A MUSEUM THAT'S ON THE WILD SIDE

May 01, 1988

The woods, streams and rolling farmland around Mumford, N.Y., make the area a more likely spot for hunting, fishing or riding than for museum browsing. Which is fine with John L. (Jack) Wehle. An avid sportsman with an abiding interest in art, Wehle merged his enthusiasms in 1976 when he opened the Gallery of Sporting Art in Mumford. Twelve years later, the gallery holds the largest collection of sporting art in North America. Wehle's gallery, located at the edge of the grounds of the Genesee Country Museum, also founded by Wehle, contains works by the likes of John James Audubon, Thomas Hart Benton and Frederic Remington, and confers on Mumford, a village of 250, 20 miles southwest of Rochester, the distinction of being one of America's smallest cultural meccas.

Wehle developed his affection for the outdoors during hunting and fishing expeditions with his father, Louis, who was the head of the Genesee Brewing Co., and in 1955 and 1956 the New York State Conservation Commissioner. Since those youthful trips, Jack has hunted from the Yukon to Africa and fished from Mexico to Ireland. His artistic horizons have been similarly broadened. He has a passion, he says, "for getting to places where few have ever been and seeing what few have ever seen."

Most sporting art has been regarded lightly in artistic circles. Wehle hoped that his museum would alert people to its worth. He also wanted to make sure endangered wildlife species were carefully documented before they became extinct. Further, he sought to increase his activities as a patron of promising young artists.

In all respects he has succeeded. The European collection contains Wehle's oldest painting, Stag Hunting in an Extensive Landscape, a spirited canvas by the 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Maas the Younger. In another room, devoted exclusively to British paintings and teeming with foxes, hunters, jumpers and landscapes, hangs John Wootton's portrait of the racehorse Brisk, a delightful rural study painted around 1740. Wootton depicts a stable-boy pumping water for the champion trotter while an enterprising dog helps himself to a drink from the same trough.

Wehle prides himself on being the rare foreigner to own a work by Swedish artist Bruno Liljefors, who died in 1939. It took years of delicate negotiating to acquire a painting, but Liljefors' Sum-mar Landskap, a soft-hued oil of foxes eating a bird, makes you understand why Wehle thinks it was worth the wait.

Wehle's extensive American collection takes the viewer on a sporting journey around this country. George Lafayette Clough's Hunter with Dog in the Adirondacks (circa 1850) is a sun-filled scene expressing the solitary nature of hunting in New York's great forests. Thomas Hart Benton's Menemsha Pond (1950) tells, with deceptive simplicity, of the joys of fishing near the artist's Martha's Vineyard summer home. Aiden Lassell Ripley's Pheasants in the Cornfield takes the viewer on a colorful autumn shoot in Massachusetts. If you prefer the hot, dry vistas of the Southwest, a number of the famous Taos, N.Mex., school of painters are represented, featuring Indians, adobe buildings and desert landscapes. Or you can visit the Great Plains via William Leigh's Roping Wild Horses (1941). Yet nothing on canvas quite expresses the tension found in Remington's 24-inch-high bronze The Rattlesnake (1905), in which a tiny snake humbles a horse and rider.

After such a harrowing frontier scene, a bucolic respite is in order. You will find exactly that in Wehle's collection of wildlife paintings, such as David Shepherd's ultrarealistic Lazy Lions (1965), or Wilhelm Kuhnert's Grant's Gazelle Looking This Way (1915), a soothing wash of greens and violets. In 1891 Kuhnert became one of the first to travel to East Africa to paint, and The First Ray of Sun—Kilimanjaro attests to the feeling he developed for the mountain. Less peaceable are scenes bursting with grizzlies, jaguars, lions and cougars by Bob Kuhn, a contemporary painter from Buffalo.

The Gallery of Sporting Art is open from May 7 to Oct. 16 seven days a week, weekends and holidays from 10 to 5, weekdays from 10 to 4. Adults pay $8 admission; senior citizens $7 on weekdays; children ages 6 to 14, $3.50; children under six are admitted free.

PHOTOJOHN D. HANLONRemington's bronze of a horse spooked by a rattler is one of Wehle's favorite pieces.

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