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"The Sycamore Tree" by John Hafen is the first piece of art collected by the BYU Museum of Art.

Before Brigham Young University could live up to its name, the Knight family figured the school needed artwork if it was to become a true guardian of American culture.

The Knights, the Provo family that kept the fledgling school afloat in the late 1800s, bought a landscape by local impressionist painter John Hafen in 1909, thus planting the seed for a collection that has grown to 17,000 pieces.

BYU's Museum of Art is commemorating its collection's centennial this year with "The First 100 Years: Collecting Art at BYU," a major exhibition sampling its finest pieces, which lays out the surprise-filled story, arranged in thematic chapters, of how BYU amassed one of the region's great art collections.

Dawn Pheysey, curator of religious art, with "The Head of Christ" oil on canvas painting attributed to the Circle of Rembrandt, at the museum.
Dawn Pheysey, curator of religious art, with "The Head of Christ" oil on canvas painting attributed to the Circle of Rembrandt, at the museum. The painting is part of an exhibit celebrating the first 100 years of BYU collecting art. (Steve Griffin / The Salt Lake Tribune)

Some of the exhibition's highlights include the inaugural gift, Hafen's "The Sycamore Tree" (1908); a Marilyn Monroe portrait by Andy Warhol; and various works by Maynard Dixon and Mahonri Young.

"We didn't have a direction," BYU curator Paul Anderson said. "Things came in because opportunities arose and people chose to give them to us. Things came in unpredictable ways."

As a case in point, a California lawyer called curators in 2004 asking if BYU wanted a painting of Christ that had been under his elderly friend's bed for the past 30 years. The lawyer drove the painting to Provo and pulled what appeared to be a Rembrandt out of a packing crate. His friend had purchased it at auction but never displayed it.

Scholars concluded the 17th-century painting is by a Rembrandt associate, and it now hangs in the display as part of BYU's growing collection of religious art.

Led by Dawn Pheysey, BYU curators selected 150 works, less than 1 percent of the entire collection, to hang in the exhibit. Many pieces rotate, while just 91 pieces are on display at one time.

The university did not begin collecting in earnest until the 1930s under the leadership of art-department chairman B.F. Larsen. The school targeted paintings by the then-dead Hafen and other Utah artists nearing the ends of their careers.

Maynard Dixon’s "Forgotten Man," 1934, oil on canvas, was donated to the Brigham Young University Museum of Art by Herald R. Clark.
Maynard Dixon's "Forgotten Man," 1934, oil on canvas, was donated to the Brigham Young University Museum of Art by Herald R. Clark.

The biggest acquisition of the period occurred in 1937 when business college dean Herald Clark bought 85 works from famed Western landscape painter Maynard Dixon for $3,700, then donated them to the university.

Mahonri Young, grandson of BYU's namesake and Utah's most famous artist, and his wife, Dorothy Weir, are responsible for the meat of the collection, a trove of 10,000 works collected by Young as well as Weir's father, the renowned New England painter J. Alden Weir. These works, which include paintings and sculptures by Young, came to the university after the artist died in 1957.

bmaffly@sltrib.com

The First 100 Years: Collecting Art at BYU

Museum curators selected 150 pieces including paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures from the university's 17,000-piece collection, covering artists from Rembrandt to Andy Warhol, to commemorate the collection's centennial.

When » Through Sept. 25

Hours » Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursday evening to 9; and Saturday from noon to 5 p.m.

Where » Brigham Young University's Museum of Art, North Campus Drive, Provo

Information » Free; for more information, see moa.byu.edu.