By Madeleine L. Svehla, MDiv, George W. Truett Theological Seminary
The launch of the Kress Collection’s Digital Archive continues Samuel H. Kress’ vision of making his 13th-19th century European art collection permanently available to the public. The beauty and magnitude of his collection of over 3000 pieces of art is now digitally reunited and can be accessed here: https://www.kressfoundation.org/kress-collection/list. The famous Kress Collection which is known as the premier collection of European art from the 13th to 19th century was distributed all over the United States to various museums, universities, and galleries in what the February 1962 edition of Life called the “Great Kress Giveaway.”
Building & Distributing the Kress Collection
The Kress Collection had its beginnings in the 1920s but the story behind the collection begins earlier. This is a story that involves hard work, brotherhood, and legacy. This legacy has been grown like a tree sheltered during its sapling state by the efforts of a younger brother committed to carrying out his older brothers’ vision. This vision could never have been developed without the perseverance shown by Samuel H. Kress in developing his entrepreneurship and building his company from the ground up. This is his story.
Samuel H. Kress (1863-1955) was born during the Civil War and named after an uncle who recently died in the Battle of Gettysburg. He was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse while he saved up to purchase a Stationery and Notions Shop and eventually a Wholesalers. He opened his first 5 and 10 Cent Store in Memphis, TN in 1896. These stores became wildly popular and new locations opened across the United States. Through the success of these stores, Samuel Kress became one of the wealthiest men in America.
Italian art was not readily available in America in the 1920s when S. Kress through a suggestion by a friend began to be interested in collecting Italian art. He worked with Contini- Bonacossi to build his collection. He came to view it as his duty to share the masterpieces he had discovered. As the collection expanded, the Kress Foundation was founded to take care of the growing needs of the collection. The Kress Foundation was the most active buyer of European Art throughout WWII. Parts of the Collection were selected to tour the country and these local exhibitions were extremely popular. The Foundation decided that—rather than building a museum or gallery for the entire collection to be put on display— they would partner with museums, galleries, and universities around the US to display portions of the collection.
In 1946, Samuel began to suffer from ill health and his brother Rush H. Kress (1877-1963) took over the foundations’ collection efforts. Under Rush’s guidance, the collection continued to expand and be displayed across the US. This collection has been preserved and remains cared for by those working for the Kress Collection and the institutions housing it. These men and women are continuing the work begun by the Kress brothers.
Kress Collection Donates 5 Paintings to Baylor University
In 1961, the Kress Foundation generously donated five paintings to Baylor University that are housed in the Armstrong Browning Museum and Library. These paintings have been on permanent display in the Treasure Room for almost 60 years. Professors and students have been enriched by the ability to work with these paintings. For instance, Heidi Hornik Ph.D. (a professor of Art and Art History at BU) took her upper-division seminar class to the ABL and the students were able to examine the 14th century Madonna and Child in detail. To read more about Dr. Hornik’s work both in and out of the classroom, please visit: https://www.baylor.edu/alumni/magazine/1702/index.php?id=957830
Four of these paintings depict Biblical characters from Jesus’ life, such as Mary and John the Baptist. The final piece is a landscape. Each piece is a beautiful example of Italian art from the 14-18th centuries.
The Christ figure above the Madonna and Child is holding his hand in a distinctive way that has theological significance. The two fingers held up and slightly apart represent the human and divine natures of the person of Christ. The fourth and fifth fingers meeting the thumb represents the three in one mystery of the Trinity. He is also robed in blue and red which represent his divinity and humanity respectively.
Robert Browning wrote the poem The Faultless Painter about Andrea del Sarto in 1855. Sarto is known for his meticulous attention to detail. Browning was inspired by one of his paintings and after researching the artist’s life wrote a poem that explores Andrea’s tragic love story with his wife. Though the Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist and 3 Angels is thought to be painted by a follower of Andrea del Sarto, it provides viewers with an idea of what Sarto’s meticulous style is like.
Leaving a legacy is like planting a tree. The one who plants it may never see it grow to full size. However, future generations are blessed by basking in the coolness of its shade and it leaves a lasting mark on the landscape. None of us can ever truly know the long-lasting impact our dreams will have or how the ways that we invest in the future may one day come to fruition. Samuel H. Kress’ vision of making his collection as accessible to the public as possible is now being accomplished in ways never dreamed of during his lifetime. Yet, his legacy lives on in the splendor of this shared collection.
- Follower of Pietro Lorenzetti. Madonna and Child, c. 1350-1400, tempera on panel, 122.2 x 57 cm (48-5/16 x 22-7/16 in); framed: 144.8 x 73.7 cm (57 x 29 in), Samuel H. Kress Collection, Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, accessed March 19, 2021, https://www.kressfoundation.org/kress-collection/artwork/560643dde459e3c
- Christ, the Man of Sorrows, c. 1540, oil on panel, 56.6 x 44.5 cm (22-1/4 x 17-1/2 in), Samuel H. Kress Collection, Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, accessed March 22, 2021, https://www.kressfoundation.org/kress-collection/artwork/d7d387a1aa8d8aa8bb604e
- Follower of Andrea del Sarto. Madonna & Child with Saint John the Baptist and Three Angels, c. 1560, oil on canvas, 74.6 x 59.4 cm (29-3/8 x 23-3/8 in); framed: 94 x 76.2 cm (37 x 30 in), Samuel H. Kress Collection, Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, accessed March 22, 2021, https://www.kressfoundation.org/kress-collection/artwork/35742389a76f8743
- Flaminio Allegrini. The Holy Family with the Infant Saint John, c. 1600, oil on panel, 55 x 66.7 cm (21-5/8 x 26-1/4 in); framed: 71.1 x 82.6 cm (28 x 32-1/2 in), Samuel H. Kress Collection, Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, accessed March 22, 2021, https://www.kressfoundation.org/kress-collection/artwork/55374524fd9a0971e89806
- Francesco Zuccarelli. Landscape with Bridge, c. 1720, oil on canvas, 94.6 x 128.9 cm (37-1/4 x 50-3/4 in); framed: 111.8 x 142.2 cm (44 x 56 in), Samuel H. Kress Collection, Armstrong Browning Library & Museum, accessed March 22, 2021, https://www.kressfoundation.org/kress-collection/artwork/2c8a82c0b5b50c5943c1c2