Spotlight On: The Ricau Gallery
There are a lot of good reasons to visit the Chrysler after dark on Wednesdays, but this very special gallery just might top the list.
Over his lifetime, James Ricau, a New Orleans native known to his friends as Jimmy, amassed what many experts consider to be one of the greatest collections of American neoclassical sculpture in the world.
He did so on the cheap, finding some of these pieces in junk shops long before they were fashionable (and therefore, more expensive). While collecting art on an average editor's salary, he often held two mortgages on his house.
In 1983 he worked with another legendary art collector, Walter Chrysler, Jr., to have 70 marble sculptures donated to this museum. He died a week before he was to see the plans for the gallery that bears his name.
The procurement of these remarkable objects stands as Chrysler's last major act as a collector, and reflects the respect between the two. When Ricau's sculptures came on the market, many major institutions—including the National Gallery of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian—vigorously pursued the collection.
Chrysler prevailed in acquiring most but not all of the collection, thanks to friendship, a shared view with Ricau of buying art against the fashion of the day, and by having fewer bureaucratic constraints than other museums.
Sculptors rate the quality of sculpture on a number of considerations—the fluidity of draped cloth, the ability to carve marble so thin it can become seemingly translucent, the sense of frozen action or emotion. The drama of sculpture is amplified by light, and the lighting in this gallery is spectacular. With a huge skylight and deep red walls, this is a gallery that cries out to be seen at night.
The neoclassical style, based on the Greek and Roman statues of antiquity, is steeped in romance and mythology. It's a style that symbolizes the immortal. And that makes seeing it at sunset all the more appropriate.
Jimmy Ricau (pronounced rico) was, to use the vernacular of his '50s New York City art days, one cool cat. A beautiful book on his life and collection, A Marble Quarry: The James H. Ricau Collection of American Sculpture at the Chrysler Museum of Art, is available for purchase in The Museum Shop.
The level of skill on display in this piece is remarkable. Seen in person, the draped cloth almost looks wet.
Chauncey Bradley Ives, Undine, Rising from the Fountain, ca. 1880-82, marble. Click to enlarge.
Thomas Crawford's work stands atop the U.S. Capitol in Washington D.C. and in Capitol Square in Richmond, Va. Here you get to see his mastery up close. The crafting of the drumskin out of marble is remarkable.
Thomas Crawford, The Broken Tambourine, 1855. Marble. Click to enlarge.