The Brooks’ collection of African Art includes wood carving, metal, textiles, bead-work, paintings, and books. These holdings largely reflect the generous gift of Henry Easterwood, a local collector. The collection features objects from many sub-Saharan cultures, with especially strong holdings in masks and sculptures from west and central Africa. Among the highlights are a beaded Bamileke Kuosi society elephant mask from Cameroon and an Ethiopian diptych of the Crucifixion and the Virgin Enthroned—both of which shed light on the diverse and rich cultures living on the African continent today.
Although the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art began exhibiting art by African artists in 1941, it was not until 1973 that African American art was shown in two exhibitions. One was a faculty exhibition from Memphis academic institutions, including LeMoyne-Owen College, the other was Highlights from the Atlanta University Collection of Afro-American Art. Collecting also began in the 1970s with the purchase of works on paper by Jacob Lawrence and Romare Bearden. A significant painting by Sam Gilliam was acquired in 1980 with funding provided by Art Today. Since then, the museum has dramatically increased its holdings across a range of media, with particular strengths in photography—the largest museum collection of Ernest C. Withers and the remaining archives of the Memphis World newspaper; sculpture—Sonya Clark and Chakaia Booker; sound—Whitfield Lovell; prints—Glenn Ligon and Alison Saar; drawings—Radcliffe Bailey; decorative arts—Loretta Pettway quilt; and couture—Patrick Kelly.
The Brooks’ holdings of ancient Western art include works from cultures around the Mediterranean Sea. Dating between ca. 1400 B.C.E. to 100 C.E., the collection represents Greek art—from both the mainland and southern Italian colonies, and pieces by Roman and Egyptian artists. It includes ceramic vessels, textiles, and metalwork as well as stone carving and mosaic. Among the museum’s notable works is a pair of late Roman sarcophagus panels depicting The Good Shepherd and a Greco-Roman torso of Pan. Complementing the Brooks’ holdings is a collection of ancient objects from around the Mediterranean and the Middle East which are on long-term loan from the Clarence Day Foundation. These comprise ceramics, metalwork, glass, and stone carving, ranging in date from ca.2000 B.C.E. to 1100 C.E. Highlights of the Day collection include Roman portrait busts, a Greek funeral stele, and a Byzantine censor.
An extensive gift of artists’ books, given in 1990 by collectors Isabel Ehrlich and Charles F. Goodman, forms the nucleus of this collection, which consists primarily of 20th-century editions. Some are the result of collaboration between an artist and a writer, such as Pablo Picasso and Yvan Goll, while others represent the cooperative efforts of many individuals such as 1¢ Life by Walasse Ting, which has 28 contributing artists. Among some of the recent acquisitions are The Vitreous Body by Kiki Smith, Paper Snake by Ray Johnson, and Such Things I Do to Make Myself More Attractive to You by Terence Koh. Many of these volumes include original graphics and handmade papers. Selections can be viewed in the Goodman Gallery that was created in 1999 to display works associated with the written word.
In 1978 AutoZone, Inc. of Memphis began purchasing artwork by regional artists to hang in their corporate offices. For over twenty years they continued to add to this collection, and when it was gifted to Brooks in 2001, it had grown to include 227 objects. This gift is comprised of works across a variety of mediums—from photographs by William Eggleston and prints by Elizabeth Catlett to paintings by Veda Reed and Burton Callicott. The collection significantly expanded Brooks holdings in regional art and also represents AutoZone’s commitment to support and encourage regional artists.
The Brooks’ decorative arts and design collection includes more than 2,000 European and American pieces of ceramics, glass, furniture, and metalwork. The majority of these objects are English, with large holdings of sterling silver, 19th-century lustreware, and 18th-century furniture. Notable objects include Paul Storr silver, a 14th-century Spanish processional cross, French and Italian Renaissance ceramics, and a late 15th-century German stained glass panel. American works date largely to the mid-18th to late 19th century and include silver, furniture, and glass. Among the highlights are a Townsend family long-case clock, a Benjamin Frothingham high chest of drawers, a Frank Lloyd Wright chair, a Tennessee sugar chest sideboard, and a pair of silver Tiffany ewers.
