Delaware Art Museum

(above left: Atrium Gallery; right: exterior, Delaware Art Museum, photo by John Hazeltine © 2000)

Wilmington, DE



Young America: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum

June 23 - August 13, 2000


"Young America: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" will be on view at the Delaware Art Museum through August 13, 2000. The exhibition is comprised of 54 major paintings and sculptures that trace the transformation of the colonies into nationhood. These rare artworks from the 1760s through the 1870s reveal the growing self-awareness and optimism of the new nation and reflect life in New England and the Mid-Atlantic regions.

"These portraits, still lifes, landscapes and scenes of daily life show the artists' ambition to equal the best European art, but they also reveal developments within this country," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. "They help us to understand how a British colony became an independent nation, how wilderness lands were both cherished and developed and how a rural democracy responded to the industrial revolution."

The numerous portraits reflect the importance of portraiture as the surest path to success for these early artists. John Singleton Copley's Mrs. George Watson (1765) shows a merchant's wife in colonial Boston, with a lavish lace-trimmed dress, imported vase and exotic parrot tulip. Copley portrays Mrs. Watson as a fine British gentlewoman living in a colonial outpost. (right: John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), Mrs. George Watson, 1765, oil on canvas, 49 7/8 x 40 inches, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, Partial gift of Henderson Inches, Jr., in honor of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. Inches, and museum purchase made possible in part by Mr. and Mrs. R. Crosby Kemper through the Crosby Kemper Foundation; the American Art Forum; and the Luisita L., and Franz H. Denghausen Endowment)

Charles Willson Peale painted the tender double portrait Mrs. James Smith and Grandson in 1776, soon after the signing the Declaration of Independence. The young boy holds a manual of rhetoric open to Hamlet's soliloquy, his finger resting on the line "To be or not to be," which doubles as an invitation to both personal and national self-definition.

John Trumbull's The Misses Mary and Hannah Murray (1806) shows two sisters with musical score and drawing pencil; Gilbert Charles Stuart's incisive John Adams (1826) depicts the formidable former president shortly before his death. Such pictures go beyond mere likeness to reveal deeper characteristics - eagerness for refinement and culture on the one hand, and no-nonsense directness on the other - that were both considered "distinctly American."

Although mostly self-taught, Lilly Martin Spencer of Cincinnati supported a large family through her painting and was one of the first American women to achieve success in the arts. Her full-length picture of Mrs. Fithian in a brand-new satin dress and holding a drooping rose is called We Both Must Fade (1869), reflecting a Victorian sentiment about the inevitable waning of beauty. (left: Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902), We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian), 1869, oil on canvas, 72 x 53 3/4 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum)

Still-life paintings show a similar variety of means and intentions. Raphaelle Peale's Melons and Morning Glories (1813) - a luscious ripe fruit dripping juices and seeds on a tabletop - has a monumentality and simple directness that was in sympathy with the neoclassic taste of the period. By contrast, the exuberance of Severin Roesen's showy Still Life with Fruit, painted almost 40 years later in 1852, appealed to a rising middle class eager for decorative display. (right: Raphaelle Peale (1774-1825), Melons and Morning Glories, 1813, oil on canvas, 20 3/4 x 25 3/4 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Paul Mellon)

Landscape emerged early in the 19th century as a favorite subject, capable of expressing many meanings, and no fewer than 20 landscapes appear in the exhibition. Two views of Niagara Falls by Alvan Fisher (1820) include tiny figures awed by the spectacle before them and holding their ears against the roar of the water, suggesting the pride Americans felt in the breathtaking natural wonders on this continent. Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, chose the biblical story of the great flood for his canvas, The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge (1829), intended as an allegory for the new nation. Cole depicts a rocky wilderness with the ruins of earlier civilizations destroyed by floodwaters, evoking corrupt old European monarchies. Bathed in light in the distance, the ark rests in serene waters, heralding the birth of America's new democracy.

In 1848 - the year of Cole's death - Asher B. Durand painted Dover Plain, Dutchess County, New York which suggests the nation's promising future with its pastoral landscape, broad horizon and gentle light. Andrew W. Warren's Long Island Homestead (1859), a small canvas encompassing a large view, presents a family home, flower gardens, grazing sheep, cultivated fields and hillside graveyard as a rural paradise, shortly before the Civil War disrupted this ideal world. Robert Scott Duncanson, of African-American and Scottish-American parentage, similarly conveyed the peaceful pre-Civil War period in Landscape with Rainbow (1859). In Samuel Colman's Storm King on the Hudson (1866), large steam-powered barges bear down on small sailboats and fishing craft, as if to portray an industrialized future overtaking the simpler past.

The two Frederic Edwin Church landscapes in the exhibition were painted when Americans were already exploring beyond the boundaries of their own territories. One of these, Aurora Borealis (1865), presents an arctic view of a small ship locked in ice as a metaphor for the country engaged in a catastrophic civil war. The dramatic northern lights illuminating the scene refer to an actual rare display that was visible across the northern United States in 1864, believed by contemporary viewers to be a divine signal that the Union would prevail and the nation would survive its bitter struggle.

The exhibition also includes one bronze and seven marble sculptures, including Hiram Powers' famous Greek Slave (modeled 1841-43, carved about 1873), a work that summarizes the complicated situation of America's aspiring artists. Powers was eager to demonstrate his command of the nude figure, which European academies taught as the highest expression of art, but America's Puritan and Calvinist background made nudity controversial. By showing an idealized figure of a woman enslaved and disrobed by barbarians against her will, Powers avoided any hint of wanton sensuality. His choice of classical style reminded viewers of Greece, with its traditions, antique sculpture and recent struggle for liberation from Turkish rule. And by invoking the subject of slavery, he alluded obliquely to Americans' mounting concerns about an issue that was already threatening the stability of their democratic government. Many artworks in the exhibition are similarly enduring treasures of great artistic accomplishment and complex explorations of the deepest concerns of their age,

"Young America: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum" is one of eight exhibitions in Treasures to Go, touring the nation through 2002, The Principal Financial Group" is a partner in bringing these treasures to the American people. In Delaware, exhibition sponsors are DuPont, the Delaware Division of the Arts, The AIG Companies of Delaware and WILM Newsradio-1450. (left Thomas Chambers, Capture of H.B.M. Frigate Macedonian by U.S. Frigate United States, October 25, 1812, 1852, oil, 34 3/4 x 50 1/4 inches, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Sheldon and Caroline Keck in honor of Elizabeth Broun)

See our earlier article on Young America: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum (1/12/00) at the Greenville County Museum of Art.

rev. 7/24/00

Read more about the Delaware Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

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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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This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/18/11

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