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Lauren Rogers Museum of Art: Celebrating a Century of Exhibits

You don’t have to travel to Italy to view exquisite art collections. You can begin by visiting outstanding art museums within Mississippi, and one of the finest is The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel.

Masterpieces! That is the word that comes to mind when I think about art. I know very little about art, and I can’t describe the differences between the works of Rembrandt and James McNeill Whistler. It is not in my DNA. However, I might recognize the paintings of Norman Rockwell before I noticed his signature on the artwork.

I admire people who can draw, paint, sculpt, and design beautiful pieces from wood, glass, clay, metal, and other mediums. When I visited the Sistine Chapel, the artwork of Michelangelo was more than my mind could comprehend–breathtaking.

But you and I don’t have to travel to Italy to view exquisite art collections. We can begin by visiting outstanding art museums within our state. One of the finest is The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art (LMRA), located at 565 N. Fifth Avenue in Laurel, Mississippi.

Two Foundations Leave a Lasting Legacy

Lauren Eastman Rogers was born in Clinton, Iowa, on August 13, 1898, the only child of Wallace Brown Rogers and Nina Louise Eastman Rogers. He graduated from Princeton University in June 1920 and married Miss Lelia Payne Hodson of East Orange, New Jersey in October of the same year. The newlyweds returned to Mississippi for Lauren to become a part of his grandfather’s business, the Eastman-Gardiner Lumber Company.

Lauren Chase Eastman, his maternal grandfather, along with George and Silas Gardiner, moved to Laurel from Clinton, Iowa, to open the first lumber mill in Laurel in 1893. The business multiplied, adding three more sawmills. When the young Lauren Eastman Rogers joined the company in 1920, Laurel was known as the Yellow Pine Capital of the World. Life was busy and promising.

The foundation for the young couple’s new home was started, and construction was underway. Sadly, on June 30, 1921, Lauren Eastman Rogers had an emergency operation for acute appendicitis. He passed a few days later, after only nine months of marriage.

According to his obituary, he was a young man who “But though life had brought him so many privileges, he had grown but to a broader outlook on life and a strong determination to use these abundant privileges for greater and truer usefulness in the world.” He is also described as being “kind and courteous.”

The following year, on May 26, 1922, the Eastman Memorial Foundation was established by his family in Lauren’s memory. The original purpose statement reads, “to promote the public welfare by founding, endowing, and having maintained a public library, museum, art gallery, and educational institution with the state of Mississippi.”

The foundation site, where Lauren and Lelia were building their new home, was dismantled. The location took on a new purpose—the first art museum in Mississippi built by the Eastman Memorial Foundation. New Orleans architect Rathbone deBuys designed the Georgian Revival structure. It opened to the public on May 1, 1923.

The Beginnings of the Library & Exhibits

Recently, I made the trip to Laurel, taking a leisure drive from Forrest to Raleigh, Bay Springs, and Stringer. The beautiful autumn surroundings were brilliantly on display. Furthermore, I could envision an artist with an easel, canvas, and paints creating a beautiful landscape painting from the country landscape. 

When I arrived at the Museum, I was greeted by a volunteer who handed me a brochure and suggested I begin in the Reading Room to watch the two informative videos about the family, the Museum, and the beginnings of Laurel, which I did.

Lelia Hodson Rogers created the Browsing Room (now the Reading Room), and the portraits of Lauren Rogers and his father, Wallace B. Rogers, are prominently placed, along with other memorabilia. As I watched the video, I was impressed by what the family did to invest and help build the town of Laurel.

The LRMA brochure states, “The Museum features seven galleries for its permanent collections, three galleries for temporary exhibitions, an art studio, and an art reference library containing more than 10,000 volumes.”

The founding families gifted and formed the initial collection for the Museum. Then other family members, like Catherine Marshall Gardiner, great aunt to Lauren, donated over 500 North American Indian baskets and artifacts in 1923. Today, the number of objects has grown to almost 800. It was fascinating to look at the tiniest basket. It must be viewed through a magnifying glass, smaller than the size of my pinky finger.  

Lauren Chase Eastman donated a painting of the American West by H. W. Hansen (1854-1924). Another aspect of the family gifts includes a collection of medals that belonged to the Rogers and Eastman families.

I enjoyed the Georgian Silver Gallery, donated by Harriet and Thomas Gibbons, because of the exquisite objects used for high tea; some items in the collection date back to 1773. There are over 86 items in the collection.

Don’t skip the back gallery, number five, when you visit the museum. I hesitated because the overhead lights were not on. When I entered the room, floodlights illuminated the Japanese Print Gallery donated by Wallace B. Rogers. The gallery features  Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints dating back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Modern Exhibit Additions

Making my way through the Museum, I viewed and studied the paintings. One of my favorites was by William Owens (English, 1769-1825), Family Group, c.1810. I was spellbound when I got to the etching by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (Dutch, 1606-1669), Virgin and Child with Cat and St. Joseph at the Window, dated 1654, also a part of the Van Gogh exhibit.

Glass Artists

Before I visited the museum, I was encouraged to view Washington State’s glass blower, Dale Chihuly’s Aventurine Green Chandelier with Copper Leaf. It is “the stunning centerpiece of the gallery.” Don’t forget to look up as you descend the marble steps to the lower level.

The latest edition of the LRMA News (Fall 2023) has an article mentioning the acquisition of another Dale Chihuly (1941) glass piece named White Venetian.

The Museum also acquired a glass sculpture by Richard Jolley (1952) called Suspended in Dreams #14.

Celebrating A Century with Vincent Van Gogh 

“Van Gogh for All” is the featured exhibit through November 5. Throughout the Museum, starting on the main floor (Stairwell, European, and Japanese Print Galleries), there are unique plaques next to the exhibit explaining why and how there is a connection to Van Gogh.

The pastel of Jean-Francois Millet’s pastel First Steps is in the lower level. You will enjoy the Van Gogh exhibition whether you are an adult or a child. It “is an interactive, hands-on exhibition.” Children will love the opportunity to create a self-portrait, observe the hat Van Gogh made because he needed more light, plus take a picture in front of the Café Terrace, and there is more. The paintings featured are reproductions. My favorite was the Sunflowers.

You might be interested in the screening of the 2017 feature film Loving Vincent (rated PG-13), which will be shown at the Museum on Sunday, October 15 at 2 p.m., with no admission fee.   

Information and Upcoming Events

The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art (Phone: 601-649-6374) is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Sunday, and the hours are 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. While admission is free, a donation is suggested.

On October 19, at 5:30 p.m., there will be a Special Centennial Lecture, “Woven Allegory,” by Nancy Strickland Fields, director and curator of the Museum of the Southeast American Indian at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. A reception will follow.

Symphony of Light will be held October 21 on the Museum’s front lawn. Richard Green will conduct a 36-piece professional orchestra, and Dr. Theresa Sanchez will be the featured piano soloist. The light projection show will start at 7:00 p.m. The event is free to the public.

A significant fundraiser event, The Platinum Ball: LRMA Gala MMXXIII, will be held on Saturday evening, December 2. For more information, contact Holly Green, development director, at 601.649.6374 or [email protected].   

Before my purchases were put in a bag, I picked up additional brochures regarding the Walking Tour of Historical Laurel Homes, including the Rogers-Green House across the street from the Museum. On my next visit, I will also visit the Veterans Memorial Museum and Laurel’s Historic District, which gives an excellent example of the City Beautiful movement within our state.

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