Most really good museums owe their success to wealthy donors. The off-the-radar El Paso Museum of Art (EPMA) has a stunning collection thanks to Samuel Henry Kress. The works he donated to EPMA are quite traditional, but this museum is not.
Kress was a teacher earning $25 a month before he opened a stationery shop in Nanticoke, PA. Soon enough, Kress owned a chain of stores in 29 states. S.H. Kress & Co. thrived because crafty Kress avoided huge urban areas. He made so much money that he lived in a penthouse across the street from New York’s famous MET. He collected art and died in 1955. In 1961 his foundation, which still exists, donated much of his collection to museums all over the United States. The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC was the biggest beneficiary, but The El Paso Museum of Art received 58 paintings and 2 sculptures.
I didn’t know about Kress or this museum until a friend saw one of Kress’ donated works and called me in shock to tell me about the Lorenzo Lotto painting he was standing in front of. Tom and Ruth and I are fans of this mostly off-the-radar Italian artist of the High Renaissance. The hands are a small part of the painting. They reveal Lotto’s genius. Like great detective novels, his works are full of mysteries that aren’t revealed until the viewer looks closely and begins asking questions like, “What is the man pointing to and why is his other hand making a fist?”
After Ruth & I looked at EPMA’s European Collection containing lots of Kress’ treasures from the 12th to the 18 century, we checked out this museum’s other half a dozen galleries. El Paso is part of the world’s largest international border community. Almost 3 million people live in El Paso, its suburban communities, and Ciudad Juárez across the Rio Grande River in Mexico. As we looked at some fine art that deeply reflected this museum’s locale, I noted another mystery. Places like this are usually frequented by, well, I’ll call them mature people. It could have been a coincidence, but I gradually realized that most of the others in the museum were young families, many Hispanic.
But not all of them. There was another mystery still to consider. It involved an artist I had never heard of, Theodore Earl Butler. I didn’t know that Claude Monet had an American son-in-law. An impressionist painter from Columbus, Ohio, Butler was good enough to be part of the famous 1913 Armory Show. Butler befriended Monet and married two of his stepdaughters. Was he a bigamist? Were they sister wives? No and no. After Suzanne died he wed her sister Marthe. “Fireworks Vernon Bridge” shows that Butler was influenced by his father-in-law.
Kress isn’t the only benefactor of the El Paso Museum of Art. In the fall of 2015, Gertrude “Sugar” Goodman, a long time patron of this museum, gave it 170 of her more than 450 works of art. Many are prints and drawings by well-known artists like Goya, Cassatt, and Picasso.