Joslyn Art Museum
An American Anthem: 300 Years of Painting from The Butler Institute of American Art
"An American Anthem: 300 Years of Painting from The Butler Institute of American Art" presents 55 premier paintings selected from the very first museum in the country dedicated solely to the collection of American art. The exhibition opens April 14, 2001 at Joslyn Art Museum and continues through June 17. An American Anthem features superb examples of painting from colonial portraiture to 20th-century modernism and abstraction and is the first time such stellar examples from the Institute's renowned collection have toured nationally as a group to other institutions with a shared interest in American art.
Steel industrialist Joseph G. Butler, Jr. founded The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio in 1919. Butler was a passionate patron of American art and a number of the works in this exhibition were included in the Institute's inaugural installation. Throughout the 20th century, the museum continuously added to its holdings, creating a collection nationally noted for its comprehensiveness. An American Anthem showcases the breadth and depth of American art from Nehemiah Partridge's Portrait of Catherine TenBroeck (1719) to Feeding Caitlin (1988) by contemporary artist Janet Fish. The paintings included exemplify the major cultural and artistic concerns faced by American artists, from the influence of British art on the colonial artist to American art's leadership in the international aesthetic of the late 20th century. An American Anthem is divided into several groupings: Colonial Portraiture; The American Wilderness; 19th-Century Genre and Still Life; The Gilded Age; The American West; Scene Painting in the Early 20th Century; Early American Modernism; and Post-War Painting.
The early works in the exhibition exemplify painting's participation in the creation of a national identity. Works like Charles Willson Peale's pendant portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Russell reflect the dependence on British styles and ideas during the colonial era. However, early on, painting and other arts were employed to assert the nation's independence and growing sense of self-identity. The country was eager to record for posterity its new war heroes and founding statesmen in paintings such as Raphaelle Peale's Porthole Portrait of George Washington (c. 1824). Such images of "great men" were meant to inspire and educate the population.
The American Wilderness
American landscape painters drew on the nation's desire to find some element of American culture on par with the long and rich cultural traditions of the European countries. In essence, what the United States had that Europe did not was a wilderness imagined to exist untouched by civilization since its divine creation. Americans saw the land as a mirror of their own nation's auspicious beginnings and promising future. A number of landscape paintings from the Hudson River School, often considered the first true American movement in art, are featured in the exhibition, including excellent examples by Thomas Cole, John Frederick Kensett, and Frederic Edwin Church.
19th-Century Genre and Still Life
Painting also helped to define the "American character." Andrew Jackson became the embodiment of this character - a man of strong will, proven courage in battle, with "self-made" wealth. Americans envisioned themselves accordingly - dynamic, ambitious, independent, confident, and proud of their everyday "commoner" status. Genre painting, which depicts scenes of everyday life, visualized this national identity by using easily identifiable American "types" such as the young city slicker, the yeoman farmer, the woodsman in William Tylee Ranney's On the Wing (c. 1850), or the urban street orphan depicted in David Gilmour Blythe's Street Urchins (c. 1856-58).
The Gilded Age and The American West
The Gilded Age, or the decades at the end of the 19th century, was both a highpoint and lowpoint for the culture of America. Increased industrial wealth poured into the pockets of the country's elite, giving them a buying power and sense of accomplishment new to the nation. Patrons displayed their economic achievement through a show of taste, which at the time was determined by French culture. The rich subject matter, objects, and colors in works such as William Merritt Chase's Did You Speak to Me? (1897) seem to match their patrons' stellar rise to power and wealth. A strength of the Institute's collection is American Impressionism, and canvases by masters such as Frank W. Benson, Gari Melchers, and Edward Henry Potthast are striking examples of the dazzling light and saturated color these artists learned from the French. Images of the West also became wildly popular.
Albert Bierstadt's Oregon Trail (1869) conveys the vastness of America's western country and supported Anglo-American's belief in the country's civilizing process. Western images also offered a mirror of the immense power and vitality that their Gilded Age patrons wanted to see in themselves. However, in great contrast to the energy and consumerism associated with this era, some artists produced works that evoke the loss of spiritual substance and misdirection also felt during the era. Albert Pinkham Ryder's Roadside Meeting (1880s) and Ralph Albert Blakelock's Twilight (c. 1898) suggest mysterious nights and meetings barely readable through the rich, thickly painted colors of their compositions. An insistent sense of quietude pervades works such as Martin Johnson Heade's Salt Marsh Hay (c. 1865). (left: Albert Bierstadt, Oregon Trail, 1869, oil on canvas)
Scene Painting in the Early 20th Century
A bold new vision of America was brought to the Gilded Age when a group of young artists, led by Robert Henri, displayed their work during a group exhibition in 1908 at the Macbeth Gallery in New York City. The exhibition, titled simply The Eight, introduced to American art a realism focused on the streets of the city as a place of great vibrancy and energy. Members of "The Eight" whose works are in this exhibition - Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks - depicted urban citizens and the experiences of their contemporary working-class life. The changes in subject matter and style that "The Eight" brought to American art were deeply influential to later generations of artists. The street in Edward Hopper's Pennsylvania Coal Town (1947) evokes only isolation for the figure who inhabits it. For Social Realists such as Joe Jones, the streets were the location of the social inequalities of American life rather than the location of its vibrancy. Regional painters Grant Wood and Charles Ehpraim Burchfield led in a re-examination of America's local rural scenes as valid artistic inspiration.
