N.Y. 1939 A World's Fair, Part I

Dr. Elin Lake-Ewald 


Sometimes, only sometimes, in the middle of working on some tedious factual report on art values that has dulled my mind to the point of bringing on a torpor so intense I feel my shoulders slump under its crush, that I check the office library to see if I can remember why I am participating in the business of art.

Not looking, one hand into the stacks, I blindly plucked the Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture from 1300-1800 from the Masterpieces of Art, New York World’s Fair, May to October, 1939. My joy was caffeinated by just touching the fragile paperbound blue and white catalogue compiled by George Henry McCall under the editorship of the very famous William R. Valentiner with whom this office had a tenuous connection. My much deceased mentor, James St. Lawrence O’Toole, had been a protégé of Valentiner, so I had been the occasional beneficiary of historical trickles from the deep well of the master’s knowledge.

I love these old catalogs with their lists of famed committee collectors, long gone publishing houses, of lucky ladies who used their inherited wealth wisely, and lenders who would never have spoken a sentence in which “art” and “investment” appeared together before the period. The 1939 World’s Fair was a very important one, and lenders included the Louvre, the National Gallery of London, and the Royal Museum of Antwerp, as well as nearly every famous name in American philanthropy of the time.

The paintings of the artists participating (It wasn’t their choice since they were all dead) reflects contemporary era collectors brought to the table, in this case, the fair, indicating the taste of the day, showing how fast fashion changes. After all, 78 years difference really isn’t so great when you think in terms of centuries of art.

There was an extraordinary accounting of Albrecht Durers; 32 paintings, works on paper and prints, and 14 paintings by Sir Antony Van Dyck, seven works by Thomas Gainsborough at a time when grandiose English portraiture was still very fashionable. Mr. O’Toole once told me that in its heyday he and another dealer traveled by car through the Midwest selling anonymous English portraits to wealthy but obscure families who seemed comforted by these lavishly dressed gentry on their walls, as if the painted past could magically become their own just be their sheer presence.

Nineteen Rembrandts could be seen at the Fair, a testament to the endurance of genius, although there were quite a few names so buried in history that only their biographers might recognize them. What seemed far-seeing was the inclusion of two complex compositions by Hercules Seghers, a little known Dutch 16th/17th century artist who recently was rediscovered by the exhibition of his extraordinary paintings at the Metropolitan Museum.

The exhibition wasn’t entirely male-made; Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, representing the entire artistic population of women artists, made it with Mme. Grant, later Princesse de Talleyrand. And while there were a few scattered landscapes, primarily late 17th and 18th century, the greater proportion of the art at the 1939 World’s Fair was of the human figure in its many guises, so that those who visited the artworks of this memorable event were people looking at people, across time and taste, 500 years of art. In 2439, if man survives that long, and if there is such a thing as art remaining, and if there are printed or even digital catalogs to review, what will have been preserved, for instance and just out of curiousity,  of this century’s greatest works of art?