Since its earliest days, the Henry Art Gallery has led the region’s leaders in showcasing world-renowned contemporary artists, as well as being among the first in the field to champion emerging talent.
Today, the museum houses more than 26,000 objects, including sculptures and new media, photographs and paintings, and costumes and textiles, just a fraction of which are on public display at any given time.
Under the care of specialized staff and top-of-the-line archival technology, these important and historical objects are preserved for future generations of students and researchers to experience history first-hand.
Explore some fascinating items that aren’t on display.
“Photography is one of our great strengths,” says Sylvia Wolf, the John S. Behnke Director of the museum. With 3,000 photos, the Henry’s photography collection spans the history of the medium, “from its announcement to the world in 1839 to now,” she says. “It’s one of the richest and deepest collections of fine art photographs west of the Mississippi and north of San Francisco.”
UW photography students study the collection to learn about the evolution of the medium as well as how to apply older photographic techniques.
Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron didn’t embark on her career in the medium until the age of 48, a feat made even more impressive considering that most women of her time — and social class — were expected to stay home.
Cameron photographed many famous contemporaries, including Charles Darwin, Lord Tennyson and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Among her most famous photographs is this portrait of her mentor and teacher, Sir John F.W. Herschel, taken in 1867. Herschel was president of the Royal Astronomical Society as well as a noted photographer, and is credited with coining the term “photography” and inventing the cyanotype.
For the photograph, Cameron specifically asked Herschel to wash his hair, but not groom it, giving him the eccentric appearance that — since he was a lord — no other commercial photographer of the time would have dared do.
“It has this electrified look in the photograph that gives him the sense that he’s being illuminated,” says Wolf. “It’s an extraordinary photograph: This extraordinary man looks into the lens for this extraordinary woman.”
In the Henry’s costume and textile collection, garments from a range of time periods and countries depict the interconnectedness between history, fashion and cultural identity. Items from India, Eastern Europe, China, Japan and Guatemala exemplify the wide range of patterns, colors and traditions used throughout different time periods and cultures around the world.
Students from the departments of both Gender & Sexuality Studies and history have used the collection to bring their learning to life.
Among the many stories that lie behind the items in the costume and textile collection, one of the most compelling is that of the Kashmir and Paisley shawls, which Judy Sourakli, the Henry’s curator of collections, narrates:
“These shawls were originally made to be worn by royal men in Kashmir, India. They were very special and took a long time to make, maybe a couple of years.
“When the British and the French went to India in the 19th century, they would bring these back as trophies, and they were given at the courts. Josephine, the wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, owned over 1,000 of them; they were very desirable. President Abraham Lincoln would read with one over his shoulders.
“But this is really the adaption of an indigenous product that was appropriated for Western wear. By the time shawls were less restricted to the Western courts, the machine loom came along, and shawls were made across Western Europe, including in the town of Paisley, Scotland — where we get the name for the paisley pattern common on shawls and fabrics.”
“Fashion is about class and position, but it’s more than that too,” says Sourakli. “What is considered beautiful is a moving target.”
By wearing appropriate form-shaping wear, such as corsets and bustle cages, women could achieve the desired silhouette of the time. In the early 1800s, gauzy dresses with an Empire silhouette were en vogue, but by mid-century, belle skirts (à la “Gone with the Wind”) were more popular. And in the early 1900s, foundation garments helped women achieve the “Gibson Girl” look, characterized by a small waist and wide hips.
Today, costumers from local theater companies study these foundation garments for inspiration to create realistic costumes for period pieces.
Founded by Horace C. Henry in 1926, the Henry was the first museum of fine art in Washington state. Together with his wife, Susan, Henry donated the museum’s first 152 paintings. That number has grown steadily since then, and includes paintings and portraits from the 18th century to the present.
The works are now part of the Henry’s permanent collection in the museum’s climate-controlled storage area.
One of the most important works in the Henry’s collection is an 1870 painting by famed 19th-century American artist Winslow Homer, “An Adirondack Lake.”
Homer rose to fame by sketching battle scenes and camp life of the Civil War, but is most widely known today for his marine subjects. He became a leader in late 19th-century American landscape painting.
The museum’s Homer was purchased by its founder, Horace Henry, and represents a pivotal time in the painter’s career. It’s one of the few paintings produced by Homer with no glaze, no underpaint and no variation in texture.
Some contemporary art works only exist in their full form while on exhibition. The work is recreated and installed by following a strict set of instructions written by the artist which stipulates materials, size, space, and other specifications.
For his installation “Pollen from Hazelnut,” artist Wolfgang Laib specified not only the dimensions for the configuration pictured below, but also what the thin layer of pollen granules should lie on: concrete flooring. Without a concrete floor, museums featuring the installation would construct either a drywall or plywood surface and paint it gray. By following Laib’s instructions, each museum is able to assemble the various pieces to form the installation. As the work doesn’t “exist” when dissembled, it can’t be stored in a drawer or hung on a wall like other works of art at the Henry. Instead, the careful instructions for assembling the installation are recorded in a binder, so that future museum staff can re-assemble the work down to the last pollen granule.