January 21, 2014

Helen Achbar Cooper to Retire in June 2014 as the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture

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Cooper has built one of the preeminent museum collections of American art over 39 years

Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, announced that Dr. Helen Achbar Cooper, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, will retire in June 2014. “Helen Cooper has served the field of American Art as one of its finest curators for almost 40 years, leading the Yale University Art Gallery’s Department of American Paintings and Sculpture for 34 years with great distinction,” Reynolds says. “She also steadied the Gallery as its acting director during the year before I came to Yale, and has consistently been a fount of knowledge and sage advice to me and all of us who love working at this venerable teaching museum.”

During her 39-year tenure at the Gallery, 34 of which she served as senior curator of the department, Helen Cooper has demonstrated an impressive range and depth of knowledge of American art history. The remarkable scope of Cooper’s expertise, from colonial portraiture to modern American painting, has helped form what is now considered one of the preeminent museum collections of American art in the country.

During her term as curator, Cooper has enriched many areas of the collection and has also moved it in new directions. She has added selectively to the 19th-century holdings, among them landscapes by Thomas Cole, Jasper F. Cropsey, Sanford Gifford, George Inness, John Frederick Kensett, and Fitz Henry Lane, and still lifes by Joseph Decker and John F. Francis. In an underrepresented area of the collection—folk art—undisputed masterpieces have been acquired including John Brewster’s portrait of Comfort Starr Mygatt and his daughter, and Ammi Phillips’s portraits of the Wilbur Sherman family. The area of greatest growth has been in modernist paintings and sculpture of the first half of the 20th century, with acquisitions of exceptional works by Thomas Hart Benton, Oscar Bluemner, Alexander Calder, Ralston Crawford, Stuart Davis, Henry Koerner, Walt Kuhn, Gerald Murphy, George L. K. Morris, and Charles Sheeler, among others.

In addition to growing the American art collection in significant ways, Cooper organized several important exhibitions that reveal an equally impressive scope and command of the field, including: John Trumbull: The Hand and Spirit of a Painter (1982), Winslow Homer: Watercolors (1986), Childe Hassam: An Island Garden Revisited (1990), Eva Hesse: A Retrospective (1992), and Thomas Eakins: The Rowing Pictures (1996), all of which were accompanied by important scholarly publications.

Cooper received her B.A. from Syracuse University, and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Yale University. She is the recipient of several outstanding honors, including an appointment in 2002 as Member of the Committee for the Preservation of the White House. In this and all other professional endeavors, Cooper has contributed her time and expertise to the larger and growing field of American art history.

Upon hearing of her retirement, the renowned historian David McCullough, b.a. 1955, declared, “Helen Cooper is a treasure of the Yale University Art Gallery—as a scholar, a curator, and an inspiration to people of all ages.”

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