The Huntingdon County Stewards of History is using art as a path to the past with an exhibit opening this week.
“Treasures from the Huntingdon County Historical Society Art Collection” opens with a reception from 6-9 p.m. on Friday, November 4. The exhibit is housed at the Society’s Gallery on Fourth Street and will run through Saturday, November 26.
The exhibition is free and open to the public.
The historical society’s executive director, Margaret Skrivseth, said the exhibit is a first for the society since the COVID-19 shutdown in early 2020. The exhibit is also a first experience for Skrivseth who has joined the company in August 2019.
“We’re excited to show just a small sample of what we have in our collection,” Skrivseth said. She said the company also hopes to establish a regular schedule of exhibitions at its Fourth Street gallery, perhaps two to three exhibitions a year.
Skrivseth said “Treasures” is the brainchild of Fred Lang, the company’s former president and current vice president.
According to Lang, the painted works in the company’s collection are too beautiful and rich in history to be hidden away.
“The idea for the exhibit came about because we have a lot of paintings from different eras that have been donated to the society over the years,” Lang said. “During the direction of (late) Nancy Shedd she had a number of paintings restored.”
Lang said that when most of these paintings returned to Huntingdon after restoration, they were put into storage, still wrapped in their packaging.
“I opened a few of these, out of curiosity, and thought, my God, these things are beautiful,” he said.
The exhibition features approximately 20 works, spanning the mid-1800s to the present day. Lang said most of the works are from the 19th century.
The prominent artist in the exhibit, Lang said, is Jeremy Wilson of Alexandria, a portrait painter who worked from around 1840 to the 1880s.
The sample of Wilson’s work included in the “Treasures” exhibit is a restored portrait of Eliza Rothrock Steel and Major James Steel, the head of one of Huntingdon’s most prominent families in the mid-1800s, a Lang said.
The paintings each have a story to tell, and in some cases those stories are intertwined, Lang said.
One of the paintings is a large still life by Severin Roesen, who came to New York from Germany and ended up traveling through Pennsylvania. Huntingdon was one of his regular haunts and here he influenced Jeremy Wilson and Wilson’s sisters, who were also artists.
“Roesen stayed in Huntingdon at the Wilson Hotel and he traded paintings for lodging,” Lang said. “He was quite a character”
Lang said Roesen’s still lifes often include a glass of wine and bunches of grapes. Roesen began placing his signature in the curling stems of the grapes, he said.
Lang said Roesen also left his mark on Henry Miller, a man from Huntingdon who made a living as a dentist but honed his painting skills in his spare time. Miller’s work is also represented in the exhibition.
Lang’s art is part of the selection of current works in the exhibition. His subjects, however, are out of the past.
One of his paintings, taken from a photograph in the society’s collection, depicts Miss Clara McMurtrie and her brother, Stewart, on a tour of Egypt around 1911. The society and nearby Huntingdon County Library occupy the McMurtrie family homes.
One of Lang’s favorites on the show is a portrait of Major General David McMurtrie Gregg. He describes General Gregg as the unsung hero of Huntingdon’s Civil War who was instrumental in the Union victory at Gettysburg.
“There’s so much history that people aren’t aware of,” Lang said.
Gregg’s portrait, Lang said, was donated by the general’s son’s family and depicts the cavalry commander in his later years. The artist is currently unknown.
While most of the works featured in the exhibition are paintings, Lang said there are two photographs for visitors.
One, from around 1891, is the work of William Rau, a Philadelphia commercial photographer. Her photo in the exhibit is a view of the Juniata River below the Fourth Street Bridge with Terrace Mountain rising in the distance. Lang said the photo was taken using a glass plate and a special camera with a wide-angle lens.
During the exhibition, the Huntingdon County Historical Society will sell its 2023 calendar which features some of the works featured in the ‘Treasures’ exhibition.