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American Stories

Lyman Allyn Art Museum recently announced a new exhibition, American Stories, now open to the public and on view through 2004 as a permanent exhibition.

Drawn from the Museum's permanent collection, American Stories is an evolving exhibition dedicated to presenting a broad chronological range of American art and to exploring aspects of the stories that are connected to the creation of those artworks. The furniture, decorative arts, paintings, sculpture and works on paper on display span more than 300 years of American creativity and provide the viewer with an opportunity to develop a deeper appreciation of our nation's strength and character as seen through its art and artifacts.

From the earliest days of our nation, Americans have applied the same creative spirit and industrious nature that served so well in commerce and the trades to another kind of production -- that of the fine and decorative arts. Although the early settlers in America were not surrounded by ancient monuments nor steeped in the skills of pictorial representation, it was nonetheless important to render aspects of the young American culture in artistic forms. Little by little, through needlework and metal craft, through cabinetry and portraiture, America's unique artistic language began to emerge. American artisans were originally naive and largely anonymous, but in time, they were joined by others with formal artistic training. The skills of American artists grew rapidly and with equal speed these skills, though partially based on European training, developed distinctly American characteristics. As form so often follows function, America's pictorial language, replete with various dialects, began to describe America's stories.

The objective of American Stories is not only to introduce the viewer to a number of treasures from the Museum's growing collection, but also to deepen their understanding of the personal and cultural contexts from which these great works of art have emerged. It is certainly possible, for example, for a visitor to stand before Daniel Huntington's large canvas, Abigail Hinman, and enthuse about his palette and the deftness of his line. With this exhibit, the visual experience will take on a whole new dimension when the viewer learns that the dramatic Abigail, as depicted in her satin finery, is a genuine local heroine shown ready to defend her beloved home and the values of her country, as she aims her musket at Benedict Arnold. Daniel Huntington's painting, aesthetically, obviously stands on its own merit. But knowledge of the story behind the painting increases its meaning and enriches the experience. Similarly, a suite of drawings by John Singleton Copley, Studies for the Siege of Gibraltar, in pencil and chalk on blue paper, circa the late 1700's, does not reveal the sad backstory about how he was raised in a rough neighborhood on the wharves in Boston and retreated into himself and his drawing as a way of dealing with the harshness of his young life. (left: Daniel Huntington, Abigail Hinman, c. 1854, 58 x 46 inches, oil on canvas, Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 1987.42)

A gallery devoted to early portraiture includes fine paintings of the Lyman Allyn family. Nahum Ball Outhank's oil on canvas of Captain Lyman Allyn from 1846 allows the viewer to see what the namesake of the museum actually looks like. An uncredited small portrait of Harriet Upson Allyn, oil on panel c. 1850, shows the sweet countenance of the museum's most famous benefactor. It was the bequest of Harriet Allyn that enabled museum to be built for the citizens of New London and to be named after her whaling captain father, Lyman Allyn.

An extraordinary early American needlework piece, The Hanging of Absalom, c. 1770, of silk and metal thread on black satin, was stitched by Faith Robinson Trumbull, the wife of Jonathan Trumbull, Colonial Governor of Connecticut and mother of the painter John Trumbull. In Colonial America, it was common for current political events to be interpreted through biblical stories. The Hanging of Absalom is an example of that practice, using the biblical story of Absalom to depict the events of the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770.

American Stories features more than 65 stirring works of art and reveals intriguing aspects of their creation or the life of their creator. In selecting the art and artifacts for this exhibit, the intent was not to offer examples of every medium nor to address every artistic style or movement that may have been active during these years. Rather, American Stories presents truly engaging art and artifacts whose features or histories are genuinely compelling and which enhance the viewing experience.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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