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: The Collection of James J. Hill


Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
James J. Hill formed the first important private collection of paintings and sculpture in Minnesota, purchasing over a period of thirty-five years from 1881 to 1916, with the eye of a connoisseur, many paintings which have survived changes in popularity. As a trustee of The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts during the construction and opening season of the present building of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, he contributed substantially, through his experience as a business leader and seasoned collector, as well as through his generous gifts, to the cultural enrichment of Minnesota. Therefore, it seems appropriate to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the State of Minnesota and the 75th anniversary of The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts by reassembling, for the first time since its dispersal after the death of Mrs. Hill in 1922, his distinguished collection in the form of a loan exhibition. The exhibition, of which this publication is a souvenir, was made possible by the wholehearted cooperation and generosity of Mr. Hill’s children and grandchildren, including:Mr. and Mrs. Anson Beard, New York; Mrs. Egil Boeckmann, St. Paul; Mr. and Mrs. Peter Ffolliott, St. Paul; Mr. and Mrs. Michael Gavin, New York; Mr. and Mrs. E. John Heidsieck, New York; Mr. and Mrs. Cortlandt T. Hill, Los Angeles; Mr. James N. B. Hill, Boston; Mr. Jerome Hill, Norden, California; Mr. and Mrs. Louis W. Hill, Jr., St. Paul; Mrs. Georgianna Slade Reny, St. Paul; Mr. and Mrs. Hannes Schroll, San Francisco; Mr. and Mrs. G. Norman Slade, St. Paul.At the inaugural exercises of The Minneapolis Institute of Arts on January 7, 1915, James J. Hill received an enthusiastic ovation when he said, “Set your standard high and live to it. This Institute is to pitch the key for the community. Do not pitch the key too low.” It would be difficult to define the present and abiding aims of the Institute more clearly or forcefully. Today, especially, such a forthright injunction against mediocrity is inspiring and reassuring, at a time when the general level of taste and our national standards of artistic excellence have not always kept pace with an astonishing technological progress. Mr. Hill’s uncompromising artistic ideal must appear all the more compelling against his won background as a man preeminent in practical affairs. As a responsible business leader of genius and versatility who had become a legend in his own lifetime, and as a collector with thirty-five years of experience in buying and enjoying works of art, he knew whereof he spoke.Like many other prosperous and successful citizens of his period, Mr. Hill first purchased a few story-telling paintings of the kind so fashionable in this country and in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Then in 1881 he commenced in earnest to collect paintings by members of the Barbizon School, whose ennobled sentiment and love of nature struck a responsive chord in his heart. With the purchase of paintings by Dupré and Rousseau, by Corot and Millet, he developed and exercised that discriminating and selective eye which henceforth guided his activity as a collector. It is characteristic of the man that he shoed the same decisiveness and clarity of direction in his collecting activity that he did in his business career.Mr. Hill built his collection on the basis of quality, and did not hesitate to defy fashion by exchanging or selling those paintings which no longer held him. With the sound common sense of a man who applies his own experience to the understanding of good painting, he explained his change in taste during his address at the Institute’s inaugural exercises. “Some pictures,” he declared, “are like caricatures or like a funny story. Sometimes you hear a funny story and you enjoy it. But, if you had to live with it, how soon you would grow to hate it.” In each succeeding year, Mr. Hill found greater pleasure and relaxation in his collection. He continued to enhance and refine its quality on frequent trips to the New York and Paris showrooms of such well known dealers as Durand-Ruel and M. Knoedler & Co., acquiring outstanding paintings by Courbet and Delacroix and the wonderful animal sculptures in bronze by Barye.In 1887 he commissioned the architectural firm of Peabody and Sterns of Boston to build the magnificent mansion at 240 Summit Avenue, St. Paul. It was in the great gallery of this house that he installed his most famous paintings and received the guests who came to see them. Paul Bourget, the French writer, described his visit to the gallery in his Outre-Mer: Impressions of America, published in New York in 1895:“The gallery of paintings which it contains is mentioned in the guide books. . . Pictures, pictures everywhere. Corots of the highest beauty. . .a colossal Courbet, the Convulsionnaires of Delacroix, and a view of the Coast of Morocco before which I stood long, as in a dream. I saw this canvas years ago. I have sought for it since in hundreds of public and private museums, finding no book which could inform me who was its present possessor, and I find it here. . . What ground this canvas covered between the painter’s studio and the gallery of a millionaire on the Western Frontier!”The paintings that Bourget praised with such discernment were the cream of Mr. Hill’s collection. They