Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art brings beauty to Arkansas

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“Art when really understood is the province of every human being. It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well. It is not an outside, extra thing.” – American artist and art teacher Robert Henri, “The Art Spirit” (1923).

Nestled in a tranquil Ozark hollow in the city of Bentonville, Ark. (pop. 36,000), is a new art museum. It’s already one of America’s best and it will only get better.

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art sprang from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton’s desire to bring great art to Arkansas and honor the town where her father, Sam Walton, started his first five and dime store in the years following World War II, soon turning it into one of the world’s great success stories and a business everyone most everywhere has heard about.

An inside view of Eleven, the Crystal Bridges restaurant, with Claes Oldenburg’s dream-cicle sculpture, “Alphabet/Good Humor” (1975). (All photos by Ray Petersen)

The Crystal Bridges Museum isn’t named for a popular country western singer who might have appeared in the clubs and theaters of popular entertainment center Branson, Mo., a two-hour drive north of Bentonville, but wags like to point out the name certainly suggests just such an entertainer.

No, the name comes from a nearby natural source of freshwater named Crystal Spring, which provided refreshment for the Osage Indians who hunted the area centuries ago, and then for the white settlers who came later.Today, Crystal Spring helps provide sustenance for the gardens and forests that surround the museum and the bridges cross the steam as it meanders through the hollow.

At Crystal Bridges, there are five centuries of American art from earliest times to the present, with no cut-off date and firm plans to expand the collection. A generous endowment from Alice Walton and others means that purchases will continue, both to bolster art from the past and to buy new art by new artists whose names may be little known at the moment, or not known at all.

Among the museum’s earliest works is James Wooldridge’s “Indians of Virginia,” an  oil on linen done about 1675. Wooldridge’s painting is a copy he made of an engraving that appeared even earlier, in the 1590 edition of Theodor de Bry’s “Les Grands Voyages” to create his work. “Grands Voyages” was one of the first books to introduce Europeans to the wonders of the New World which were still very strange and exotic to Europeans of the time.

A Crystal Bridges scene with Roy Lichtenstein’s “Standing Explosion (Red)” (1966) and on the wall, left to right, Tom Wesselmann’s “Smoker #9” (1973) and Grace Hartigan’s “Clark’s Cove” (1962).

From our own time, there are works as varied in style and medium as black artist Kara Walker’s 2008 “A Warm Summer Evening In 1863” – done in wool tapestry and cut-out felt – and Tom Uttech’s huge oil with the difficult (and mysterious) name “Enassamishhinjijiweian,” which is the Ojibway Indian way of saying, “hope of good things to come.” Uttech’s painting is an imaginary landscape that’s 8 ½ by 9 1/3 feet in size. It is a big painting that’s rich in magic detail.

And from the centuries in between there are hundreds of paintings, sculptures and other works of art. What’s extraordinary and wonderful is the high quality of so much of the art – Alice Walton seems to have stinted on nothing – and the often iconic status of the works, such as Gilbert Stuart’s 1797 oil portrait of George Washington, for example, or Joan Mitchell’s “Untitled,” a large abstract painting Mitchell did in the early 1950s and which is surely one of the great American works of the 20th century.

Once viewed and enjoyed, paintings like Walker’s and Uttech’s and the many other fine works of art in this museum aren’t likely to be forgotten. Seen as a whole and altogether, they’re overwhelming – a grand introduction to American culture, or as the subtitle of the Crystal Bridges Museum catalogue puts it, with justifiable pride: A visit to the museum is a visit to a collection of masterworks “Celebrating the American Spirit.”


My partner, the artist Ray Petersen, and I visited Crystal Bridges on a bright and sunny day earlier this year when many of the flowering trees were in  bloom and flowers filled the gardens and lined forest paths on the museum grounds.

It is an idyllic place and the museum itself fits perfectly into the verdant Ozark hollow it finds itself in.  Designed by Moshe Safdie – designer of the famous Habitat 67, an enormously imaginative housing complex in Montreal – the Crystal Bridges Museum is a series of pavilions, man-made pools of water, and walkways, always on a human scale, offering a level of intimacy – both outside and in – that large museums simply don’t have and which most smaller museums can only hope for.

Gilbert Stuart’s “George Washington” (1797).

The works of art are (mostly) grouped together with others from their own period – Colonial, 19th century, 20thcentury and contemporary – with other halls for special exhibitions, a library that’s open during museum hours, and a comfortable and very good restaurant – named Eleven – where Ray and I dined and shared a good bottle of wine. There’s also a coffee house for smaller fair.

