden Brown Painting (1943–44) and one of Jackson Pollock’s final paintings, Sleeping Effort (1953), as well as a series of five Pollock screen prints.

The Resurrection

In addition to contemporary abstraction, Hartt’s acquisitions include El Greco’s The Resurrection (c. 1600–05), an important Renaissance painting that arguably, in its subordination of image to form, anticipates both modernism and expressionism. Hartt also acquired a small selection of Renaissance and Baroque drawings, each chosen for its ability to demonstrate a particular artistic theme or technique.

Notable among these is Peter Paul Rubens’s Parade of the Captured Chiefs (1600–08), copied from a work by Giulio Romano, the subject of Hartt’s dissertation. Other drawings include Giovanni Grimaldi’s two-sided Landscape with Tower and River Scene with Boats, and Luca Cambiaso’s Penitent Magdalene (c. 1570–1580).

Also on view will be Parnassus, a swiftly executed wash by an unidentified 16th-century French artist; and Two Female Figures, an academic study by an unidentified 16th-century Italian artist.

Rounding out the exhibition will be Hartt’s own Royal HH Typewriter. Custom ordered in pastel pink with cream-colored keys, it was the instrument on which Hartt composed much of his influential scholarship.

Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, part of Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, is committed to furthering critical thinking and visual literacy through a vital program of exhibitions, publications and accompanying events. The museum dates back to 1881, making it the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi River. Today it boasts one of the finest university collections in the United States.

Support for Frederick Hartt and American Abstraction was generously provided by James M. Kemper Jr., the David Woods Kemper Memorial Foundation and the William T. Kemper Foundation.

Frederick Hartt and American Abstraction in the 1950s: Building the Collection at Washington University in St. Louis will open with a public reception at 7 p.m. Friday, May 4, and will remain on view through Aug. 27. Both the reception and the exhibition are free and open to the public.

The Kemper Art Museum is located on the Danforth Campus, immediately adjacent to Steinberg Hall, near the intersection of Skinker and Forsyth boulevards.

Regular hours are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays; and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The Museum is closed Tuesdays.

For more information, call (314) 935-4523 or visit