Defining Art

Defining Art

Lunder Collection of American art raises Colby to pinnacle of college art museums

By Bob Keyes

Birch and Pine Trees - Pink
Georgia O’Keeffe, Birch and Pine Trees—Pink, 1925, oil on canvas, 36 x 22"
Colby College Museum of Art, The Lunder Collection

The Lunder Collection includes key paintings and objects by important historical figures and contemporary artists. Represented in the collection are George Inness, John Singer Sargent, Edward Hopper, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Winslow Homer.

Sharon Corwin, the museum’s Carolyn Muzzy Director and chief curator, cited O’Keeffe’s oil painting Birch and Pine Trees—Pink as an outstanding example of the artist’s exploration of abstraction within the natural landscape, and she said a number of Inness paintings are “stunning examples” of his prowess as a landscape pioneer.

The Lunders, who chose to maintain a low profile and declined to be interviewed, also have a keen interest in sculpture, Corwin said. Their collection includes sculptures ranging from 19th-century neoclassical works up through the late-20th century, including pieces by Paul Manship, Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, Jenny Holzer, and others. “The collection shows the Lunders’ commitment to sculpture and their boldness as collectors, to collect such a range of it,” Corwin said.

The collection’s distinguishing feature is its concentration of prints by James McNeill Whistler. It is the largest single collection of art by Whistler given to an American academic museum, and it makes Colby vital to Whistler scholars, Corwin said.

Colby already is known for its extensive holdings of art by Alex Katz, Richard Serra, and John Marin. “And now we will have more than two hundred prints by Whistler. It strengthens our deep holdings, which is useful as a teaching museum,” Corwin said.

The Whistler print collection includes rare etchings and lithographs and illustrates the artist’s mastery of the printmaking technique. “You get a sense of his virtuosity through the collection,” she said.

Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., called the Lunder gift “one of the finest gifts for any art museum in the country, ever. It’s hands-down one of the top private collections of American art anywhere.”

With the gift, the Colby art collection grows from about 5,100 pieces to 5,600. Broun and Wilmerding said the Colby museum had a solid collection already, built on the strength of longtime director Hugh Gourley’s interests and savvy. The Lunders’ gift represents years of sophisticated collecting, and it gives Colby a collection that rivals those held by museums with deeper collecting histories, at Smith, Wellesley, Amherst, and elsewhere, Wilmerding said. “Their collection would have been welcome at a number of places, but the magnitude of it will make more of a difference at Colby than at many other places that are either larger or in bigger cities,” he said. “Good for them for thinking it out. In that sense, they are smart people who have put their collection in a place where it can make the greatest difference.”

Paul Schupf, LL.D. ’06, a philanthropist and art collector who also has given generously to Colby and the museum—including the Paul J. Schupf Wing for the Works of Alex Katz—said the Lunder gift gives the museum a broad spectrum of specialization. Schupf has focused his collecting, and his giving, on works by contemporary artists, whereas the Lunder Collection focuses primarily on 19th- and early-20th-century artists.

“With their gift, the museum now has an incredible survey. It absolutely catapults the Colby museum to the top three college art museums in the country,” Schupf said.

Many of the paintings in the collection are spectacular, art scholars say, and the O’Keeffe may well be the most exquisite of the bunch.
O’Keeffe created the painting in 1925, at a time when she was making some of her most significant work. She fills her canvas with luscious, radiant colors, evoking both a specific image and a sense of the imagination that informed much of her work and guided her hand.

One of the finest gifts for any art museum in the country, ever. It’s hands-down one of the top private collections of American art anywhere.”

- Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

It’s as much a study in color and tone as an image from nature. The 36-by-22-inch canvas suggests a pink- and red-hued birch tree, with its trunk and limbs reaching skyward, their soft colors fading as they grow. At the top, O’Keeffe adds a splash of yellow and fills the background with deep, dark greens.

Schupf said Peter Lunder is especially proud of the O’Keeffe. At a dinner soon after he and Paula Lunder purchased the painting, Lunder asked Schupf what he thought of O’Keeffe, and if he were to purchase an O’Keeffe painting, what year would he buy. “I said 1925, and he beamed, because that is the year he bought,” Schupf said.

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