The cultural capital called Arkansas

Posted: Nov 19, 2006 12:00 AM

One bright morning last spring, the American art world woke to the news that "Kindred Spirits," the very emblem of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, had found a new home in the Ozarks after languishing in a nook of the New York Public Library for dusty ages.

New York's art mavens, who hadn't paid the painting all that much attention before, were outraged by the news. You'd think the Goths had just sacked Rome. Now it was one Alice Walton of a different tribe, the Waltons of Wal-Mart, who was pillaging New York's temples.

This brazen Arkie was no longer content to serve on the periphery of museum boards and the like; she was building a museum of her own-in Bentonville, Ark., of all unlikely places. To be called Crystal Bridges, it was to be a museum, school, theater and national magnet for art lovers. How dare she!

The New York Times' man in the arts, Michael Kimmelman, decried the sale of "Kindred Spirits" to "a big-name American billionaire," lamenting that, here in "America, celebrity and money are the measuring sticks of cultural value." As if it hadn't been the tycoons of another age-the Fricks and Rockefellers and Guggenheims-who'd made New York the capital of American art.

Now it's Alice Walton's turn, and it's become clear she has in mind something as distinctive as other museums that were the product of one determined dream-the Phillips in Washington, the Gardner in Boston, and the Barnes in Philadelphia.

Crystal Bridges is to be as different in spirit as each of those museums is from each other. It is to be not so much a private preserve as a gift to the rest of us. And not just the rest of us in Arkansas but far beyond.

Every time one of Crystal Bridges' remarkable acquisitions is announced, Alice Walton's dream project shines brighter. The latest is the best yet:

On a crisp fall morning last week, word came that, together with the National Gallery in Washington, Crystal Bridges is acquiring "The Gross Clinic," the very emblem of American realism.

When he painted it in 1875, Thomas Eakins modeled his picture after a Rembrandt. But he gave the scene a character of its own. It depicts Dr. Samuel Gross conducting an operation before a class of medical students, and it has a very American candor and clarity.

The picture also inspired a typically American controversy. It was considered so shocking that, when Eakins entered it in Philadelphia's Centennial Exhibition, it was accepted but hidden away in a dim corner, lest it offend. "Revolting to the last degree," one squeamish critic called it. The painting was sold for $200 to Jefferson Medical College, where Eakins himself had taken anatomy lessons. Now it's being sold for $68 million. And it's a bargain at that.

One critic has called the picture, "hands down, the finest 19th century American painting." Superlatives are subjective when it comes to art, but "The Gross Clinic" is surely the best-known historical marker in that century of American art.

Having begun its trajectory in art history in the late 19th century as something shockingly new, "The Gross Clinic" would become a venerated masterpiece-until the next wave of American art hit, and realism became something to rebel against in the early 20th century. It's a familiar story.

But even while its name has become a standard answer on pop quizzes in Art History 101, the painting retains its power. The old doctor, the young students row upon row, the Creator's work opened under an almost heavenly light that illuminates the art of healing Š the work still inspires awe.

The painting isn't quite sold yet. If Philadelphia's museums and government institutions can match the $68 million offer to the medical school within 45 days, the painting could stay in that city.

So now will come the usual wringing of hands and expressions of offended pride when a great city loses a great work of art, even though it's one that belongs to all Americans. Surely the City of Brotherly Love can display some in this case. It isn't as if Crystal Bridges had bought the statue of Rocky Balboa that now adorns the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.

If the sale goes through, Thomas Eakins' famous painting will have a new locale. Or rather two of them. First it would go to the National Gallery while Crystal Bridges remains under construction. Once the museum opens-it's due to be ready some time in 2009-the painting would go there.

Crystal Bridges' growing collection already includes a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington painted during his last year as president, and acquired just a few months ago.

The news that "The Gross Clinic" is joining "Kindred Spirits" and the Gilbert Stuart in Arkansas has sent a shiver of anticipation through us all here in Arkansas. The museum's opening day can't come soon enough for those of us eager to view these American masterpieces-and others yet to be announced- in a setting that promises to be a work of art itself.

Thanks to Alice Walton, Crystal Bridges has already begun to live up to its promise-and its name. It's started to gleam even before it's built.

There's just one thing that could make the splendid news about Alice Walton's latest acquisition for her dream palace any better. Oh, if only H. L. Mencken still walked among us! That old curmudgeon's splenetic assault on the South and almost all things Southern still delights for its sheer vitriol. The Sahara of the Bozart, he called Dixie, compacting "beaux arts" in the Suthuhn way. A lover of language, he had an ear for ours.

The Sage of Baltimore was particularly hard on Arkansas. Mencken! thou shouldst be living at this hour-and getting ready to visit that great treasure house of American art now a-risin' in, yes, the heart of the Ozarks.