Omaha’s Shocking Nineteenth-Century Art

In 1890 a young man named Carey Judson Warbington picked up a chair and began smashing a painting that hung in an Omaha gallery. The painting was Return of Spring by William Adolphe Bouguereau, in which Spring is personified by a nude woman surrounded by cherubs.

Return of Spring on exhibit at the Lininger Gallery in Omaha (Left). NSHS RG2163-03

Warbington was offended by the nudity and said that, although he might go to prison, it “was worth while to sacrifice one man’s life to rid the world of so corrupting a sight as that picture!”

This is one of the more colorful incidents in Omaha art history told in “Painting the Town: How Merchants Marketed the Visual Arts to Nineteenth-Century Omahans,” by Jo L. Wetherilt Behrens. It appears in the Spring 2011 issue of Nebraska History.

In her article, Behrens explains how Omaha, even when it was still barely more than a frontier town, began trying to establish art appreciation, art galleries, and art patronage. This was seen as an important part of the city’s maturation process. It wasn’t enough to have economic growth; community leaders wanted the city to develop a love of beauty and culture.

A postcard of a hand-tinted photograph of the Lininger Gallery in Omaha. NSHS RG2341-1221 (Right)

Behrens shows how the impetus for art came mostly from the city’s merchants, especially a farm implement dealer named George Lininger, who collected art, opened a gallery in his home, and served as a leader in many local projects during the late nineteenth century.

Return of Spring was repaired by the artist and eventually became part of the Joslyn Art Museum collection. In 1976 it was attacked and damaged by another offended visitor, and was repaired a second time.

—David Bristow, Associate Director for Research & Publications

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