Memphian Hugo N. Dixon donated paintings from his personal collection to the Brooks Museum from 1952 through 1964. This gift included works by Impressionist artists Camille Pissarro, Alfred Sisley, Pierre Auguste Renoir, and Édouard Vuillard. As he retained life interest, the seven Impressionists works and two British portraits remained in his home until his death in 1974. After receiving the works in 1975, Brooks lent them back to the newly created Dixon Gallery and Gardens until January of 1978. Finally, upon their return, the celebrated Dixon gift went on public display in Brooks’ permanent collection galleries.
In an effort to “have his fellow citizens enjoy this collection and inspire others to share their art with their home community,” Dr. Louis Levy of Memphis gifted over 900 prints to the Brooks Museum in 1947. Later, through his bequest in 1961 and with additional gifts from descendents Lawrence J. Levy in 1974 and Dr. Lois Levy Schwartz in 1992, the family donated nearly 1200 prints. This collection ranges from early wood engravings of Albrecht Durer to a nearly complete set of Associated American Artists prints.
In celebration of the opening of its 1955 addition, Brooks exhibited a collection of 31 paintings from local businessman and philanthropist Morrie A. Moss. Over the course of the next 28 years, all these works would be donated to the museum. Today the Moss Collection at Brooks includes outstanding British, Dutch, and American paintings as well as sculpture, English silver, and other decorative arts. In 1984, the Morrie A. Moss Acquisition Fund was established to ensure continued growth of the collection. Mr. Moss’s final gift to the museum, Au Pied de la Falaise (At the Foot of the Cliff) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, was bequeathed to the museum upon his death in 1993.
The painting collection consists of more than 600 works that survey the development of Western European and American art, from the early Renaissance to the present. The Samuel H. Kress Collection of Italian Renaissance and Baroque works forms the core of the museum’s European paintings while other strengths in this area include Dutch genre, British portraiture, and French Impressionist works. Among the European artists represented are Francesco Botticini, Canaletto, Thomas Gainsborough, and Camille Pissarro. The 19th-century American collection spans from portraits by Ralph E. W. Earl and landscapes by George Inness, to genre paintings by Winslow Homer. Among the early 20th-century works are paintings by Thomas Hart Benton, Robert Henri, and Georgia O’Keeffe while later Contemporary artists include Roger Brown, Elizabeth Murray, and Sam Gilliam.
In 1941, a photogravure by Edward S. Curtis became the first photograph to enter the Brooks’ collection. Presently, there are more than 1,200 works, the majority of which are from the 20th century, including large selections by William Eggleston, William Christenberry, and Ernest Withers. These are supplemented by a set of Library of Congress reprints of Farm Security Administration photographs by artists such as Marion Post Wolcott, Dorothea Lange, and Walker Evans. Recent additions to the growing collection are early 20th-century works by Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand, to Contemporary works by Carrie Mae Weems, Alex Soth, Vic Muniz, Marcos Lopez, and Fred Wilson.
The Pre-Columbian collection at the Brooks mainly features ceramics from throughout Central and South America. It includes art from the less well-known cultures such as the Colima and Valdivia peoples. Particularly noteworthy among these objects are a copper mask from the Chimu people and an Incan feathered tabard or tunic.
The Marcus Orr Print Room houses the museum’s graphic works, its largest single collection. More than half of the prints in this collection are 20th-century American, ranging from an extensive selection of Associated American Artists prints to Pop Art of the 1960s and contemporary works by artists such as Glenn Ligon and Willie Cole. European Old Masters are represented by the etchings and engravings of Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn; 18th- and 19th-century prints include works by Thomas Bewick, Francisco Goya, William Hogarth, and Honoré Daumier. A small selection of Japanese prints represents the Ukiyo-e school with woodcuts by masters such as Hiroshige and Kuniyoshi.
The Brooks’ drawing collection consists primarily of 19th- and 20th-century American drawings and watercolors, including works by Everett Shinn, Reginald Marsh, Charles Burchfield and Andrew Wyeth. Among the contemporary artists represented are Nancy Graves, Peter Saul, and Manuel Neri. Nearly 600 drawings by 19th-century Tennessee artist Carl Gutherz offer an extensive overview of a salon artist active during the belle époque. Other regional artists include Mississippi’s Walter Anderson and Arkansas-born painter Carroll Cloar. In addition, the collection contains a small selection of religious manuscripts from the 10th to the 18th centuries.
