Scenes of American Life: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
April 1, 2000 - May 28, 2000
The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science presents "Scenes of American Life: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" from April 1, 2000, through May 28, 2000. The exhibition consists of 62 paintings and sculptures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum that celebrate American life in the first half of the 20th century and are rarely lent to other institutions.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the home of the largest collection of American art in the world. Its holdings of over 37,500 works represent the most inclusive collection of American art of any general museum today, reflecting the nation's ethnic, geographic, cultural, and religious diversity. The nation's first federal art collection, it predates the 1846 founding of the Smithsonian Institution and represents three hundred years of American artistic achievement, paralleling the nation's own cultural development.
"Scenes of American Life" is one of eight exhibitions in "Treasures to Go," from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, touring the nation through 2002. "Treasures to Go" consists of a group of eight thematic exhibitions that will visit 70 museums over the next three years during renovation of the Old Patent Office Building in Washington, D.C., historic home of the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum.
"The idea of painting the common man and daily life was new at the turn of the 20th century," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "Artists moved away from the elegance and formality of the Gilded Age and began presenting everyday people at work and at play. These energetic and often witty artworks seemed to symbolize the true strength of the nation.
"Scenes of American Life" includes paintings which address the concept of play and recreation in 20th century American life. Rockwell Kent's Snow Fields, 1909, the earliest work in the exhibition, shows women, children, and dogs frolicking on a sunny winter day, capturing the new spirit of the age. The pleasantly chaotic activities at a public beach or park are depicted in both William Glackens' Beach Umbrellas at Blue Point, ca. 1915, and Agnes Tait's Skating in Central Park, executed in 1934. Aspects of Suburban Life, 1963, by Paul Cadmus is a more cynical - but still humorous - three-part picture of recreation American style, in golf, polo and public dock scenes.
Work and industry also inspired American artists who were fascinated with heavy industry, factory production, and vast engineering projects, especially during Depression years of high unemployment. Smoke fills the air in Reginald Marsh's testament to the power of the machine, Locomotives, Jersey City, and a massive structure rises in Ray Strong's Golden Gate Bridge, both dated 1934. In Automotive Industry, 1940, a mural by Marvin Beerbohm, workers labor in a factory dense with machinery. Ralston Crawford's Buffalo Grain Elevators, 1937, speaks of industrial and agricultural might.
The stock-market crash of 1929 and the Depression led to art exploring the economic distress felt by much of the country. O. Louis Guglielmi's Relief Blues, ca. 1938, is a somber domestic scene in a rich palette which shows a welfare worker filling out relief paperwork with a family in their modest living room. New Deal projects helped put many Americans back to work, from construction workers to artists, as seen in William Gropper's Construction of the Dam, ca. 1937, and Artists on WPA, 1935, by Moses Soyer.
During the depression, government-sponsored art was exhibited in post offices, school and libraries. Examples such as Gertrude Goodrich's candy-colored Scenes of American Life (Beach) of 1941-47 and Joseph Rugolo's bright and snappy Mural of Sports, ca. 1935, are included in the exhibition.
"Scenes of American Life" also explores the different concepts of landscape in 20th century American art. Grant Wood's 1930 Landscape seems an almost mythical evocation of America's rural beauty, done just as drought came to the Midwest. Ross Dickinson's painting Valley Farms, ca. 1933-34, portrayed the lush fertility of California's irrigated fields, in sharp contrast to Alexandre Hogue's depiction of parched and abandoned Midwestern farmland in Dust Bowl, 1933.
Both Andrew Wyeth and Thomas Hart Benton conveyed deeper messages through their landscapes. Dodge's Ridge, 1947, by Wyeth shows a wind-swept field with a rough hewn cross marking the place of his father's accidental death. Benton's Wheat, 1967, painted soon after his near-fatal heart attack, offers a more hopeful theme by suggesting eternal cycles of growth and harvest.
Other themes are addressed in Honore Sharrer's Tribute to the American Working People, 1951, which champions laborers and the middle-class lifestyle, while Harvey Dinnerstein's Brownstone, 1958-60, portrays the human drama as seen from a city stoop.
William H. Johnson and Jacob Lawrence examined African-American life within a modernist framework. In Cafe, ca. 1939-40, and Early Morning Work, ca. 1940, Johnson draws on modern primitivism and flattened forms to portray the sophistication of the Harlem Renaissance and the lives of rural Southern black families. Lawrence celebrated African-American culture and history throughout his career, as seen in the cubist-influenced painting The Library, done in 1960.
The Cold War brought with it a sense of anxiety and alienation, qualities found in George Tooker's surreal The Waiting Room, 1959. Two of the three Edward Hopper paintings in the exhibition examine themes of isolation. In Cape Cod Morning, 1950, a woman, seemingly trapped within a bay window, looks yearningly at the light of a new day. The quirky People in the Sun, 1960, depicts formally dressed adults, intently sunning themselves.
After the Bruce Museum showing, "Scenes of American Life" travels to the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville, Tenn. (June 20 - Aug. 20, 2000), the Telfair Museum of Artin Savannah, Georgia (Sept. 12 - Nov. 12, 2000), the Dayton Art Institute in Dayton, Ohio (March 24 - May 20, 2001), the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, Wash. (June 16 - Sept. 9, 2001), and the Albany Institute of History and Art in Albany, NY (Oct. 13 - Dec. 9, 2001).
"Scenes of American Life: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" is one of eight exhibitions in "Treasures to Go" from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Other themes which make up the Treasures to Go series include Young America, Lure of the West, American Impressionism, The Gilded Age, Modernism and Abstraction, Contemporary Folk Art, and Arte Latino.
The exhibition at the Bruce Museum is being generously supported by Mary C. Raymond.
Our readers may also enjoy other resources on this theme on the Web. If you are interested in "American Scene" art of the 1930s and 40s you will enjoy the WPA Period Print Collection Directory from the University of Montana. Artcyclopedia covers American Regionalism, 25 Social Realists of the 1930s
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Read more about the Bruce Museum in Resource Library Magazine.
For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.
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