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NSG Visit November 1997

The Rockwell Museum's Great Treasures

in Corning, New York


Donovan A. Shilling

If you're looking for an exciting view of America's western art, the Rockwell Museum at 111 Cedar Street in Corning, New York, offers one of the world's premier collections. Housed in what was Corning's City Hall until 1974, the impressive paintings, sculptures and other displays of western art fill spaces once reserved for the building's jail, court rooms, fire hall and city offices. An elevator now fills the shaftway once used to dry fire hoses.

Actually the museum is composed of not one, but three separate collections, all gathered by Robert F. Rockwell, Jr. In the main galleries, over five hundred works of American Western art are the main attraction for many. However, the museum has an amazing assembly of over two thousand pieces of art glass, all part of the Frederick Carder Steuben Glass display, and the museum has also a fascinating group of children's vintage toys.

In addition to its permanent exhibits the Rockwell Museum affords visitors opportunities to see traveling exhibitions such as the one we enjoyed. This one dealt with outstanding examples of American Indian art work incorporated in an exhibit of exquisitely woven Navajo Indian blankets and textiles.

What made our visit unique was the fortuitous opportunity to meet the man responsible for these amazing collections, Robert (Bob) Rockwell. Born in 1911, the 87-year-old founder is a friendly, pleasant, gregarious host, generous with information about the museum and ready with many tales and vignettes behind the items he purchased and acquired.

Bob Rockwell was born in Colorado and lived there until he came east in 1932 to close the department store in Corning operated by his grandfather. He smiled as he told us, explaining that he didn't quite close it, in fact he operated the store for nearly forty-five years more until 1976 when he reached age sixty-five. The store finally closed in January, 1992.

Bob admits to being an avid collector. Through the years he's not only gathered great works of western art but has also collected bear traps and mouse traps, fire arms, Indian artifacts along with a room full of other western memorabilia. His interest in Western painting began in 1960 when he bought a painting in Elmira that was attributed to Frederic S. Remington. He proudly showed his purchase, for which he'd paid five hundred dollars, to a friend, and was told it was a fake. Rather than cooling his interest in western paintings, it only served to kindle his desire to obtain a genuine Remington. Eventually Bob acquired twenty-one Remington paintings. Concerning the fraud, Bob stated, "It was the best buy I ever made. " Soon he became a knowledgeable art collector, with one purchase following another.

His paintings and some of the items in his collections he first kept in his home, many were displayed throughout his department store on shelves on the walls above the merchandise or suspended above the counters. As the collections grew, he found it necessary to create a fledgling art gallery and museum in the former Baron Von Steuben Hotel. During this period he became a member of the board of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a director he met and became friends with fellow western art collectors including Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Joel McCrea and Richard Nixon. As his western art collection became known and admired, it was sought by the Cowboy Museum and by other museums.

In the 1970s the Corning Romanesque-Revival-style City Hall was to be vacated. To save the 1893 structure from demolition it was chosen to become a permanent home for the Rockwell Museum.

Bob Rockwell contributed his collections and the Corning Glass Works Foundation spent three and a half million dollars to transform the structure into display areas for the paintings, sculpture, glass pieces and the antique toys. Much emphasis has been spent on tasteful presentation of the art work and on lighting. The lighting on the paintings is dim, but that's to avoid fading the water colors. In several areas lights are off until actuated by a viewer passing an electric eye.

Bob, in his unassuming and quiet manner, led us through the exhibits. Memorable at the tour's start was a huge, eight-by-twelve- foot dramatic painting by Albert Bierstadt entitled "Mt. Whitney. " It is valued now at two and a half million dollars.

Our tour continued as we viewed a painting by Alfred Jacob Miller, Thomas Moran's "Clouds in the Canyon," explorer-artist George Catlin's "Breaking Down the Wild Horse," Canadian artist, Cornelius Krieghoff's "The Story Teller," and Taos Society artist Joseph Henry Sharp's painting, "Prayer to the Spirit of the Buffalo," and Sharp's dynamic depiction of Chief Joseph.

Bob then directed our attention to another powerful painting. This one, "The Mix Up," was painted by Charles M. Russell, perhaps the greatest of cowboy artists. Some years ago Mr. Rockwell had loaned the masterpiece to the State Department in Washington, D. C. During the period that his two hundred-thousand dollar art work hung in the White House, Bob and his wife enjoyed the opportunity to share dinners with Henry Kissinger, Hubert Humphrey and Ronald Reagan. Former ambassador, Shirley Temple Black personally told Bob that this painting was her favorite and that she would come to his Corning museum to view it. Bob's still waiting.

Mr. Rockwell also told us of the time he paid dealer Jack Barfield twenty-two thousand dollars at Kennedy Galleries in New York City for a painting he admired just minutes before another collector returned to the gallery ready to buy this painting of a great bull moose. The fellow, Bob explained, lost out when he needed a little more time to think over the purchase. Today that painting, "Monarch of the Wilderness," is valued at a half-million dollars. Another of Robert Rockwell's favorites is a painting done by W. R. Leigh in 1947. The large eight-by-twelve-foot painting called "The Buffalo Hunt" is valued at twenty-five thousand dollars.

Fine works of sculpture are in the museum gallery. One is the world-famous "The End of the Trail" by James Earle Frazer. The 1908 bronze evoked a strong feeling of emotion in me. Not only the Indian's sad, down-cast head, the downward angle of his spear. but also the poignantly posed pony with its head hanging toward the ground and its tail tucked between its hind legs brought to me the sensation of exhaustion and defeat.

Nearby another mood is created. This from a copy, edged in gold leaf, of Francis Parkman's book, "The Oregon Trail. " It rests within a special glass case placed atop a raised pedestal. The volume was given to Bob by Woolworth heiress, Clara Peck. It had once belonged to C. M. Armstrong who had loaned the book to Charles M. Russell. When the Parkman was returned to Armstrong later, fifty of its pages were adorned with Russell's own finely drawn illustrations.

Mr. Rockwell led us next to "The World in Miniature" gallery containing 1850's to 1880's cast iron and tin toys, doll furniture and a lively Schoenhut circus.

Next he took us to the Reifschlager and Rotary Galleries where Frederick Carder's art glass is displayed in specially-lit cases. There were rare pieces of "Verre de Soie," "Cintra," "Aurene," "Flambe," and an eighteen thousand dollar "Tyrian" vase.

New Society of the Genesee members Dick and Winifred Peer arranged the tour and invited Robert Rockwell to be our guide.

© 1997, Donovan A. Shilling
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