Although known for significant holdings of well-known artists from the region who have secured national and international acclaim such as William Eggleston, Ernest C. Withers, and Carroll Cloar, the collection is deep across styles, periods, and media. The museum began collecting regional art in 1916—early portraits by Tennessee artist William Browning Cooper (1811-1900) and Memphian Kate Carl (ca. 1854-1938). Among some of the other artists well represented are Walter Anderson, William Christenberry, Veda Reed, Ted Faiers, Carl Gutherz, and Burton Callicott. An early effort to highlight art from the region was the First Mid-South Exhibition (1956) from which five works of art were purchased. The museum continues to add works by regional artists in all media and styles.
The museum’s sculpture collection of over 200 objects begins with late medieval European works but is heavily weighted towards Contemporary art. Among the highlights are French sculptures by François Rude, Auguste Rodin, Antoine Barye, and Jacques Lipchitz. The Modern and Contemporary works range widely including ceramics by Robert Arneson, found objects sculptures by Sonya Clark and Chakaia Booker, self-taught artists such as William Edmondson and Purvis Young, a kinetic sculpture by George Rickey, carvings by Manuel Neri and James Surls, and commissions from Marisol and Nam June Paik.
Albeit not universally adopted, the term self-taught is perhaps the most acceptable option for artists whom, over time, were variously defined as folk, outsider, or primitive. Although these artists have long been recognized for their individual talents and the aesthetic merits of their work, it is only in the last few decades that their art was included in exhibitions with their more traditionally trained colleagues. Among some of these artists represented in the Brooks collection are William Edmondson, Purvis Young, Edwin Jeffery, Felipe Archuletta, Joe Light, and the Gee’s Bend quilters Allie and Loretta Pettway.
One of the earliest gifts in the collection, donated by the museum’s founder in 1916, is a crazy quilt sewn with velvets and silks and meticulously embroidered. Over the next 50 years Brooks’ textile collection quickly grew to include 15th-century Italian linens, church vestments, Victorian beadwork, 19th-century white work embroideries, and American coverlets. In the latter half of the 20th century the collection expanded in scope with the addition of Asian, African, and Pre-Colonial textiles as well as numerous 20th-century American quilts. Some of the more notable acquisitions include an exquisite collection of 16th-18th century European lace, an 18th-century English embroidered waistcoat, an African Hausa robe, and an exceptional pair of point d'Alençon lace bed curtains that were commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte for Empress Josephine. Also included in this collection are Modern and Contemporary fiber art pieces by regional artists.
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art was founded by women. Mrs. E. A. Neely and Bessie Vance Brooks, separately, spearheaded the efforts that culminated in the opening of the Brooks Memorial Art Gallery in 1916. Florence McIntyre, an artist who studied under William Merritt Chase, was the museum’s first director. She mounted five exhibitions organized by the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors, including two annual shows in 1917 and 1919. Thus began a long history of leadership and support by women that includes the five founders of Art Today (1954-2002, acquired 56 contemporary artworks), and the Brooks Museum League (f. 1934, funded 212 acquisitions).
The first two works to enter the Brooks’s collection were portraits of the Brooks by Cecilia Beaux, who had encouraged Mrs. Brooks to support the founding of an art museum in Memphis, and agreed to serve on its first acquisitions committee. Beaux, an internationally regarded artist at that time, was the first woman professor of art at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Despite the importance of women in founding and leading the institution, and in exhibiting the work of women artists, collecting their work for the permanent collection did not become a high priority until the late 20th century. Nonetheless, the collection spans works in a variety of media including: Sofonisba Anguissola’s (1532/35-1625) Self Portrait; Chakaia Booker’s (b.1953) Untitled sculpture; Martha Rosler’s (b. 1943) feminist video Semiotics of the Kitchen; as well as the significant commission of Marisol’s (1930-2016) The Family (1969).