Gift of American art at Penn State’s art museum

I know from personal experience that the exhibition currently on view at Penn State’s Palmer Museum of Art demonstrates works of art from one of the best private collections of American art anywhere – certainly on a university campus.

This collection was amassed privately by longtime Penn State arts patrons and community philanthropists, James and Barbara Palmer. While parts of the collection have been viewed by the public on many occasions at museums and art institutions both far and wide, this local exhibition showcases a portion of the major gift of art that the Palmers have made to Penn State University.

As a Penn Stater, I recall that the Palmers’ door always was open to scholars, art enthusiasts, museum patrons, fellow collectors, friends and students. The Palmers were happy to graciously host those with an interest in viewing the art collection and to talk about their “pictures,” as the late Jim Palmer sometimes called them.

An audible gasp was an appropriate first reaction to viewing the unexpected and impressive collection that adorned the walls of the Palmer’s State College home. The collection was vast, lovingly displayed and regularly loaned to museums for the benefit of art lovers worldwide.

The Palmer’s “pictures” were painted by some of the heavy hitters in the world of American art including but not limited to Georgia O’Keeffe, Thomas Hart Benton, Milton Avery and Chuck Close to name a few.

While decorative art and innovative contemporary pieces were included in the Palmer collection, the American paintings and sculpture were a primary collecting focus.

As a graduate student in Art History at Penn State and the Palmer’s private curator for some time, I was given the opportunity to work with the Palmer’s vast American art collection and publish the definitive book on the work of American sculptor, Seymour Lipton from the Palmer’s collection.

As has been the case for years, specific pieces from the Palmer’s private collection will once again become part of the university’s collection and put on display in the art museum on campus which bears the Palmer’s name.

The current, though somewhat awkwardly titled, exhibition “Varied and Untried” features the work of the independent American artists active in the early decades of the 1900s. These are the artists who painted atypical subjects in new styles based on European modern art. Many of the artists represented have strong connections to Pennsylvania making the gift to the Commonwealth’s university museum all the more appropriate.

For instance, the works of the Ashcan School of American Realism by Philadelphia-based artist Robert Henri and Lock Haven’s own John Sloan are on view alongside paintings by the innovators of American Abstract art such as Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin and Marsden Hartley.

The Palmer’s collection shows the impact of the European avant-garde on the budding American modernist painters in the wake of the 1913 Armory Show held in New York City. Arguably the most famous of the paintings on display at Penn State is the tried and true Georgia O’Keeffe masterpiece, Lake George from 1924.

This painting is the star of the exhibition and one of the best O’Keeffe paintings anywhere in the world. O’Keeffe’s early paintings of Lake George focus on her inviting way of depicting landscape vistas. The early Lake George paintings are a testament to O’Keeffe’s mastery of abstraction. They show a glimpse of what will become the artist’s trademark subject; the American landscape in abstract. Painted during a vacation trip, Lake George showcases a deeply personal locale for the artist and her husband, Alfred Steiglitz and highlights the visual simplicity of the American landscape.

For those who may want to view the works of the Palmers’ gift in the comfort of their own home after visiting the museum, a related publication called A Gift from the Heart: American Art from the Collection of James and Barbara Palmer will be available in spring 2013 at the museum gift shop.

The current exhibition continues at the Palmer Museum of Art on the Penn State campus until May 3.

Ph.D. antiques appraiser, author, and award-winning TV personality, Dr. Lori presents appraisal events to audiences worldwide. Dr. Lori is the expert appraiser on Discovery channel’s “Auction Kings.” Visit, or call 888 431-1010.