Crystal Bridges’ founding curator Christopher B. Crossman has described the museum as “scaled to and reminiscent of a walk around a town square, and where one can relax and linger” – and he’s exactly right.

The museum should be mentioned along with a select group of American galleries prized by their visitors for their accessibility, smaller size, and the high quality of their collections – the Frick in New York, Washington, D.C.’s Phillips Collection, the new Barnes in Philadelphia, and Baltimore’s Walters Art Museum These are friendly places of great reputation that visitors grow fond of easily, and make frequent returns.

(And it should be said that with The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art a reality, Alice Walton now belongs in the company of such esteemed and influential American women collectors of art – and often creators of museums – as Isabella Steward Gardner of Boston, Houston’s Ima Hogg and Abby Rockefeller of New York City and Williamsburg, Virginia, each of whom played major roles in American art history.)

Marsden Hartley’s “Madawaska – Acadian Light-Heavy” (1940).

A number of critics have not hesitated to pan Crystal Bridges for the art it doesn’t have – no Willem de Koonings, for instance, and no late works by Edward Hopper. It is true that the collection suffers from big gaps and that there are works which should be there yet aren’t. But I don’t think it’s fair to jump on a museum of so recent vintage (serious plans began for the museum in 2005 and it opened only last November, about nine months ago) for failing to have all the art it should.

A better and more even-handed approach would emphasize the art that has been acquired and here the museum has done an impressive job. And such an approach would also point out how the works of art the museum does possess relate to one another in enriching, complementary ways – evidence of thoughtful planning in putting the collection together.

Thus Jasper Francis Cropsey’s “The Backwoods of America” (1858), an oil depicting a rough-hewn mountain clearing with log cabin, a cow, a man with an axe on his shoulder, and his dog – an America long, long gone – can be compared with a 2006 painting by hyper-realist Richard Estes, “Reflections of the Woolworth Building,” of a completely urban Manhattan setting in which the Woolworth Building is reflected on the hood and windshield of a shiny new car.

Estes’ 21st century cityscape makes Cropsey’s 19th century landscape seem remote from us: the stuff of legends from our past we’ve heard but not experienced first hand. It is the presence of both paintings in the same collection that reminds they’re images of the same country, at different times to be sure, yet both images tell us something about ourselves: where we’ve been and where we’re going.

Like any visitors to a new museum, Ray and I soon had favorite paintings, works that stood out as we worked our way from earliest times to the contemporary. The ones that stood out for me have stayed with me. They’ve become part of my visual vocabulary, which is what happens when an art-lover encounters art that’s good.

One of these is Edward Dalton Marchant’s “Samuel Beals Thomas, with His Wife, Sarah Kellogg Thomas and Their Two Daughters,” an 1830 oil portrait rendered by Marchant, an itinerant painter (as many American artists were in those days wandering from commission to commission and town to town to keep the money, usually not very much, coming in).

Stuart Davis’ “Self-Portrait” (1912).

Marchant was originally from Charleston, S.C., but the Thomas family was most definitely not Southern. Marchant met them in the textile-producing and commercial town of Worcester, Mass., where Sam Thomas ran Thomas’s Exchange Coffee House and Inn (no alcoholic beverages served on premises), which was located in Worcester’s downtown Lincoln Square.

Abigail and Pauline weren’t Sam and Sarah’s daughters; they were nieces adopted after Sam’s brother, their father, died. But the Thomases were very much a family, as this multiple portrait, done in the Inn’s parlor, shows in admirable detail. It’s one of those “you are there” moments in art – there, nearly 200 years ago, with a hardworking and prosperous family dressed in their best, as they no doubt wanted to be remembered, and will be, thanks to this fine painting.

A portrait of a very different kind – it’s my favorite portrait in Crystal Bridges – is John Singer Sargent’s painting of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his American-born wife, Fanny Osbourne, which Sargent painted in 1885. It’s a far cry from the Marchant portrait of the Thomas family, but equally revealing about its subjects.

 Stevenson paces the floor, while at the other end of the painting, Fanny slumps barefoot in an easy chair dressed in exotic oriental garb. She was ten years older than the writer, a free-spirit who’d abandoned a two-timing husband in California to travel to Europe, where she and Stevenson met. Their tempestuous relationship is one of the great 19thcentury love stories, and the disorder of Stevenson’s and Osbourne’s lives (and marriage) is as apparent in this portrait as is the order, harmony, and even the serenity of the Thomas family is in their family portrait.

View of Crystal Bridges courtyard pool.

