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American Beauty: Painting and Sculpture from The Detroit Institute of Arts 1770-1920

December 14, 2003 ­ March 14, 2004


In its relatively short history, America has produced a vibrant and diverse visual tradition of its own, with fact, pragmatism, awe and a description of place at the heart of its artistic production. European settlers in this new land sought to reinvent notions of government, religion, society and even art, as they forged a uniquely American style and definition of beauty. Now, visitors to Phoenix Art Museum will have an unprecedented opportunity to celebrate America's best in a visually stunning exhibition of painting and sculpture from the period in which American art was born and came into its own ­ American Beauty: Painting and Sculpture from The Detroit Institute of Arts 1770-1920, on view December 14, 2003 through March 14, 2004 in the South Wing. Beginning with America's earliest homegrown talent, John Singleton Copley, the exhibition includes 91 masterpieces by such American greats as John Singer Sargent, Gilbert Charles Stuart, Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Frederic Edwin Church, William Merritt Chase, Albert Bierstadt the Peale family, Robert Henri, and many more. (right: George Bellows, A Day in June, 1913, oil on canvas, 42 x 48 inches, Detroit Museum of Art purchase, Special Membership and Donations Fund with contributions from Philip, David and Paul R. Gray, and their sisteer Mrs. William R. Kales)

American Beauty, organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts from its collection of American art - one of the finest in the United States - explores the development of our nation's visual history through almost two centuries. Phoenix Art Museum is proud to be the first American venue scheduled to present this exhibition before it goes home to Detroit after a successful European tour to: National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin; Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam; and American Museum at Giverny, France.

"We are delighted to be able to present an exhibition of this breadth that exposes the masterworks of our own nation," said Museum director, Jim Ballinger. "In terms of the exceptional talents included in the exhibition, the timeframe it covers, and its exploration of the development of artistic trends, American Beauty can, quite literally, be considered the American counterpart to the exhibition of European art we presented earlier this year, El Greco to Picasso."


A Closer Look at the Exhibition

One of the strongest of American traits is our urge to define what is American. As American artists sought to create a visual national identity, they looked to both their own dreams and to tutelage from abroad. While American artists alternated between homegrown creativity and international influences, certain characteristics reappear in their art - an adherence to truthful depiction, directness, idealism and a belief in progress.

American Beauty includes some of the best-known works representing the major American art movements and trends of the period, including Hudson River School and American Impressionism. From the faces of a new nation and the Colonial era to American life through the Civil War, global landscapes and the cosmopolitan trends of the later 19th century and early 20th century, the exhibition provides an extraordinary exploration of the exemplary art - and artists - of our own nation. The story of American art unfolds as the exhibition visitor travels through several sections.


Faces of a New Nation

By the late 18th century, portraiture had become the backbone of American art. Americans were interested in creating a national identity through images of themselves and their early heroes. These portraits also provide an insight into the enterprise, industriousness and civic pride of the new nation.


Land of Plenty

The still life became popular in the early 19th century. American still lifes were not as opulent as their European prototypes, nor were they as imbued with religious and moral symbolism. Here, artists practiced still life as a science, with a curiosity for the natural world and a distinctly American desire to capture real appearances.


From Sea to Shining Sea, and Beyond

By the 1830s, landscape painting had become the vehicle for depicting a national identity. Throughout the rest of the century, the depiction of the American land took a variety of forms - as mysterious and sublime wilderness, a new territory requiring scientific documentation, the pioneers' territorial and natural destiny, or as the individual's private retreat.


Telling Stories

Many artists found the lofty subject matter of traditional history painting too removed from the American experience. One connection to the past with which Americans could identify, however, was ancient Greece and Rome. Both civilizations were models for the young nation. They inspired America's political ideals, architecture, clothing and notions of beauty.


Of The People, By The People, For The People

Genre painting, generally defined as a realistic depiction of everyday life, became popular in America by the 1840s. It appealed to a broad audience who viewed the activities of common people as an appropriate subject for artists in a democracy. Narrative rather than philosophical in tone, genre paintings often depicted country scenes with sympathy and humor. Some had deeper political and social meanings; they satirized class, gender, and racial and regional divisions that had solidified in America by the early 19th century.


The Civil War and its Aftermath

The Civil War (1861-1865) brought about a radical change in the social, political and cultural life in America. While photography, for the first time, exposed the brutality of war, painters, by contrast, showed the quieter, more noble side of soldiers' lives. After the war, artistic explorations became more introspective and focused on an imagined simpler past, and the official closing of the frontier in 1890 made scenes and stories from the Old West more popular than ever.


The Rise of Internationalism

During the last quarter of the 19th century, America resurrected itself from the ashes of the Civil War and became the world's leading industrial power. It was a new era of material expansion and cosmopolitanism known as the Gilded Age. Europe had always held a special attraction for cultured Americans and artists, but at this time, they traveled abroad in record numbers. American painting was deemed "outdated." In response, ambitious, young American artists flocked to Europe, seeking both traditional training and the new styles and techniques of the avant-garde, particularly Impressionism. Their goal was to compete fully in the world cultural arena by absorbing European influences, applying them to international subjects, and creating something new and better for American art.


The New American Landscape

As American artists returned from Europe, their depictions of the American landscape changed from sublime vistas to those of a more intimate and individual approach. The realistic depiction of place became less important than conveying moods and personal expressions. American artists in France had been influenced by the poetic approach to landscape of artists painting outdoors in Barbizon, and the simplified forms and evocative power of color of the "aesthetic style." But, the greatest influence was Impressionism. However, the American version remained grounded in real appearances and solid structure rather than the radical dissolution of form central to its French counterpart.


The American City

By the opening decades of the 20th century, America was the wealthiest and most modern country in the world, and New York City had become the symbol of its financial and technological superiority. The new subway, skyscrapers, elegant department stores and a growing entertainment industry made for a bustling urban scene. At the same time, immigration had swelled the ranks of the city's poor to unprecedented numbers, and the Lower East Side became notorious for poverty, filth and overcrowding. A group of artists called "The Eight" or the "Ashcan School" captured the city's grittiness, diversity and vitality in their work. Their radicalism lay in their subjects, not their styles.


Visiting the Exhibition

While American Beauty will carry a special admission fee, it will not be specially ticketed with timed entry and advance tickets will not be issued. Visitors simply pay admission when they arrive at the Museum. Phoenix Art Museum will present a full schedule of lectures, Family Sundays and gallery talks in conjunction with American Beauty. The Museum again will feature the "Collection Connection" logo next to some of the paintings and sculptures indicating that works by the same artists can be found in Phoenix Art Museum's collection, such as Gilbert Stuart, Robert Henri, Mary Cassatt and Frederic Remington.

Editor's note:

For links to many RLM articles on American Impressionism go to the Google search engine and conduct an "advanced search" for listings with the words "American Impressionism" within the tfaoi.com domain.

See also in RLM genre art articles including:

Enjoy pictures of Hudson River School paintings via the Desmond-Fish Library

See the presentation on the Ashcan Artists from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and see the article on The Eight in RLM.

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

Please Note: RLM does not endorse sites behind external links. We offer them for your additional research; external links were chosen on the basis of being the most informative online source at the time of our search.

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 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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