The Way We Were: Cincinnati’s Historic Art

When the Cincinnati History Museum delves into its attic, or “storage,” as museums are more likely to call their collection of out-of-sight possessions, it has at hand treasures from some of the best attics in the city, among other sources.

Jun 6, 2012 at 8:27 am

When the Cincinnati History Museum delves into its attic, or “storage,” as museums are more likely to call their collection of out-of-sight possessions, it has at hand treasures from some of the best attics in the city, among other sources. Limited gallery space relegates an unfortunate number of these works to storage, a situation remedied now through Aug. 5 by Treasures of the Past: Cincinnati’s Historic Art, 1800-1930 on view in the Museum’s South Gallery.

Fittingly, the first painting one sees is Louis C. Vogt’s glowing “Fountain Square,” circa 1900, which I understand normally hangs in a Museum executive office and will be welcomed back. The fountain here stands on a wide swath in the middle of Fifth Street, tall buildings lining either side. Another of several works by Vogt shows the only Cincinnati building designed by famous architect H.H. Richardson, turreted and towering at the corner of Fourth and Vine Streets before it burned down in 1911.

Landscapes are abound. The Ohio valley is undeniably beautiful, and painters have always been happy to record it. A large, gentle view of “The Ohio River Near Maysville” (1880) by William Louis Sonntag is among the first works the visitor sees. On the same wall is an amusing contrast: “Young Girls Fleeing from Indians,” with all sorts of inaccuracies owing to its being a copy by an unknown artist from a work pieced together by the European painter Karl Bodner, who had never been anywhere near the American interior. The foliage is wrong, the girls’ clothing is wrong, the Indians in the undergrowth wholly unconvincing. The exhibition is made up of greater and lesser works by greater and lesser artists, but sometimes the lesser ones are the most fun.

John Casper Wild’s early 19th century “The Public Landing” and surprisingly elegant view of “Third and Vine Streets” are familiar through reproductions, but here are the delicate watercolors themselves along with other paintings by Wild. Godfrey Nicholas Frankenstein shows us “The Mill Creek” as it was in 1845; the painting surely could be a spur to reclamation projects going on along the Mill Creek right now. 

An early view of Cincinnati, 1802, from across the river in Kentucky presents a sparsely settled basin area with the houses, I think, not to scale. Another painting of two or three decades later shows smaller houses and many more of them, with a few roads cut into the surrounding hills. Fort Washington, prominent in the earlier work, is gone by the time of the latter. A quick glance at Henry Mosler’s “Canal Street Market” (1860) might almost be Findlay Market today, but the stove-pipe hats are a giveaway, as is the pig eating pieces of a broken watermelon in the foreground. 

Of the many portraits, my favorite is young Thomas Buchanan Read’s of himself, clear-eyed and appealing. Read (1822-1872) was a poet and an artist and a sign painter when poetry and painting ran thin. He wrote a famous poem, “Sheridan’s Ride” and had the good fortune to be a protégé of Nicholas Longworth. Another compelling portrait is Elizabeth Nourse’s portrayal of her twin sister’s husband, Benn Pitman. Pitman, pleasantly bewhiskered, came to Cincinnati to teach shorthand but instead became one of the two promulgators of woodcarving, successfully practiced by a number of Cincinnati women. A handsome carved oak wall desk by Clementine Abbott (1886) exemplifies their skill. Rookwood gets its due, of course, with three or four small groupings of linked subject matter. Circus posters by the Strobridge Lithographing Company are in abundance, but their handsomest is for the Cincinnati Fall Festival of 1906, showing a woman in a stunning hat, furs, chiffon scarves, accompanied by a be-ribboned dog. She’s a knockout.

Not exactly art, but close enough in its well-executed detail, is the 1880s model of a milling machine, only inches high, used as a selling tool in the days when Milacron called itself Cincinnati Milling Machine. Several splendid full-scale examples of milling machines are on permanent exhibit in the adjoining gallery.

The exhibition’s latest and final painting brings us into the 20th century, with William Henry Gottard’s view of Cincinnati in the same time period and style as the mosaics and murals in the Museum Center itself.

TREASURES OF THE PAST: CINCINNATI’S HISTORIC ART, 1800-1930 is on view in the Cincinnati Museum Center’s South Gallery 

(1301 Western Ave., West End) through Aug. 5. .