The historic American art collection was the founding collection at the ASU Art Museum. Although one of the museum's smallest collections today, it is surprisingly strong in terms of the artists represented and the individual works.
It charts the major movements in American art, from the early limner painters – itinerant and largely untrained artists who painted the early European settlers – to 20th century modernists such as Charles Demuth, Yasuo Kuniyoshi and Stuart Davis.
The collection boasts several Romantic landscape paintings from the 19th century, Ash Can School paintings of the people and street life of New York City in the early 20th century, and portraits throughout the centuries including Gilbert Stuart's painting, Mrs Stephen Peabody (1809).
A particular highlight for visitors is the first skull painting by Georgia O'Keeffe, Horse's Skull on Blue (1930). Several works, including the O'Keeffe, have traveled internationally to retrospective exhibitions that redefine our knowledge and understanding of the artists and their work.
The Edward Hopper painting, House by a Road (1942), traveled to the Tate Modern Museum in London, England, and Albert Pinkham Ryder's painting, The Canal (1915), traveled to the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Oliver B. James, a prominent Phoenix attorney, assembled the collection in the 1950s at a time when American art was still undervalued by scholars and collectors. Beginning with an initial gift of 16 oil paintings by well-known American artists, James systematically collected American and some Mexican and European paintings, sculpture and prints for the university. Eventually he gave more than 100 pieces. The works were originally installed in the library and became the basis for the first university art museum.
Today the collection is installed in part in the Americas Gallery