I began working at the High Museum of Art in 2013 as its second Kress Museum Interpretation Fellow, a position funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. The Kress Foundation’s relationship with the High goes back decades. In the 1950s, the Foundation donated a central portion of our European Art collection, including significant paintings from Renaissance and Baroque Italy.
Businessman and philanthropist Samuel H. Kress deeply believed in art as a force for good, and he worked to make it accessible to everyone. In 1929, he established the Kress Foundation, which has donated thousands of artworks to American museums and universities. Kress’s gift to the High and its underlying social activism helped shape our museum—and many others across the country—into the valuable community resource it remains today.
Thanks to the Kress Foundation, the High received great works of art from Italy, including this pair of paintings by Vittore Carpaccio.
Vittore Carpaccio (Italian, 1460–1526)
Temperance, ca. 1525
Oil on wood panel
Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.
Born into a middle-class Pennsylvania family, Kress built a fortune through his 5-10-25 cent stores, which then dotted the American landscape. A trip to Italy ignited his interest in art, and with his growing wealth he was able to purchase the first Italian masterpieces to decorate his Fifth Avenue palazzo in 1927. Only a few years after he started collecting, Kress decided to share his art treasures with the American people. One Christmas, he put Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds—now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, of which Kress was a founding benefactor—on view in the window of his Fifth Avenue store in New York City, much to the horror of his dealer.
In the early 1930s, as the Great Depression raged, Kress made his first donations to American museums. He felt that his fortune had been built from the pennies of the American people, and thus they deserved to share in its fruits. In 1932, he made one of the first major gifts to the High: a painting by Italian Rococo master Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, now titled Roman Matrons Making Offerings to Juno (pictured). He donated the “instructive and educational” work, he wrote to the Museum’s leaders, out of a desire to do something “of interest and benefit to the people of Atlanta” before all such rare paintings vanished from the art market completely. The Tiepolo painting remains one of the most highly prized objects in our collection.
That same year, 1932, Kress put together a traveling exhibition of more than fifty of his cherished works. The exhibition visited twenty-four cities over the course of nearly three years and was met with enthusiastic crowds wherever it went. Upon the paintings’ return home, Kress decided to make his entire collection permanently available to the public.
In the mid-twentieth century, those works of Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque art that resided in the United States were largely concentrated in New York and Washington, DC. The Kress Foundation began its Regional Galleries program in order to distribute great works of Italian art to cities that otherwise would not have had access to such important artifacts. It was through this program that the High received, in 1958, twenty-seven Italian paintings and three sculptures, many of which are on view on the second floor of the Stent Family Wing. The donation included several personal favorites of mine: The Thanksgiving of Noah and Abraham’s Sacrifice of Isaac by Il Baciccio and Prudence and Temperance by Vittore Carpaccio.
“We can be sure that these altar-pieces from Italian churches, these allegorical panels from French chateaux…will one day work their way…into the very fabric of American life.”
Kress made the gift on the condition that the paintings be housed in a climate-controlled, fireproof building. As a result, the High moved out of its original home in Hattie High’s Peachtree Street mansion and into a purpose-built museum building on the same block.
With a tone of incredulity, the editor of distinguished British art journal The Burlington Magazine wrote of the Kress gift: “We can be sure that these altar-pieces from Italian churches, these allegorical panels from French chateaux, which now stray across the American continent like bewildered refugees, will one day work their way, like every other foreign body in this astonishing country, into the very fabric of American life.”
His prediction was spot on: the Kress Collection today remains a valuable and educational asset for Atlanta that is always accessible to visitors here at the High.