Probably Ray’s and my happiest discovery was to find that the museum has four paintings by Maine-born Marsden Hartley (1877-1943), the great American Modernist, whose work Ray and I both admire. Probably the best of the four is the earliest – Hartley called it “Hall of the Mountain King” and did the painting in 1908 and 1909.

It is a stunning landscape of mountains in the Kezar Lake region of his native Maine, near the New Hampshire border. It was the work that Hartley took to New York with him and showed it to his friend and early supporter, the photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz liked “Hall of the Mountain King” so much (along with other work Hartley had ready to show) that he gave his friend a one-man exhibition of his work at Stieglitz’s famous gallery, 291 (named simply for its Fifth Avenue address). The show launched Hartley’s career as an important artist.

Crystal Bridges also has a very late work of Hartley’s, “Madawaska – Acadian Light-Heavy,” an extraordinary portrait of a young boxer that Hartley painted three years before his death. There’s great works by other Modernists of Hartley’s generation as well: Max Weber’s “My Studio in Paris” (1907) and Stuart Davis’ 1912 “Self-Portrait”.

Lastly, I’m also a fan of Neil Welliver’s harsh, people-less landscapes and this museum has one of his better works, “Snow on Alden Brook,” (1983), a winter scene in Maine where the cold is made palpable.


If there is one painting at Crystal Bridges that can be singled out as symbolic of the collection as a whole, it’s Asher Brown Durand’s “Kindred Spirits.” Alice Walton has said as much. In an interview printed in the museum catalogue she describes her first viewing of the painting: “I got goose bumps. This was a big leap. The painting seemed to epitomize all we were trying to accomplish here, the integration of art and land.”

“Kindred Spirits” is about art and nature – and about much more, as well. Asher Brown Durand did the painting in 1849 – the year after his dear friend and fellow painter, Thomas Cole, died at the young age of 48 – an enormous loss to American painting

View from museum interior with an indoor and an outdoor sculpture.

Thomas Cole had founded what’s known today as the Hudson River School of painting and was himself a great landscapist. (At Crystal Bridges there are two works by Cole, “The Good Shepherd” and “View of Mount Etna.”)

The name for the painting comes from a sonnet by John Keats which celebrates the joy two friends – kindred spirits – experience when they meet amidst the “flowery slopes” and “river’s crystal swell” in the wilds of nature.

In “Kindred Spirits”, Durand painted two figures, his friend Thomas Cole along with the most famous American poet of the time, William Cullen Bryant, a close friend of Cole’s and himself an ardent nature poet.

The cascading stream in the painting and the strong presence of nature and its beauty is not so very different (except for being wilder and more untamed) from the Ozark hollow the Crystal Bridges Museum finds itself in. In both places, art and nature are intertwined, and the power of one can’t be separated from the other.

 It is of interest, too, that the man who commissioned Asher Brown Durand to do “Kindred Spirits” was Jonathan Sturgis, a New York City dry-goods merchant (an earlier version of Sam Walton) and art collector who made use of his business success to make a significant contribution to American art – like Alice Walton is doing at Crystal Bridges.

Alice Walton paid a reported $35 million to the New York Public Library for the painting. The New York City art world didn’t like losing the work: New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman wrote a piece in his newspapers titled “A City’s Heart Misses a Beat” about the loss. But “Kindred Spirits” had been hung on the third floor of the New York Public Library and seen by few. There is no doubt that in its new venue, “Kindred Spirits” will be seen by far larger numbers of viewers that it had been in New York.



Two “problems” that The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has inevitably encountered are, strictly speaking, not art-world related, nor, in the long run, are they likely to prove endangering to the museum’s goals.

The first (and easier to deal with) is Arkansas’ long-time reputation as the home of the rube, the hillbilly, and the redneck – a rural region of the county not much interested in art or high culture, a home for country and western music and catfish restaurants and NASCAR races, and not much else. What’s a museum like Crystal Bridges doing in such a place?

Second was the contempt the politically correct crowd in America (which includes a huge portion of the nation’s art community) holds Wal-Mart and anything to do with huge chain store, including The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Max Weber’s “My Studio in Paris” (1907).

These firmly-held views aren’t likely to be shed, even though a number of bloggers have attempted an appeal to common sense in extolling the virtues of Wal-Mart and the new museum. In an op-ed piece on in November, 2011, just after Crystal Bridges opened to the public, freelancer Abigail R. Esmain pointed out how Ms. Walton insisted on local labor and made use of (to the extent possible) of local materials to build the museum – to help boost Bentonville’s economy.

Esmain, who called her blog “How Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Exposes the Foolishness of Occupy Wall Street,’ also noted that entrance to the museum is free and that there’s free parking, that most of the museum’s staff are local, and that the tourism fostered by Crystal Bridges will be a boon to the region.

