Timken Museum of Art
July 11, 2011
By Mary Jo Gibson
One of the best examples of the small museum experience is a hidden gem found in Balboa Park, San Diego, California, The Timken Museum of Art. Home to a unique collection acquired by Anne and Amy Putnam who spent decades acquiring European old masters and Russian icons, spanning 600 years of Western art from early Italian altars to mid-nineteenth century French landscape paintings. A special highlight is the only painting by Rembrandt Harmensz van Rijn in the San Diego area, Saint Bartholomew, painted in the later period of the artist’s life, 1657.
The historical roots of the Timken date back to the early 1900s when Anne and Amy Putnam arrived in San Diego with their parents, transplanting from Vermont. The sisters had a deeply felt love of fine art and spent decades acquiring these masterpieces. No time was more auspicious for the purchase of European paintings. The Spanish Civil War and the beginning of WWII in Europe liquefied the art market. Old masters of quality became available at reasonable prices. Anne and Amy began to buy. Their early purchases encompassed Spanish, Dutch and Italian canvases; the Spanish a nod to their adopted hometown’s Spanish colonial past. The sisters researched in depth and in several languages about artists’ whose paintings they considered for purchase. Never trusting their own judgment in buying these works, they consulted curators and dealers, scholars and historians.
In 1951, the sisters established the nonprofit Putnam Foundation designating the artwork as the Putnam Foundation Collection. Paintings traveled the country on loan to various prestigious art museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery, and Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum.
The Timken Museum of Art opened in 1965,with a small collection of forty major pieces owned by the Putnam Foundation, construction of the building was funded by the Timken family. Shortly after the opening, John Walker from the National Gallery of Art offered high praise for its collection: “It is one of the finest small museums I have ever seen … I congratulate you on the discrimination shown. You have been wise. Some cities have built large museums, and then hoped that innumerable works of art of true excellence would miraculously appear. I am afraid they won’t any longer. Money is not the problem. The problem is to find pictures to buy. I can’t replace those which have come to San Diego. Paintings like these are virtually unavailable at any price.”
The museum opened with a five-room gallery in marble and bronze designed by architect Frank Hope, displaying the paintings, sculpture and tapestries, enhancing their environment through natural lighting. The collection has expanded to sixty major holdings through subsequent acquisitions. All this from the generosity of two reclusive sisters from Vermont, with traditional New England values who chose to put their fortune into the gift of artistic masterworks, enjoyed by the following generations.
All images are courtesy of The Putnam Foundation, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego.
I would like to thank Elle B at Late Bloomer for suggesting this museum. If you would like to share a museum that has been a treasure to view, please feel free to share it in the comments section below. Next week I will return to the Chicago Art Institute from a physical visit, I look forward to posting the wonderful art and new stories from my museum experience!