In the great Central Valley, a little more than an hour from San Francisco by car, there is a regional museum that houses a national treasure yet is virtually unknown. The Haggin Museum, in Stockton, contains one of the premier collections of 19th-century French and American paintings to be found anywhere.
During the first two-thirds of the previous century, impressionism and modernism completely displaced other schools of 19th-century art. But one collector, New York–based Louis T. Haggin, ignored this change in taste and, starting around 1900, filled his Manhattan homes with so-called academic and Hudson River School paintings.
Haggin was the son of James Ben Ali Haggin, who made a fortune in mining, banking, and real estate in San Francisco. The younger Haggin, after spending most of his childhood and early adulthood in that city, moved to New York with nostalgic memories of California. He was particularly attracted to works by the hopelessly obsolete Albert Bierstadt, an artist whose renderings of the American West came over time to be ridiculed as meretricious mountain landscapes of no aesthetic merit.
Louis Haggin did not care; he bought 17 Bierstadt landscapes, including several major Yosemite vistas that were reminders of his good times out West. Looking up the Yosemite Valley is a spectacular representation that ranks with the very best of the park’s majestic views ever painted. He also bought large depictions of California scenery by other artists, including William Keith’s Mount Tamalpais and Julian Rix’s Redwoods. Both are riveting examples of these painters’ work. Haggin certainly had what is known as a good eye.
His other passion was once-famous French paintings, like William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s The Nymphaeum and Rosa Bonheur’s Gathering for the Hunt, that had been considered masterpieces of world art a generation earlier. Because they were out of fashion, he was able to obtain these rare works in their original, elaborate gold frames—frames that were as reviled by cutting-edge connoisseurs as the art they enclosed.
How, then, did this spectacular collection end up in Stockton, California, sometimes referred to as a mere “cow town”? When Louis Haggin died, in 1929, his daughter, Eila Haggin McKee, a woman with a fashionable Renoir and a trendy Gauguin in her collection, threw up her hands and wondered, “What are we going to do with Dad’s art?”
No major museum would be interested in acquiring such a quantity of discredited works from the past. But the solution turned out to be simple. Eila’s husband, Robert McKee, had grown up in Stockton and knew that the city was raising funds for a museum but had no art to put inside it. And so a freight train was hired to transport the whole collection, to be enjoyed by the locals in the so-called cow town. The McKees also contributed funds for construction of the building to accommodate the paintings.
To their great credit, the leaders of the museum kept the collection intact, aside from selling off a few Bierstadts, perhaps feeling that they did not need all 17. And slowly, as the “dark ages” of aesthetic appreciation in the 20th century started to recede, the artists so beloved of Louis Haggin had their reputations rehabilitated.
I remember attending a 1969 Alfred Frankenstein lecture in Berkeley during which the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle rolled his eyes and declared, “Believe it or not, people are starting to take Bierstadt seriously again.” French academic painters like Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose works, including The Artist and His Model, are among the stars of the Haggin Collection, have received a similar reevaluation, to the point that their paintings sell for well over a million dollars in today’s art market.
One of the greatest pleasures of visiting the Haggin Museum derives from the collector’s eye mentioned above. Haggin acquired charming examples by lesser-known artists like Jean Béraud, a painter of street scenes like On the Boulevard, Paris, that are as delightful in their own way as the more “important” works by artists like Bouguereau. I’ll never forget the day I escorted Stuart Feld, the New York connoisseur and gallery owner, to the Haggin so he could evaluate Childe Hassam’s Carriage Parade for the Hassam catalogue raisonné he was assembling. Less than thrilled with the idea of going to the hinterland, Feld yawned and complained on the drive to Stockton. But as he passed through the museum entrance and saw the array of masterpieces in the front gallery, he shouted, “What is this?” He couldn’t believe he was seeing rare, large landscapes by George Inness and Thomas Moran from their good periods. The Hassam easily passed his test, but he zeroed in on an artist he had never heard of, the late-19th-century French landscape painter Jan Monchablon, whose works, like The Far Hill, are magnets to the eye. Later that year, he purchased several Monchablons at auction for the gallery. Other sophisticated art lovers I have taken to the Haggin act just as Feld did, responding to the experience with the same combination of incredulity and joy.
When I first went to the Haggin back in the 1970s, I was an orthodox believer in the mainstream evaluations of 20th-century taste, especially that French Impressionists belonged in the pantheon of art history and that academic artists were far inferior. But on subsequent visits to the collection, I started to have doubts. I began to see how much exceptional art of all kinds was produced in the 19th century. Great collectors like Louis Haggin follow their instincts and disregard fashionable trends. The great museum in Stockton is a testament to his genius.
The author of many articles and exhibition catalogs devoted to early California paintings, Alfred C. Harrison Jr. is the owner and president of the North Point Gallery in Berkeley.