1 of 5
Viewing art through the ages
The Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University invites guests to linger and admire its centuries-old masterpieces.
Photo by Milton Morris
2 of 5
Wyeth and Johns on display
Greenville County Museum of Art is home to extensive collections of paintings by Andrew Wyeth and Jasper Johns.
Courtesy of Greenville County Museum of Art
3 of 5
Southern art and history
Fugitives in Flight (1869) by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1835–1907) is part of the Southern Collection at the Greenville County Museum of Art.
Courtesy of Greenville County Museum of Art
4 of 5
A closer look
“The Art of Sleuthing,” the current exhibit at M&G at Heritage Green in downtown Greenville, offers a behind-the-scenes look at what art historians, conservators and even forgers see when they look at a work of art.
Courtesy of Bob Jones University
5 of 5
The 400-plus artworks showcased in the Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University began as a collection of just 20 to 40 paintings that were displayed in a two-room building on campus, says Erin Jones, the museum’s director. The current campus museum includes more than 30 galleries and also features objects of art and Egyptian and Roman antiquities.
Photo by Milton Morris
Matthew is writing something important, something for the ages. He needs help. Hence, the small angel by his side. The two of them focus intently on each other’s faces, concentrating on the task at hand, and Matthew’s quill is poised to take down the imparted words of divine wisdom.
I am so captivated by this painting, I keep turning back to look again. The expression on Matthew’s face, gentle and attentive, makes me feel I can almost read his mood. I like how the light bounces off Matthew’s tousled white hair and beard and the angel’s golden curls. The scene seems to invite me in, as if I had pulled up a chair to be part of this moment of biblical history.
This portrait of the Gospel writer, St. Matthew, painted by the 17th-century Italian artist Guido Reni, hangs at the Vatican in Rome. But that’s not where I’m looking at it. This version, also a Reni masterpiece, is on exhibit every day at a museum in Greenville—the Museum & Gallery at Bob Jones University. And it’s not alone. The M&G collection houses hundreds more impressive artworks, including centuries-old masterpieces that have been showcased in some of the great museums around the world.
Turns out, the city of Greenville is home to some pretty amazing visual treasures in the collections at the M&G and the Greenville County Museum of Art. Curious to learn more, I ventured to the Upstate to explore this cache of world-class art, right here in our own backyard.
Art through the ages
“Art doesn’t have to be difficult,” Erin Jones reassures me as we begin a walk-through tour of the astounding collection of old European masterworks on the Bob Jones University campus. At the moment, I’m not so sure about that. Simply standing in the lobby, with its soaring ceilings and huge tapestries dwarfing the people below, hints that I may be in over my head.
But Jones, director of the M&G at Bob Jones, guides me into the first gallery and begins to prove her point.
By design, the BJU exhibits are staged to help visitors find meaning in what they see. The collection is largely sacred art; this first small gallery, housing Italian religious paintings from the 14th century, mimics the dim, stone interior of a church sanctuary, where paintings like these would originally have been displayed.
“We don’t want a stark, white experience of paintings on a wall,” Jones says. “If you walked into an old European cathedral, it might feel like this.”
Centuries ago, these paintings were like illustrated religious lessons for the illiterate masses, “just like we use picture books to teach children,” she says. The church commissioned artists to paint scenes that told stories from Scripture, depicted heroic acts of saints or illustrated church doctrine. So the images in the paintings needed to be familiar and easily recognizable to anyone.
As a literate adult who’s been to Sunday school, I’m feeling more confident as Jones talks me through Gerini’s Madonna and Child with Saints. Mary and the infant Jesus are common subject matter here, as you’d imagine. Most often, you’ll find them at the center of a painting, with Mary usually robed in colors of blue (symbolizing heaven, peace, sorrow), white (purity) and red (love or passion). From gallery to gallery, those colors repeat where Mary is depicted; the message keeps coming through.
Stories start to leap out from the paintings. Saints may be depicted with some identifying feature, such as St. Francis of Assisi’s stigmata or St. Bartholomew with a knife, representing the tool by which he was skinned alive and martyred.