And she explained that since costs for building and collecting came from The Walton Family Foundation as well as from other donors such as J.B Hunt Transport Services and Tyson Foods the funds weren’t taken from Wal-Mart employees salaries or benefits. But even Esmain wasn’t sure how much all this amounted to the Occupy Wall Street folks and the right-thinking people who have it in for Wal-Mart.

Meanwhile, Crystal Bridges continues to expand and develop. Museum publications mention the “can-do spirit” of northwestern Arkansas, pointing out that the area wasn’t only home to such entrepreneurial geniuses as Sam Walton, but also to two other major 20th American businessmen: John W. Tyson, founder of Tyson Foods, Inc., and J.B. Hunt Transport founder Johnnie Bryan Hunt Sr.

No doubt, it’s this can-do way of approaching things that has made Crystal Bridges the success it is, and it finds its perfect representation among the paintings in the museum’s collection in Norman Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter,” a Saturday Evening Post cover the great Illustrator and artist rendered for the May 29, 1943, issue of that popular magazine.

Rockwell’s iconic “Rosie” celebrated the participation of American women in the home-front workforce during World War II and, by extension, underlined the central role American optimism played in winning that war and enduring hard times.

Rockwell used as a model Mary Doyle, a 19-year-old telephone operator in Rockwell’s hometown of Arlington, Vt.  And because Rockwell made use of Michelangelo’s painting of the prophet Isaiah on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel as the source of the design for his painting he turns Rosie into something of a goddess.

Like Michelangelo’s Isaiah, she’s muscular and self-assured.  But (unlike the Isaiah), she’s very American: a bit cocky and munching on a sandwich with her tools on her lap and her feet grinding down a copy of Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” In “Rosie,” Rockwell paid tribute to American women, and to the spirit of America itself.

And how exciting it is to see a work by Norman Rockwell in an important American museum! Long regarded as nothing more than a talented illustrator (the lowest rung of the art world’s hierarchy), museums have held his works as unworthy to hang beside works by Rockwell’s contemporaries such as Hopper and de Kooning.  At Crystal Bridges, Rockwell’s “Rosie” rubs shoulders with the works of other American artists, and she looks like she belongs there. (The museum has a second Rockwell as well, his 1923 “Sick Puppy.”)

Neil G. Welliver,’s “Snow on Alden Brook” (1983).

It should be said that some of the strongest paintings in the museum are by women artists.  Maria Oakey Dewing is represented by her oil “Rose Garden” (1901) and the great Grace Hartigan, who taught for many years in Baltimore, by two works, “Rough, Ain’t It” (1949) and the 1962 “Clark’s Cove.”

And the museum is fortunate to have what I think is a major Georgia O’Keeffe watercolor. O’Keeffe painted “Evening Star No. II” in 1917, one of the works she did to convey the profound mystical experience she’d undergone after she’d gone to teach art in Amarillo and later Canyon, Texas, in that state’s Northern Panhandle.

O’Keeffe recorded the experience in her journal. The raw power of nature in the high plains changed and deepened her art forever, and in this painting, the rich and joyous spirituality and hard independence of her best work are on splendid display.

Arkansas-style can-do professionalism has characterized the development of Crystal Bridges from its inception. To cite just one early example: In 2005 Ms. Walton brought in John Wilmerding to work with her as a major adviser. She could not have made a better choice.

Marsden Hartley’s “Hall of the Mountain King” (1908-1909).

Wilmerding’s art-world credentials are impeccable. For many years, he was a senior curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and is now the Christopher Binyon Sarofim Professor of American Art at Princeton University.

Few people, if any, can match Wilmerding’s expertise, and wisdom.  Another major staff choice made by Ms. Walton is Don Bacigalupi. Bacigalupi had been director, president, and CEO (all at once) of the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio when Walton asked him to come to Bentonville. He’d earned a great reputation at Toledo, keeping the institution out of debt, raising attendance, and instilling new life in the place.

Bacigalupi has a high art-world reputation and was a splendid addition. He is also a gay man with a life partner, Dan Feder, and they have an adopted son, Guston. How would the gay couple with child angle play in Arkansas? Alice Walton didn’t herself know, according to a story by Fred A. Bernstein in the March 27, 2012 issue of the “The New York Times Style Magazine.”

But she was willing to give it a go if Bacigalupi and Feder were willing. An organization of gay Wal-Mart employees was consulted about tactics. Bacigalupi and Feder found a house in Bentonville they liked, moved in and things have gone well since.

