Additions to a museum's permanent collection usually aren't heart-stopping news, unless one or more of the works acquired are rare, unusual, or especially distinguished. The latest expansion of Woodmere Art Museum's collection is doubly noteworthy, though.
First, the magnitude of that growth over the past two years - 26 percent - is impressive and reflects the museum's striking revitalization under director William R. Valerio.
Second, the acquisitions include a (promised) landmark gift of 84 works by regional artists from Philip Jamison, a West Chester watercolorist of considerable distinction who is also a perspicacious collector.
Woodmere's permanent collection now stands at 3,417 items, with 704 of those coming in the last two years through gift and purchase.
One of three new Woodmere exhibitions, "Just In!", represents this bounty with only 47 works, mainly because there isn't room for more. (Part of the whole collection - 1,438 works as of this writing - has been digitized, and can be viewed online at www.woodmerecollection.org.)
By its nature, a show of this kind is difficult to focus, but the museum has imposed some logic by devoting one section to figurative paintings and another to abstraction.
Many of the artists represented, starting with Arthur B. Carles, will be familiar to visitors who know the history of Philadelphia art. Carles' bold portrait of a woman with red hair, Alice Kent Stoddard's sensitive portrait of her African American housekeeper, and Quita Brodhead's mannerist Art Deco nude stand out in the figurative section.
The abstract section matches these with Philadelphia painter Bill Scott's lively riff on a painting of cherry harvesting by the impressionist Berthe Morisot, which hangs next to one of Jane Piper's notational, color-on-white still lifes (donated by Scott).
Nearby, an abstraction by Jan Baltzell hangs next to an abstracted still life by Carles, the fountainhead of some of the art in this room, and, as we shall see, a key player in Jamison's collection as well.
"Just In!" is the entry point for the three exhibitions, and it's rich enough to keep one engaged for some time. Ultimately, though, Jamison himself beckons. One gallery of the 87-year-old artist's own paintings serves as an antechamber to the centerpiece show, his collection, which occupies the museum's largest gallery and its balcony.
At this point, things get a bit confusing, but I suppose it couldn't be helped. Of the 84 works that Jamison has promised, only 77 hang in his "collection" show, along with other works the artist owns that aren't part of the gift.
The smaller, single-gallery show of his watercolors, "The Spirit of Chester County," includes six that are promised gifts, including the magisterial signature landscape Horseshoe Hills No. 1.
So, to compose an accurate picture of Jamison's gift, you'll need to read the object labels closely, or else rely on the exhibition catalog, which distinguishes "promised gifts" from "collection of."
One thing readily evident is that Jamison, who has been collecting other artists for three decades, admires Carles, whom he considers the most "exciting" painter that America has produced.
Of the more than 40 Carles works that he owns, Jamison has promised eight to Woodmere, although only four are on view, along with four he retains.
Some of the smaller pictures are hung on the balcony, an important aspect of the show that easily holds its own with the larger paintings below.
Besides Carles, this is largely due to a group of nine watercolors, drawings and prints by the influential Philadelphia artist Earl Horter (1880-1940); an iconic lithograph by Benton Spruance, The 30s Windshield; and a delightful curiosity, a tiny landscape painted inside a clamshell by George Cope of West Chester (1855-1929).
Jamison's collection naturally reflects his era; consequently it's heavy on Philadelphia artists such as Spruance, Horter, Robert Riggs, Seymour Remenick, Morris Blackburn, Hobson Pittman, Larry Day, Leon Kelly, and Warren Rohrer. And, of course, Carles, whose influence pervades both collection shows. He's less of a presence in Jamison's work, which occasionally suggests Andrew Wyeth.
Jamison and Wyeth often addressed similar subject matter with subdued palettes, particularly in their landscapes - Jamison's Sheller's Farm and John Chadd's House, for instance, might easily be mistaken for Wyeths.
Yet, where Wyeth is often symbolic and somewhat mystical, Jamison is concrete, even when he indulges his penchant for placing bouquets of daisies in his landscapes and interiors. His watercolors express authentic and deeply felt experience; one cannot only see but feel this in a panoramic landscape such as Horseshoe Hills.
I especially admire the spirit of time holding its breath in quiet interiors such as My Maine Studio and Floss Mullin's Window. Nothing is more difficult for a painter than evoking immanence, and no one does it more effectively than Philip Jamison.
"Just In!" continues at Woodmere Art Museum, 9201 Germantown Ave., Chestnut Hill, through March 17. "Philip Jamison Collection" and "The Spirit of Chester County" continue through May 5.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8:45 p.m., Friday; 10 a.m to 6 p.m., Saturday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday.
Admission: $10, general; $7, 55 and older; free, children and students with I.D.; free Sundays.
Information: 215-247-0476, woodmereartmuseum.org
"Art" by Edward J. Sozanski and "Galleries" by Edith Newhall now appear on alternating Sundays. EndText