Early American Modernism
Another group of artists, centered around the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, looked to modern European art in order to give new expression to their experiences of 20th-century life. Charles Sheeler's Steam Turbine (1939) celebrates the sleek lines and cool power of modern industrial machines. Arthur G. Doves Ice and Clouds (1931) emphasizes the elemental forms of nature and our experience of them rather than the visual appearance of the scene. Some of the modernists, like Stuart Davis, sought the essential forms of the city to suggest their feelings of excitement resulting from the rapid, modern pace of American life.
Following the profound events of World War II, many artists felt that the more traditional modes of painting were unable to express their experience of the world. New York School artist Adolph Gottlieb looked to ancient myths in his pictographic image Seer (1947) to express universal themes at the heart of human existence. Abstract Expressionists such as Joan Mitchell used the canvas to record the spontaneous action of painting in their search to reveal a pureness in visual art. The stained canvas of Helen Frankenthaler's Viewpoint 11 (1979) also emphasizes the essential flatness of painting.
Beginning in the 1960s, artists reacted to this essentialist move in painting and asserted that all elements of our daily lives can participate in painting. Andy Warhol used mass-produced techniques such as silkscreen in Portrait of Paul Jenkins (1979) while Robert Rauschenberg, a fellow Pop artist, used a photo reproduction process and easily recognizable forms from popular culture in his work Ballot (1997). Other artists re-examined the figurative tradition in art. Raphael Ferrer evokes an uneasy emotional response in El Sol Asombra (1989) with its volatile colors and undulating forms. In contrast cool and analytic detachment of Phillip Pearlstein's Two Models Lying on Floor (1964) offers no emotional connection to the age-old tradition of the nude.
Joslyn Art Museum is the first venue on this exhibition's three-museum tour. Other venues include the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art (Cedar Rapids, IA) and the Hunter Museum of American Art (Chattanooga, TN). The full-color, 372-page catalogue of The Butler Institute's collection, entitled Master Paintings from The Butler Institute of American Art, is available in Joslyn's Museum Shop.
Essay from the exhibition brochure by Ms. Melissa Wolfe, Associate Curator at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio:
An American Anthem: 300 Years of Painting from The Butler Institute of American Art
In erecting this building and organizing the Butler Art Institute, I have sought to provide for the people of this city an opportunity to enjoy the best work of American artists, and my hope is that it will tend to create a wider knowledge and love of art in this community where the purely useful has been largely promoted and the artistic and intellectual somewhat neglected....We lead the world in genius for invention, efficiency and ability. There is no reason why we cannot eventually do so in the genius for art and literature.
Joseph Green Butler, Jr., 1925
An American Anthem: 300 Years of Painting from The Butler Institute of American Art presents fifty-five premier paintings selected from the very first museum in the country dedicated solely to the collection of American Art. Youngstown, Ohio, steel industrialist Joseph G. Butler, Jr. founded the Institute in 1919 after his first collection was tragically destroyed in a fire. Within twenty-four hours after the fire, Butler had contacted the renown architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, who designed the classical Beaux Arts structure that continues to house the collection. Butler quickly became a passionate patron of American art. While in many ways he was the epitome of a conservative member of his Gilded Age culture, his interest in art was quite advanced. In 1915 he organized an exhibition in Youngstown that included such artists as Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse, Claude Monet, and Auguste Rodin. Though Butler had no art training, his purchases and letters clearly convey a collector with a confident eye-history has more than once shown his confidence well-founded. In fact, a number of works in An American Anthem were also included in the Institute's 1919 inaugural exhibition.
A Young Nation
Paintings from the colonial era and early decades of nationhood reveal their deep dependence on British tastes. However, with the creation of the United States, Americans employed their art to assert an independent national identity. Portraits of war heroes and founding statesmen, such as Raphaelle Peale's Porthole Portrait of George Washington, were meant to inspire and educate the young nation's population.
The United States also sought an element of national culture equal to, or even better than, anything of its kind in Europe. The American wilderness, imagined to exist untouched by civilization since its divine creation, was just such an element. Americans saw in their land a reflection of the nation's auspicious beginnings and promising future that Europe, with its weight of long-past civilizations, did not have. Thomas Cole's Italian Landscape would have understood in just this way.
