• Peacocks :: 1683
  • Artist: Melchior d'Hondecoeter, Dutch
  • Repository: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
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The Kress Legacy

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  • Samuel H. Kress

    The life of Samuel Henry Kress (1863-1955) falls naturally into three stages: the hard-won struggles of his youth in rural Pennsylvania, the brilliance of his mercantile success with the S.H. Kress & Co. variety stores, and the extraordinary philanthropy associated with both the distribution of his incomparable collection of Italian art to scores of art museums across the land and with the Kress Foundation’s philanthropic programs. The Kress story, once familiar to most Americans, has been said to epitomize American opportunity and the virtues of stern discipline, vigorous hard work, and populist generosity.

    Samuel Kress had already passed his 65th birthday when, in 1929, he established the Foundation that bears his name. With the same dedication that marked the creation of his commercial empire, he had recently inaugurated what would eventually become a major collection of Italian Renaissance art that the Foundation was to continue. Between 1929 and 1961, Samuel Kress and the Kress Foundation (with the participation of his brothers Claude and Rush) assembled and distributed across the United States the 20th century’s foremost collection of Old Master paintings and other European works of art.

  • S.H. Kress & Co. Stores

    Before the establishment of the Kress Foundation in 1929, Samuel H. Kress was already a recognized benefactor to as many as 200 communities in more than half of the states of the Union. On Main Streets all across the nation, the vast retail empire of S. H. Kress & Co. 5-10-25 Cent stores, established in 1896, operated a chain of stores purveying affordable, durable and cheerful domestic merchandise. Designed to exacting company standards, the handsome Kress stores were cherished not only for their quality merchandize but also as prominent local landmarks. The downtown 'Kress's' were celebrated beacons of prosperity and progress, exemplars of urban art, and sources of municipal pride.

    The most distinctive and best remembered Kress stores are a group of more than fifty Art Deco buildings dating from 1929–1944 and designed by Edward F. Sibbert (1899-1982), the company's longtime chief architect. Sibbert's buildings streamlined the Kress image with a sleek buff modernity, the lavish use of terracotta ornament, and strong verticals supporting the golden letters “Kress”. Curved glass display windows led the shopper through heavy bronze doors into an interior of rich marbles, fine woods, and large customized counters set crosswise down a long sales floor. Well-positioned hanging lamps created a bright atmosphere for an endless array of inexpensive items (there were 4,275 different articles on sale in 1934). Everything – from the constantly restocked merchandise to the gracious retiring rooms and popular soda fountain in the basement – encouraged customers to linger. Like the great movie houses of the day, the dime store – and ‘Kress’s’ in particular – was a popular destination during hard economic times.

    Each Kress store was a gift of civic art to its community. Grandest of all was Edward Sibbert's masterpiece, the Kress flagship store at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 39th Street in New York City, opened in 1935. A seven-story marble structure designed for every shopping comfort, its Art Deco elegance was graced by airborne Mayan gods on the sales floor and Mayan-style hieroglyphs of the gloves and padlocks and yard goods for sale. Awarded a gold medal for architectural quality, the store represented the zenith of the Kress empire in luxury, modernity, and retailing capacity. In December 1938, it was also the locale of the most astonishing Christmas display in the history of Fifth Avenue – Samuel Kress's recent acquisition of Giorgione's Allendale Nativity, placed on view for holiday shoppers. Like most of the Kress stores across the nation, the Fifth Avenue emporium was supremely successful, and its demolition in 1980 marked the end of an American era.

    Once neglected by architectural historians, the study of 20th-century commercial architecture is now receiving the attention it deserves. The National Building Museum in Washington DC stewards the archives that document the building history of 221 Kress stores in 28 states and has also published A Guide to the Building Records of S. H. Kress & Co. 5-10-25 Cent Stores at the National Building Museum (1993).

  • The Kress Collection

    Guided by a dual purpose – a sense of the public responsibility imposed upon great wealth, and a belief in the moral force of great art – Samuel H. Kress and the Kress Foundation created between 1929 and 1961 a series of unprecedented programs to share the artistic legacy of Europe with the American people.

    In the depths of the Great Depression, a touring exhibition of 50 pictures from Samuel Kress’s private collection introduced Italian art to an eager public in 24 American cities, and throughout the 1930s his gifts of art placed the first Old Master paintings on the walls of local museums in many parts of the country. By 1941, his role as a Founding Benefactor of the National Gallery of Art reaffirmed both the value of his collection and his constancy of purpose.

    A more expansive vision evolved as a staggering number of incomparable European masterpieces entered the Kress Collection during and after World War II. Rearrangement of the 34 Kress galleries at the National Gallery made a large quantity of museum-quality paintings available for viewing elsewhere. This opportunity gave rise to a novel, generous, and logistically complex program that offered representative surveys of Italian art to selected museums across the country. Through this national program in art philanthropy, the Kress Foundation ultimately donated more than 700 Old Masters to regional museums in eighteen American cities during the 1950s. Another 200 paintings were divided into study collections for twenty-three colleges and universities. Major gifts of special collections were also bestowed on the Metropolitan Museum of Art (French porcelains and furniture, and a complete Robert Adam room with Gobelins tapestries), the Pierpont Morgan Library (drawings and illuminated manuscripts), and the Philadelphia Museum of Art (thirteen tapestries based on designs by Rubens and Pietro da Cortona).

    The Kress Collection encompasses European art of the principal continental schools from the 13th to the early 19th centuries. The collection’s greatest distinction lies in the extraordinary abundance of its Italian pieces – more than 1,000 Italian paintings, 500 period frames, 1,300 small bronzes, medals, and plaquettes, and representative sculpture, drawings, and furniture. Many of the greatest Italian artists – Cimabue, Duccio, Giotto, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Verrocchio, Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, Pontormo, Correggio, Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Titian, Lotto, Tintoretto, Veronese, Carracci, Bernini, Strozzi, Tiepolo, Guardi, Canaletto, and Bellotto – appear in the Kress Collection, as do numerous fine works by less familiar masters. The French schools are also well-represented, from the early Renaissance to Poussin, Claude, Watteau, Chardin, Boucher, Fragonard, Houdon, David, and Ingres. The art of German-speaking lands includes Dürer, Grunewald, Altdorfer, Holbein, and Cranach. Flemish and Spanish tastes intermingle through Petrus Christus, Bosch, Memling, El Greco, Rubens, Van Dyck, Zurbaran, and Goya. All of these, and hundreds more, constitute the Kress gift to the nation, shared with the public in more than 90 institutions in 33 states, as listed in The Kress Collection area of this site.

  • History of the Foundation

    Since its establishment in 1929, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation has devoted its resources almost exclusively to programs related to the appreciation, interpretation, preservation, study and teaching of European art. The Foundation’s activities have been of fundamental importance – and have established a record of philanthropy without equal – in two related areas: the collection and dissemination of great works of European art to American art museums and the nurturing of professional expertise in art history and art conservation.

    The Kress Foundation was endowed through the generosity of Samuel H. Kress (1863-1955) and his brothers Claude W. Kress (1876-1940) and Rush H. Kress (1877-1963).

© 2012 Samuel H. Kress Foundation
174 East 80th Street, New York, NY 10075
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