Behind Booth Tarkington 

Portraits from the Gentleman's Collection at the IMA

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The name Booth Tarkington should ring familiar if you're an Indianapolis resident — especially if you're an alumnus of the old Shortridge High School or live in Indy's Butler-Tarkington neighborhood, much less if you're familiar with his novels.

(Let's just say that Tarkington as a novelist is as far away from the science-fantasy of the late Kurt Vonnegut — a fellow Shortridge alumnus — as you can get. Take, for example, one of Tarkington's most famous novels The Magnificent Ambersons which is dense with all things late Victorian: parlors, manners, and dress. It's a love story that might seem overstuffed to the contemporary reader, but not to Orson Welles. He turned the plot into a movie in 1942.)


Anyway, Tarkington — like Vonnegut — was something of a sketch artist, and a passionate collector of art. The IMA exhibition A Gentleman Collector from Indiana: Portraits from the Collection of Booth Tarkington, which runs until Feb. 26, 2017, explores Tarkington's passion for portraiture using six paintings from his own collection (all now part of the IMA's) as a point of departure. A highlight is a portrait of Tarkington himself by James Montgomery Flagg. Reproductions of Tarkington's own drawings — the originals of which are housed in the Princeton University archives — are also featured.

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A Gentleman Collector from Indiana is one of the IMA's special exhibitions celebrating Indiana's 2016 Bicentennial.

The exhibition is curated by Dr. Jacquelyn N. Coutré, the Bader Curator and Researcher of European Art at Agnes Etherington Art Centre in Kingston, Ontario. Coutré answered the following questions by email.

NUVO: What kind of painting was Tarkington interested in collecting? Why his particular interest in portraiture?

Dr. Jacquelyn N. Coutré: His collection of paintings was diverse, from Renaissance to what was then contemporary, but it consisted primarily of 17th and 18th-century British portraits. Tarkington wrote once that "art's what tells man about himself." He admired portraiture because of the different ways in which the self could be presented in terms of pose, background, and attributes indicative of the sitter's character. I think he saw portraits as revealing a great deal about the human psyche, a major theme in his writings.

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NUVO: Tarkington made many trips to Europe, perhaps the most influential of which occurred in the first decade of the twentieth century. There were many emerging artist movements in Europe at the time (Post-Impressionism, Fauvism) but the exhibited work doesn't reflect this. Did Tarkington have especially conservative tastes in art, or were they typical for the time period?

Coutré: His taste tended toward the conservative, but so did the tastes of other trustees of the John Herron Art Institute (the precursor to the IMA) in this era. The portrait by Guy Pène du Bois — which is so striking because of the way that Portia LeBrun's gaze turns away from the viewer — demonstrates that he was not totally entrenched in the art of past centuries.

NUVO: How does the art in this exhibition shed light, if any, on Tarkington's output as an author and/or his life?

Coutré: The paintings in this show are paired with Tarkington's own words about them. I think these quotes reveal how deeply he engaged with these portraits, not merely as a pastime but as inspiration for his literary narratives. He even wrote a novel (Wanton Mally) that was sparked by a Nicolas de Largillière portrait that he owned!

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NUVO: Does this exhibition show anything about Indiana life (or Hoosier art) in the first half of the 20th century?


Coutré: While there are no portraits by Indiana artists in the show, Tarkington did own works by Wayman Adams and Robert W. Davidson.

NUVO: Are there any portraits in this collection that are particularly well-known, or by painters who are well-known? If not, should we know them better?

Coutré: There is a portrait of a vice-admiral of the English navy by Gilbert Stuart. Stuart is most known for his iconic portraits of George Washington, which show the first president in rather sober attire. The portrait of Edward Hughes, in contrast, captivates through the rendering of gold braiding and the star of the Order of Bath. It demonstrates another side of Stuart's ability.

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NUVO: Do you have a favorite painting in this exhibition?


Coutré: I love Ernest Blumenschein's "Portrait of a German Tragedian." The sensitive rendering of the ephemeral — the reflections on the polished floor and in the man's glasses, the smoke wafting from his cigarette — is brilliant. I also love the way that Blumenschein links the burly sitter to his more refined environment by repeating the striped pattern of the bench on the cuffs of his sleeves.

NUVO: The focus of the exhibition is on the human face. Where can one find Tarkington's writings on the subject? Is there any work by him that you find particularly enlightening?

Coutré: Tarkington wrote several books that consider the world of art. In terms of portraiture, there is the novel Rumbin Galleries, which contains a lengthy and fascinating description of a portrait by Thomas Lawrence. His book of essays Some Old Portraits is all about his personal collection. They both capture with great sensitivity the value that portraits held for him.

NUVO: Is there a particular impression that you would like patrons to walk away with?

Coutré: I would like viewers of the show to see how the connection between visual art and literature was fundamental to the author. He drew throughout his childhood, taking tips from the likes of James Whitcomb Riley, and even enrolled in university-level courses in art. Seen in this light, it is only natural that art should play an important role in so many of his books.

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