In the decades prior to mid-century, still-life paintings like Severin Roesen's Still Life with Strawberries were favored by an emerging middle class eager to show their appreciation of culture and their confidence in the nation's productivity. Americans sought to be distinct from their European counterparts through their identification of an "American character." Americans envisioned themselves as dynamic, ambitious, independent, confident and, most of all, "commoners." This character was visualized through easily identifiable types, such as the self-sufficient woodsman in William Tylee Ranney's On the Wing, or the entrepreneurial street boy in Eastman Johnson's Feather Duster Boy.
The Gilded Age
The Gilded Age, or the decades at the end of the nineteenth century, was in many ways a highpoint and low-point for the United States. Following the crisis of the Civil War, the country experienced one of the most rapid economic booms in its history. Industrial wealth poured into the pockets of the country's elite, giving them a buying power and sense of accomplishment new to the nation. Increased international travel also provided American art patrons with a greater awareness of the range of aesthetics than ever before.
Patrons appreciated the virtuosity of rich subject matter, objects, and colors in works such as William Merritt Chase's Did You Speak to Me?. Frank Benson's Red and Gold and Edward Potthast's Afternoon Fun, are striking examples of the dazzling light and saturated color the American Impressionists learned from their French colleagues. Images that conveyed the vastness of the American West also offered a mirror of the immense power and vitality that Gilded Age patrons saw in themselves.
In contrast to the ambition and materialism associated with the Gilded Age, some artists produced works that evoke the loss of spiritual substance and misdirection felt by many during the era. Quietude and introversion pervades works such as Martin Johnson Heade's Salt Marsh Hay and Fitz Hugh Lane's Ship Starlight, often thought of as visual responses to the tensions of the Civil War. Albert Pinkham Ryder's Roadside Meeting and Ralph Blakelock's Twilight suggest mysterious nights and meetings barely readable through the rich, thickly painted colors of their compositions.
"The Eight" and After
With their sensational 1908 New York exhibition, "The Eight," who were led by Robert Henri and included John Sloan and George Luks, introduced to American art a realism focused on the contemporary lives of working-class urban citizens. "The Eight" saw the streets of the city as a place of great vibrancy and energy. As Henri stated, "the artists who produce the most satisfactory art are those who are absorbed in the civilization in which they are living."
"The Eight" were deeply influential to later generations of American artists experiencing the upheavals of the Great Depression. The urban street in Edward Hopper's Pennsylvania Coal Town evokes only urban isolation. For Social Realists such as Joe Jones, the streets harbored labor gangs and impoverished immigrant masses who embodied America's social injustices. Regionalist painters like Grant Wood and Charles Burchfield explored rural working-class life as valid artistic inspiration.
In 1913, only five years after the introduction of "The Eight," the Armory Show introduced to America European avant-garde painting, such as Post-Impressionism and Cubism. A group of American artists, centered around the photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, took such modern styles to heart. Arthur Dove strove to depict landscapes that conveyed both the elemental forms of nature as well as the artist's elemental response to it. The bright, unmodulated colors used by Stuart Davis suggest his excitement about the rapid pace of modern life.
Aartists fleeing conditions in Europe settled in New York City, soon an international center for post-war developments in the art world. As a result of the shattering events of World War II, many artists felt that the traditional, figurative mode of painting was unable to express the psychological experience of life. Such artists looked to various modes of abstraction to express their concerns. New York School artist Adolph Gottlieb drew on ancient myths and tribal art to create his pictographic image, Seer. Abstract Expressionists such as Joan Mitchell and Robert Motherwell sought a painting style unencumbered by elements not essential to painting, such as narrative or illusionism. They explored painting in spontaneous gestures recorded across the entire surface of the canvas.
Beginning in the 1960s, artists reacted to this essentialist move in painting. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg declared that all elements of daily life could convey meaning in painting. By using commercial printing techniques, such as silkscreen, and recycled images from popular culture, their "fine" art questioned the traditional distinction of "highbrow" and "lowbrow" art.
Other figurative painters continued to explore traditional subjects through styles indebted to abstraction. Romare Bearden's Hometime evokes the summers he spent as a child in the South. However, the abstract elements of collage-sharp edges, spatial tension and disjunction, and occasional surreal form also act as a visual metaphor for the experiences of twentieth-century life.
About the curator:
Ms Melissa Wolfe is Associate Curator at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. She was most recently Curator of Collections at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, where she curated two exhibitions currently traveling: American Indian Portraits: Elbridge Ayer Burbank in the West (1897-1910), and An American Anthem: 300 Years of Painting from The Butler Institute of American Art. Melissa has taught at both Ohio State University and Youngstown State University and is a frequent author for the Ohio Historical Society. She is a Ph.D. candidate in 19th-century American art history at Ohio State University. Her dissertation deals with cultural issues present in late 19th-century painting of the American West.
Further reading on the Internet:
Worcester Art Museum informs readers with its Early American Online Catalog, while the Detroit Institute of Arts features American Colonial portraits and landscape art. Enjoy pictures of Hudson River School paintings via the Desmond-Fish Library.
Articles and essays from this magazine:
American Figurative and Portrait Art
American Genre Art
American Landscape Art
American Representational Art
American Still Life Art
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