Nestled in a tranquil Ozark hollow in the city of Bentonville, Ark. (pop. 36,000), is a new art museum. It’s already one of America’s best and it will only get better. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art sprang from Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton’s desire to bring great art to Arkansas and honor the town where her father, Sam Walton, started his first five and dime store in the years following World War II, soon turning it into one of the world’s great success stories and a business everyone most everywhere has heard about.
The Crystal Bridges Museum isn’t named for a popular country western singer who might have appeared in the clubs and theaters of popular entertainment center Branson, Mo., a two-hour drive north of Bentonville, but wags like to point out the name certainly suggests just such an entertainer. No, the name comes from a nearby natural source of freshwater named Crystal Spring, which provided refreshment for the Osage Indians who hunted the area centuries ago, and then for the white settlers who came later. Today, Crystal Spring helps provide sustenance for the gardens and forests that surround the museum and the bridges cross the steam as it meanders through the hollow.
At Crystal Bridges in Bentonville, there are five centuries of American art from earliest times to the present, with no cut-off date and firm plans to expand the collection. A generous endowment from Alice Walton and others means that purchases will continue, both to bolster art from the past and to buy new art by new artists whose names may be little known at the moment, or not known at all.
Among the museum’s earliest works is James Wooldridge’s “Indians of Virginia,” an oil on linen done about 1675. Wooldridge’s painting is a copy he made of an engraving that appeared even earlier, in the 1590 edition of Theodor de Bry’s “Les Grands Voyages” to create his work. “Grands Voyages” was one of the first books to introduce Europeans to the wonders of the New World which were still very strange and exotic to Europeans of the time.