“Things like that are gruesome to us today, but when we think about that time, beauty was hard to come by,” Jones says, putting the period art in context. “The church was the one place of hope, a place they could see somebody whose life was inspiring to them.”
A surprising feature of this collection of more than 400 paintings by old masters, plus objects of art and antiquities from around the globe, is that it could not be replicated today. It so happened that Dr. Bob Jones Jr., a lover of the arts and BJU president through the mid-1900s, began amassing works of Baroque and other old-world art at a period when those particular pieces were out of favor. His modest collection that began with 20 to 40 paintings has mushroomed to become known worldwide as one of the most important collections revealing the evolution of Western art through the ages, Jones says.
As we meander through the 20-plus galleries in the BJU campus museum, traveling forward in time, we’re seeing the arc of history reflected in paintings by famed artists from across Europe. Here’s a highlight in the museum’s tondo gallery (a tondo, I learn, is simply a round painting): a masterwork by the celebrated Renaissance artist Botticelli, Madonna and Child with an Angel. This is one of BJU’s treasured mustsees; many visitors make a beeline for it.
“We have the largest collection of tondo paintings in the United States,” Jones notes, including one, The Madonna of the Lake, that was once owned by Napoleon and Josephine Bonaparte of France.
Now we arrive at my personal favorite—Reni’s St. Matthew. Amazing as it is on its own, it also happens to be part of the world’s only known set of Reni paintings of the four biblical gospel writers, and all four reside at BJU. It’s worth pausing here to appreciate Reni’s inclusion of each writer’s symbolic creature, embedded somewhere in each painting. Matthew’s companion, for example, is the angel helping him enumerate Jesus’ biblical lineage. Peer closely at the other three in the set, and you’ll find Mark’s symbolic lion, Luke’s ox (look carefully—it’s hard to see) and John’s eagle.
The “first,” “only” and “most” highlights of BJU’s collection go on and on. Nearly every gallery is home to yet another I-can’t-believe-this-lives-in-Greenville attraction. Among them: Head of Christ, a painting loaned to the Louvre in 2011 for a special exhibition on Rembrandt. This particular piece, painted by a student in Rembrandt’s studio, reflects a pioneering choice by the great Dutch Baroque artist—he was the first to use a Jewish model in painting depictions of Christ.
Although Baroque artists are the stars of BJU’s collection, a niche strength here is the collection of paintings by northern European followers of Italian artist Caravaggio, who played with innovations in light and shadow and who influenced a great many painters, Jones says. A M&G painting by one of his followers, The Holy Family in the Carpenter Shop by Honthorst, has been loaned to the Uffizi museum in Florence, Italy, and “is one of our guests’ all-time favorites—they flock to it,” she says. “It represents family values—you see a hard-working man, you see the tools of the time period, and you see a family together.”
All in all, it’s a lot to take in. Even as a rookie art admirer, I end my tour awestruck and understanding why, as Jones tells me, for anyone interested in art history, “it’s just known that you need to get here.”
See what you see
The modern, angular architecture of the Greenville County Museum of Art tells me right away I’m in for an entirely different art experience. Bright, high-ceilinged galleries and clean, white walls are the display spaces here for an extensive collection of American art, including pieces with specific ties to South Carolina and the South.
But jobs one and two here are to lay eyes on GCMA’s pride and joy—collections of works by Jasper Johns and Andrew Wyeth. Each of these artists has been tagged with terms like “iconic” and “groundbreaking,” and Johns, who spent his growing-up years in South Carolina, is still hailed as “the world’s most critically acclaimed living artist.” Both amassed impressive bodies of work—so much so that it’s a bonanza to find these two collections under one Greenville roof.
How’d that happen?
“Very determined, diligent collecting over a long period of time,” supported by community donors, says Paula Angermeier, GCMA’s head of communications.
If I have any doubts about whether I’ve got the chops to appreciate Johns’ contemporary paintings, a group of first graders on tour shows me the way. They are looking at a set of his “face frame” compositions, with multiple facial features scattered hither and yon across the canvas. Their guide asks, simply enough, “What do you see?”
