Highlights from the Taft art collection exhibited in the light of 21st century issues

Charles and Anna Taft devoted much of their lives in the early part of the 20th century to amassing valuable works of art from around the world. Like other wealthy collectors of their time, they sought works of beauty and craftsmanship in order to inspire and educate others.

Their collection has been doing just that since 1932 when it was opened to the public as the Taft Museum of Art, housed in their former home on Pike Street in downtown Cincinnati.

Now, with the historic Taft home closed while it undergoes an extensive renovation, museum leaders have selected some of its most significant works, and displayed them with new analyses and interpretations, viewed in the light of issues resonating today.

Workers removed all the artifacts from the house to prepare for the renovation, and that portion of the museum was closed to the public in June. The new exhibit, In a New Light, opened July 3 in the museum’s Fifth Third Gallery, adjacent to the Taft home.

The exhibit revisits about 80 of the Taft’s pre-eminent worksaddressing issues pulled from today’s headlines: power and wealth, gender, race and class, and nature and the environment.

Rembrandt van Portrait of a Man Rising from His Chair, 1931For example, the exhibit’s section on power and wealth explores how artisans made paintings and decorative objects for the elite, the aristocrats and royalty. One of the museum’s most famous pieces, “Portrait of a Man Rising from His Chair,” painted by Rembrandt in the 17th century, is considered a masterful depiction of satin, lace, and the man’s lively demeanor. In the new analysis accompanying the exhibit, curators detail how the clothing of the subject signals wealth, and how nations at that time vied to control the luxury commodity of black dye used to manufacture the elegant cloth, and how the dye was made from trees harvested by disenfranchised people.

In the section on gender, race and class, the exhibit provides insights into untold stories of women, people of color, and other underrepresented groups. Among the pieces displayed is the only one collected by the Tafts that was created by a women — a small enamel plaque made during the Renaissance by Suzanne de Court, one of the few professionally trained women in her field at the time.

“Some may ask, ‘Does an art collection assembled nearly 100 years ago still hold relevance today?’, says Taft associate curator Tamera Lenz Muente. “We invite audiences to embrace this conversation and dialogue with us as we continue to learn more about our historic house and the legacy of the artwork it contains.”

The museum’s Fifth Third Gallery is open noon–4 p.m. Fridays; noon–5 p.m. Saturdays; and 11 a.m.–5 p.m. Sundays. Advance tickets are encouraged. They are free but a $10 donation is suggested. Tickets can be reserved at taftmuseum.org/tickets.
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