Exhibition marks art museum's 125th anniversary

March 27, 2008 noon

The Princeton University Art Museum is celebrating its 125th anniversary with an exhibition that brings together many of the most important works from all areas of its collection. On view through Sunday, June 15, "An Educated Eye: Princeton University Art Museum Collections" also marks the publication of the museum's new handbook, which serves as a guide to its encyclopedic collection.

"The Princeton University Art Museum is one of our greatest treasures," said President Shirley M. Tilghman. "As we prepare to celebrate the museum's 125th anniversary, I am delighted that its curators have built an exhibition around the finest works in its collections and that these and many other masterpieces can now be 'taken home' in the form of a superbly illustrated handbook."

This academic year marks the 125th anniversary of the museum's founding in 1882. The Princeton museum is notable among university museums for the quality and breadth of its holdings, not only in Western European and American art but also in the fields of ancient Mediterranean, Asian and pre-Columbian art.

For this exhibition, curators from each of the museum's departments have selected masterpieces from the collection of more than 68,000 objects spanning ancient to contemporary art. While all works were chosen for their quality, some were also selected for their rarity, or because they represent a critical turning point within the continuum of art history.

Notable works include:

  • An extremely rare and well-preserved first-century Roman silver cup. Pliny the Elder, who died in A.D. 79, wrote that even poor examples of similar cups were very highly valued because the craft of creating them had declined dramatically.
  • "Winter Landscape," an early 12th-century painting that is the only known surviving work from the Northern Song dynasty artist Li Gongnian. In the 1930s, it was sent on loan to the landmark International Exhibition of Chinese Art in London. The exhibition tags from London's Burlington House still hang from the scroll's rollers.
  • A unique bound set of Albrecht Durer's "Engraved Passion," with its original cover that bears the coat of arms of the artist's first patron, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. As a fascinating hybrid of handwritten text and printed illustrations, this devotional book represents the momentous cultural transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in early 16th-century Europe.
  • Charles Willson Peale's 1784 portrait of "George Washington at the Battle of Princeton." The painting was commissioned by the College of New Jersey, as Princeton was formerly known, to fit inside a frame that once held a portrait of King George II that, according to contemporary sources, "was torn away by a ball from the American artillery in the battle of Princeton." Troops, probably led by Alexander Hamilton, were firing upon British soldiers who had sequestered themselves in Nassau Hall, where the royal portrait was on view. Peale's commission was partially supported by funds bestowed by Washington himself as a gesture of his regard for the institution, and it eventually was displayed in the restored Nassau Hall.
  • Edouard Manet's mysterious "Gypsy With a Cigarette." Left in Manet's studio at his death in 1883 and never publicly exhibited in his lifetime, the painting has been a topic of scholarly debate, with some believing the source of the subject to be Prosper Mérimée's novel "Carmen." Its date is unknown, and even whether the artist considered it a finished work is unclear.

Also on view will be works that are among the most beloved by visitors to the museum, including Edgar Degas' "Dancers," the elaborate "Headdress" by the Efut peoples of Nigeria, a distinctive Olmec shaman and Claude Monet's "Water Lilies and Japanese Bridge."

The new handbook is the first overview of the museum's collection since 1986. The 364-page work includes entries on more than 400 works written by the museum's curatorial staff and guest authors.

The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.