still remain acknowledged masterpieces, which it has been the Institute’s privilege to reassemble for this Centennial exhibition. Mr. Hill owned no less than twenty-two paintings by Corot, eighteen of which have been recalled for the present exhibition. It would be difficult to bring together another group of comparable quality in this country. They represent the entire range of the artist, demonstrating both the architectural and the tender, poetic sides of his genius. In addition to the charming early View of Rome and the breathtaking series of monumental figure paintings illustrated on the adjoining pages, the collection includes the famous Silenus painted for the Salon of 1838 and a version of the Ferryman exhibited in the Salon of 1872. Mr. Hill’s paintings by Delacroix are as significant artistically as they are historically. Few private collections in the world can boast so many dramatic examples by this important leader of the French Romantic movement. It is interesting to note that Mr. Hill seemed drawn, alternately, to contrasting pictorial moods of violent “action” and meditation: to the furious energy and movement of a Delacroix or a Barye, and the sedative landscape idylls of the Barbizon School.His paintings by Troyon represent that artist at his best, and the unusual landscapes executed by Millet, with their gleaming light and fresh color, surprisingly anticipate the work of the Impressionists. Indeed, Mr. Hill in later years became acquainted with the impressionists through Durand-Ruel and appreciated their quality and significance. If he had not already formed such an extensive collection, numbering well over a hundred paintings, in all probability he would have continued to purchase, turning to the more experimental paintings of the new generation of Impressionists who were his exact contemporaries. He probably showed his greatest daring as a collector by acquiring some of Courbet’s most personal landscapes and Daumier’s powerful social commentary, The Third Class Carriage, which must have held a very special appeal for himMr. Hill joined the Board of Trustees of The Minneapolis Society of Fine Arts at the time of construction of the present Institute in 1914. He was always ready, but never officious with his counsel to fellow trustees, and his wide knowledge and experience were invaluable to them. He was not only one of the main speakers at the inaugural exercises in 1915 but the principal lender to the series of exhibitions which had been arranged for the occasion. With timely generosity, he extended the loan of his own collection for an extra month until the new Institute could launch its own programs, and, in honor of its birth, he gave the Institute the first nineteenth-century French painting to enter its collection, Courbet’s Deer in the Forest.Until he died in 1916 Mr. Hill was a frequent visitor and helped guide the Institute’s growth with genuine concern and rare intelligence. A resolution adopted by his fellow trustees upon his death reads in part:“With the people of the Commonwealth we unite in expressions of admiration of his unique and sterling character and of gratitude for the tremendous contribution which he has made to the welfare and opportunity of his own and succeeding generations.”In the years which followed, Mr. Hill’s children and grandchildren have maintained his tradition of generosity and warm interest in Institute affairs, making available the remarkable works of art, which they have inherited, for special occasions and over long periods of time. They have also bequeathed or given significant portions of the collection to the Institute. Above all, they have contributed to the success of the present exhibition by lending unstintingly.Referenced Works of ArtCover. Camille Corot, French, 1796-1875
View of Rome from the Pinician Hill
Oil on wood, 10 x 17 inches
  1. Eugène Delacroix, 1798-1863
    The Arab Tax
    Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 29 1/2 inches
  2. Honoré Daumier, 1808-1879
    Third Class Carriage
    Oil on wood, 10 1/4 x 13 1/4 inches
  3. Camille Corot, 1796-1875
    The Ferryman
    Oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 52 inches
  4. Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877
    Approaching Storm
    Oil on canvas, 57 x 91 1/4 inches
  5. Camille Corot, 1796-1875
    Girl at the Fountain
    Oil on canvas, 29 x 18 3/4 inches
  6. Camille Corot, 1796-1875
    Oil on canvas, 23 3/4 x 17 3/4 inches
  7. Camille Corot, 1796-1875
    The Reader
    Oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 16 3/8 inches
  8. Camille Corot, 1796-1875
    Springtime of Life
    Oil on canvas, 41 1/4 x 29 1/4 inches
    Minneapolis Institute of Arts
    Bequest of Mrs. Erasmus C. Lindley, 1949
  9. Camille Corot, 1796-1875
    Greek Girl at the Fountain
    Oil on canvas, 21 3/4 x 15 inches
  10. Gustave Courbet, 1819-1877
    Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 x 46 inches
  11. Jean Français Millet, 1814-1875
    Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 1/2 inches
  12. Eugène Delacroix, 1798-1863
    Fanatics of Tangiers
    Oil on canvas, 38 1/2 x 51 1/2 inches
  13. Camille Corot, 1796-1875
    Mary Magdalen
    Oil on canvas, 18 1/4 x 22 inches
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Source: Richard S. Davis, "The Collection of James J. Hill," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 47, no. 2 (April-June, 1958): 15-27.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009