“They all have eyes and ears and mustaches.” “The eyelashes look like rays of the sun.” “The eyes look like someone’s peeking out a window.”
That’s 6-year-olds doing exactly what GCMA hopes all its visitors will do.
“People always say, ‘I wish you had more information about the paintings in your gallery,’” Angermeier says. “We want everybody to just look first, see what they see, think what they think. Do you like it or not like it? How does it make you feel?”
Since this museum is constantly changing its exhibits, you’re not likely to see the same things twice on separate visits, giving you plenty of chances to decide what you think or feel about the 70-plus Johns works in GCMA’s holdings.
Likewise, with more than 45 Wyeth works among its holdings—the largest public collection in the world of his watercolors—you’ll always find several pieces on exhibit somewhere in the museum. Visitors are drawn to his rustic images of the people and places he knew and loved.
“When people come to the museum, this is what they initially come to see,” Angermeier says, describing him as “America’s painter.” “He painted his life.”
Greenville’s storied history with Wyeth began with a loaned collection in 1979 that put the museum on the art map and became a source of pride in the community. When the collection was later sold in the early ’90s to a private collector, local art lovers grieved the loss, so GCMA set out to build its own permanent collection, piece by piece.
An exhibit opening in November, “Wyeth Dynasty,” will feature many of Wyeth’s works alongside those by multiple artists from his talented family, including his father, N.C., and his son, Jamie.
Ticking Johns and Wyeth off my to-do list, I’m free to head to a gallery where GCMA’s wide-reaching Southern Collection takes center stage. Here, I find works not only by Southern artists—including historic creations by S.C. slave potter and poet Dave Drake—but also paintings that touch on Southern themes, including the antebellum and Civil Rights eras.
“We want to tell the full story of American art history and how American history and Southern art are intertwined,” Angermeier says, noting how that mission complements BJU’s focus on old masters.
“It’s a good pairing—we provide the European side, the western roots to the GCMA collection,” Jones agrees.
Just a few miles apart, these museums span centuries, continents and a wide sweep in art evolution. And you need venture no farther than Greenville to see it.
M&G at Bob Jones University is located at 1700 Wade Hampton Blvd., Greenville.
HOURS: Tuesday–Saturday, 2–5 p.m.
M&G at Heritage Green is located at Heritage Green, Buncombe Street, Greenville.
HOURS: Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.
ADMISSION: Adults, $7; seniors (60 and over), $6; students, $5; children 12 and under, free. Admission when visiting both M&G locations on the same day: adults, $12; seniors, $10; students, $8.
DETAILS: No photography is permitted; cameras must be checked at the gift shop. Audio tours, guided tours and private tours are available for additional fees. For details, visit bjumg.org or call (864) 770-1331.
Greenville County Museum of Art is located at Heritage Green, 420 College St., Greenville.
HOURS: Wednesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.; Sunday, 1–5 p.m.
DETAILS: No flash photography is permitted. Guided tours are free to groups of 10 or more, but must be scheduled at least three weeks in advance. For information about current exhibits or other details, visit gcma.org or call (864) 271-7570.
Looking closer at art
Ever wonder what the pros see when they look at a work of art? You can pick up some clues at M&G at Heritage Green, M&G’s educational satellite museum in downtown Greenville.
Since 2008, BJU has offered special themed exhibits at this location. The current exhibit, “The Art of Sleuthing,” aims to give viewers a behind-the-scenes—and, often, behind the paintings—look at art. It invites guests to pick up a magnifying glass and peer at the things art historians, conservators and even forgers see when they examine a painting.
Here, you can discover how the experts know who really painted a particular work, what may be hidden behind layers of old paint and how to track a painting’s history of owners and travels. You’ll see how, sometimes, even the experts get fooled and how, when they get it right, it can mean a happy ending, like the return of Nazi-looted art to its true owners.
“We hope it shows that there are more ways than one to enjoy art,” says Erin Jones, director of the M&G. “You just have to have a little bit of curiosity to ask questions and find answers.”
South Carolina art museums – South Carolina is home to a variety of art museums with collections that span thousands of years, from the historic to the contemporary.