Marion McNay had a distinctive and intuitive taste when it came to art collecting. Rarely did she collect more than one work of art by the same artist, but when she passed away in 1954 she included three works by Pablo Picasso in her bequest—identifying him early on as a pivotal artist of the 20th century.
The sequence of her Picasso purchases is unknown, but Marion purchased a collage titled Guitar and Wine Glass in 1946 from the Dalzell Hatfield Gallery in Los Angeles. Around that same time, she purchased Woman with a Plumed Hat, an oil painting, also from her friend Dalzell Hatfield. The third Picasso purchase was another of his early works, a watercolor done in 1903, titled Sailors.
These works were considered gems in Marion’s collection and would lay the foundation for the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Paintings and Drawings by Pablo Picasso.
Given the McCarthy era and political climate in 1954, it was a bold choice to organize and dedicate the first exhibition to Pablo Picasso, a self-identified communist, but John Palmer Leeper, the museum’s first director, felt it was only logical that the greatest living modern artist at the time be presented at the opening of the first museum of modern art in Texas.
“That a new museum to be devoted primarily to modern art should have as its inaugural exhibition paintings and drawings by Pablo Picasso is as appropriate as it is, perhaps inevitable,” Leeper wrote in the exhibition guide introduction. “No other artist has so profoundly influenced the course of twentieth century painting … The McNay collection includes three distinguished examples of his work, and around these the exhibition has been planned, that they may be seen in the context of their peers, as links in the logical evolution of the most vital artist of our century.”
Leeper’s decision paid off and the exhibition was welcomed by both the press, members of the San Antonio community, and the art world.
“When John came to San Antonio, acquisition of art was considered suspect, if not downright treasonable. [He] changed all of that when he opened the museum with a Picasso exhibition that would be impossible to duplicate today,” remembered Robert L.B. Tobin, a major supporter of the McNay and friend of Leeper. “Pablo Picasso was not so much an artist as he was a ‘dirty Red.’ And here he was hanging all over the walls of the McNay. Spectacular.”
An article by a staff writer in San Antonio’s local newspaper mirrored Tobin’s enthusiasm.
“[The] opening of the new Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute at Sunset Hills next Thursday will give the public its first glimpse of a wonderland of art which may soon be second only to the storied Alamo as an attraction for tourists and a subject of nationwide publicity,” wrote the reporter.
When opening day did arrive on November 4, 1954, a dazzling black-tie event set the stage for the exhibition. An orchestra provided entertainment, champagne was served, and exotic flower arrangements were on display throughout the museum. The guest list included 1,000 people, many of whom came from all over Texas and as far as New York and San Francisco. Stanley Marcus, founder of Nieman-Marcus; Ralph Anderson, a Houston architect who built the Houston Astrodome; and important figures in the art museum world were in attendance. Daniel Catton Rich, director of the Art Institute of Chicago (Marion’s alma mater) gave the first lecture titled, That Art We Call Modern.
But more impressive than the festivities, was the art. Of the 112 works included in the exhibition, Paintings and Drawings by Pablo Picasso featured works lent by more than 18 different galleries, private collections, and museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard’s Fogg Museum of Art, The Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art. The latter lent an impressive set of studies and drawings that Picasso made in preparation for his controversial oil painting, Guernica. The exhibition was organized chronologically, permitting the gallery-goer to experience Picasso’s career from his late teens into his sixties.
Today, thanks to the generous bequests by other San Antonio collectors, such as the Estate of Tom Slick, Jerry Lawson, Mary and Sylvan Lang, and Jeanne and Irving Mathews, the museum’s collection of Picasso’s work has expanded significantly since Marion’s original three. Some of the most notable acquisitions include Femme Couchée (Reclining Woman), Femme Accroupie (Crouching Woman), Portrait of Sylvette, and various drawings and etchings by the artist.
These acquisitions enjoy as much popularity as the original works in Marion’s collection. Portrait of Sylvette iscurrently on loan in Bremen, Germany for the exhibition Sylvette, Sylvette, Sylvette: Picasso and the Model, andthe McNay’s upcoming summer exhibition, Matisse and Picasso: A Friendly Rivalry, highlights Femme Couchée (Reclining Woman), as well as other worksintegral to the artist’s oeuvre. Opening this fall, museum visitors can experience Picasso’s impact on theatre in Artists Take the Stage: Theatre Design from Picasso to Nevelson. The exhibition showcases how Picasso’s groundbreaking work in cubism and visual art forever redefined the space of the stage and emotional impact of performers in theatre.
As we continue to celebrate our 60th anniversary and Marion’s original collection, we also celebrate Picasso and similar artists that revolutionized the 20th century, as well as people like John Palmer Leeper and Marion McNay, who created a space for artists like Picasso to be appreciated.
Stay tuned for more history and weekly highlights of works in the McNay’s permanent collection in honor of the museum’s 60th anniversary.