I haven’t mentioned the museum’s many sculptures, its photographs, or its extraordinary color plate book collection, but each is an important part of the museum’s holdings.

There are sculptures outdoors such as Roxie Paine’s “Yield” (2011), one of the artist’s famous stainless-steel and leafless trees.  Others are indoor works like Claes Oldenburg’s 1975 dreamcicle-like sculpture’ “Alphabet/Good Humor,” which can be found (appropriately, since it suggests something that can be eaten) at the entrance to Eleven, the museum’s fine restaurant.

The museum’s collection of photographs range from 19th century images of the American West by such early photographers as Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson to Edward Sheriff Curtis’ unforgettable photos of American Indians, published in portfolio between1907 and 1930.

Among the best of Crystal Bridges contemporary photographs is a triptych portrait of Arkansas native and 42ndPresident of the United States Bill Clinton done by Chuck Close in 2009, a work that invites comparison with the museum’s 1797 Gilbert Stuart oil portrait of the first President, George Washington. Nearly two centuries can make a big difference in how we expect a President to look, and the medium an artist chooses to make a portrait.

Lastly the museum likes to boast that its collection of color plate and other types of art books is one of the most comprehensive in the world. It includes, among its earliest examples, Thomas L. McKinney and James Hall’s three-volume “History of the Indian Tribes of North America,’ published 1838-44, with lithographs of works based on paintings by Charles Bird King and other artists. There are also very recent works such as contemporary graphic novels by the likes of Sandow Birk.

The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is surrounded by beautiful scenery.

A generation ago, the University of Pennsylvania art historian and critic Leo Steinberg, who died last year at 90, observed that most Americans weren’t comfortable when it came to art. Steinberg explained that among Americans, the word ‘art’ had a “guilty root” and that many Americans were likely, when they thought of art, to think of words like “artful” (as in deceitful), or “arty” (of questionable character), or “artificial” (as in “less than real” or not authentic).

All that’s changed now, for the most part. Some Americans may still be uncomfortable with art and arty types, but there are now thousands of artists’ groups across this nation that bring together local artists to promote their interests in art and their work. Hardly any American town of any size is without one. According to the IRS, more Americans now call themselves artists for tax purposes than ever before.

Crystal Bridges is a big part of the major changes overtaking today’s art world in America. No longer is that world completely centered in Manhattan  (though New York City still plays a big role). There’s now great art to be seen in Fort Worth or Kansas City or Indianapolis  (and many other places) – or Bentonville, Ark.

Young artists from the Ozarks or nearby parts of the country can come into daily relationship with a collection at Crystal Bridges that offers visual contact with the best art of the past and that will continue to add to what it offers, to bring before the public the best that’s being done today.

A view of The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

But of course you don’t need to be an artist to benefit from this museum. Crystal Bridges is destined not just to raise the awareness of art among American artists. It offers art-loving Americans in general a place to take joy in seeing art, and to enrich their spirits – and take pride in the American art achievement.

As the great American artist and consummate art teacher Robert Henri said in the quote that opened this blog, art “is not an outside, extra thing.” It’s “the province of every human being.” “It is simply a question of doing things, anything, well.” How good it is that Crystal Bridges Museum falls under this definition of art. The people who put the museum together – who are putting it together – have done things well, and have put together a work of art in that Ozark hollow.

As Henri also said, “Museums of art will not make a country an art country. But where there is the art spirit there will be precious works to fill museums. Better still, there will be the happiness that is in the making.”

(Feature photo from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art)

2 thoughts on “Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art brings beauty to Arkansas

  • October 1, 2013 at 1:59 AM

    Yes, it is an excellent and even-handed article. Wish I would have found it earlier to balance all the naysayers and those who are either prejudiced towards Walmart and or the South who have posted vitriol about this fine project, even though Bentonville is, technically, only about 12 miles ‘inside’ the south adjacent to the Midwest state of Missouri. But never let the facts get in the way of good demonizing talking points.

    Only issue that I have is that the writer mentions that Arkansas is the land of NASCAR races. There indeed are NASCAR FANS in the state, but to my knowledge no NASCAR racing track, least not since the track was closed in West MEMPHIS, Arkansas (almost out of the state even when it was operating so close to Memphis, TN). Nope, the closest NASCAR track is ‘up north’…in Kansas City area.

    But the writer should be forgiven. There are intricacies in the demographics of the state, especially the extreme northwest corner where the museum is, that can’t be absorbed in just one or two visits.

  • February 12, 2013 at 4:55 AM

    Excellent article. This museum is on my bucket list and your article made it more enticing! Thanks

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