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A history of art
'Portraits to Pixels' covers 125 years of Telfair collections
"Ascending Betrayal," by William Scharf

A hundred and twenty five years ago, the oldest art museum in the South was officially opened – Savannah’s Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences, as it was known.

Since then the Telfair has come to operate two other buildings, the Jepson Center for the Arts and the Owens–Thomas House, in addition to that original bequest by founder Mary Telfair (it was originally her own home). But the Telfair still remains true to her original vision of a public museum that would bring to the South the best in American and European visual art.

You still have a couple of weeks left to view the Telfair Museums’ 125th anniversary exhibit at the Jepson Center, “Portraits to Pixels.”

The point of the exhibit – in addition to marking that century and a quarter of operation – is to show the full breadth and artistic scope of the Telfair’s in–house collections. Some of it might surprise you.

But perhaps just as importantly, many of these works are generally kept in storage rather than displayed permanently – so see them while you can.

In that vein, here’s a quick list of seven particularly notable works to look for when you visit the exhibit, up now through Aug. 7:

The Telfair’s most recent acquisition, Vespers by Gari Melchers. This 1892 oil painting, a compelling look at three Dutch girls in a church service, was purchased at auction earlier this year. Not only is it beautiful and significant in its own right, the artist himself was perhaps the most crucial figure in the Telfair’s history other than Mary Telfair herself.

Serving as the Museum’s ‘fine arts advisor’ — essentially a contract curator — from 1906–16, Melchers’ influence far outstrips just that single decade. The 70 significant works he acquired during that span, plus the work he did in his “unofficial” capacity lasting several more years, form the core of the Telfair’s early 20th Century holdings.

Though American–born, Melchers spent many years in the Netherlands,  including during most of his association with the Telfair,  and his acquisitions reflect a deep appreciation of Dutch life. Those of you who attended the groundbreaking 2009 “Dutch Utopia” exhibit at the Telfair will immediately grasp the Museum’s unusually close relationship with the art of the Netherlands and see how that informed the success of that exhibit.

La Madrilenita, by Robert Henri. The abovementioned Gari Melchers helped acquire this vivid portrait of a young Spanish girl by the American artist Henri in 1919, writing the Trustees, “I strongly advise you to buy it for the Telfair.”

Kahlil Gibran. Not many people know it, but the world–renowned author of The Prophet was also a prolific visual artist — it was his first love — and the Telfair Museums have the world’s largest collection of Gibran’s art. The nearly 100 pieces were acquired by Mary Haskell — who later married into the influential Minis family of Savannah — after her long professional and sometimes–romantic relationship with Gibran ended with his death. The five oils and 92 works on paper represent Gibran’s continuing attempts to distil his visionary ethos into something people could see with their own eyes.

Albrecht Durer. The iconic German woodprint genius has a presence in the Telfair, in the person of his 1504 woodprint Adam and Eve, a gift from Julianna Waring in the 1970s. Due to the fragile nature of works on paper, these works aren’t on permanent display. “Portraits to Pixels” represents a rare opportunity to view this print plus others in the original Waring collection by Francisco de Goya, Hans Holbein the Younger, and William Hogarth.

New York (Children with Masks). This seminal NYC black–and–white photo by Helen Leavitt was among the first in the cinema verite “street photography” genre, now commonplace but quite groundbreaking in the 1940s when Leavitt did most of her work. The Telfair owns dozens of works by Leavitt, but New York is probably the most significant.

Jack Leigh’s Savannah Saw Works. The late great Savannah photographer Leigh, known to the world as the “Bird Girl” photographer from the cover of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is represented in this show with a photo of a building which later made way for the Jepson Center in which the photo is now being shown.

Ascending Betrayal. This large-scale 1985 work by William Scharf represents a serious step by the Telfair into contemporary art befitting the expanse of the Jepson Center itself.

Modern art is well–represented at the Telfair, especially in the Kirk Varnedoe collection. Varnedoe, a Savannah native, was the longtime curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2006, soon after his death, his widow Elyn Zimmerman donated works to the Telfair representing 22 of the contemporary artists Varnedoe championed while at MOMA. 

Portraits to Pixels: Celebrating 125 Years of Collecting at the Telfair

When: Now through Aug. 7

Where: Jepson Center for the Arts, Telfair Square