Oil Money’s Rich Bounty
When Ralph Waldo Emerson said “beauty breaks in everywhere” he was thinking of nature, but he might as well have been thinking of art. America overflows with excellent little museums, tucked away in small towns, and worth a detour or even a trip.
R.W. Norton Art Gallery
Consider the R.W. Norton Art Gallery, located in Louisiana’s third-largest city. Shreveport is now more famous for horse racing, casinos and drive-through daiquiri-dispensing stands than for the fine arts. The Norton occupies 43 acres of lush garden space—filled with purling streams, azaleas, magnolias, large pines and sculptures—in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood. It’s also the spot of choice for local couples posing for wedding photos.
Norton (1886-1940) was a successful oilman whose wife and son amassed an art collection and then started the foundation that opened the gallery in 1966. Two new wings expanded the original building in 1990 and 2003; the collections, too, have continued to grow. Admission is (how many other museums can make this boast?) free.
The unpredictable thing about places like this is not only the serendipity of your initial discovery but also the charming hodgepodge assortment of what you can discover there. In the Norton’s library, for instance, you find a double-elephant folio of Audubon’s Birds of America; elsewhere, a whole room of antique dolls and two others of Steuben glass. There’s the extraordinary Firearms Gallery of small guns in vitrines: nickel-plated revolvers with ivory grips; mother-of-pearl pieces from the Old West; 19th- and 20th- century German and Italian Art Nouveau and Art Deco weapons whose beauty equals their deadliness.
A “Piranesi” corridor has copies of the 16 plates of the master’s “Carceri” (“Prisons”) series; an adjacent room, suitable for lectures or recitals, is lined with 16th-century tapestries based on Giulio Romano’s renderings of the Punic War adventures of Scipio Africanus.
Henry Clay Frick, Isabella Stewart Gardner and Albert Barnes followed their noses to amass great collections. The Nortons did the same, but the results are more random, more American than European. Masterpieces do not abound; interesting things do. Like Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, the Norton has a penchant for Western American art, especially that of Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, but it has plenty of other eye-opening surprises.
Most museum-goers can recognize Remington’s and Russell’s paintings, but the Norton also has remarkable groupings of their sculpture, delicate bronzes that capture the energetic movement of cowboys and horses. The cognoscenti also know the 19th-century landscapes of Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Asher Durand and George Inness (all here). Fewer have heard of James McDougal Hart or Thomas Hill. What about Andrew Wyeth’s sister Henriette, whose “Marie and the Red Geranium” (1935), a vibrant, brightly colored portrait of a soulful African-American woman, commands its wall space?
Consider another pair of siblings, whose works occupy a small room. Rosa Bonheur, famous French painter of animals and rural scenes, is represented by several pictures, including “Boeufs et Taureaux de la Race de Cantal” (1888). But equally fine are works by her brother François Auguste. His “Cattle at Rest” prompted Théophile Gautier to write in 1861 that Bonheur’s “animals have the soft and satin-like skin of well-to-do animals, his foliage the brilliant freshness of plants washed in the rain and dried by the sun.” The greenery surrounding a sitting bull is indeed gorgeous, as are the dazzling white brushstrokes that capture the essence of this noble beast.
Wandering through the Norton, you randomly come upon works by European masters like Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Meindert Hobbema, Jacob van Ruisdael, from whom our American landscape painters learned. And, voilà: Rodin and Houdon sculptures to complement the Remingtons and Russells.
At the contemporary end of the spectrum, look at the room dedicated to an English artist, Academy Award-winner Peter Ellenshaw (1913-2007). He came to Hollywood and spent much of his working life there. He went on to produce landscape paintings like “Glacier in Alaska” (1991), a colossal study in blue and white, and, larger still, “Himalaya Mountains, Thangpoche Monastery, Nepal” (1982).
Portraits and landscapes abound in this jewel box. But nothing seems as redolent of Louisiana as three little pictures by Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)—”Jungle Orchids and Single Hummingbird” (1872), “Giant Magnolias” (c. 1885-95) and “Red Roses & Rosebuds in a Glass” (c. 1880s)—brilliantly colored flowers with details lovingly, almost anatomically rendered. They qualify as floral equivalents of John James Audubon’s American birds, still-life orchestrations that are anything but dead.
Outdoors, in the Norton’s gardens, you can see living versions of some of these flowers. Heade’s pictures make you realize that nature and its beauties have broken into the galleries.
Mr. Spiegelman writes about art for the Journal.
A version of this article appeared May 17, 2012, on page D5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Oil Money’s Rich Bounty.