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American Menagerie

August 16 - November 9, 2008


From the earliest examples of American art until the present day, images of animals serve as vehicles for meaning. Native and exotic creatures alike help artists to explore issues of identity: the quality and nature of being American or foreign, human or beast, wild or civilized, innocent or worldly. These are all issues that artists grapple with in the exhibition American Menagerie. On view from August 16 through November 9, 2008, at the Portland Museum of Art, American Menagerie features more than 25 works of art drawn primarily from the Museum's permanent collection. (right: Dahlov Ipcar (United States, born 1917), Bright Barnyard, 1965, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 24 1/4 inches. Portland Museum of Art. Gift of Owen W. and Anna H. Wells, 2003.43.6)

While representations of creatures associated with the American continent -- the eagle, for instance -- helped to establish an American identity, depictions of exotic beasts tapped into concerns about the larger world. One of the icons of early American painting is The Peaceable Kingdom, a Biblical theme painted multiple times by Quaker artist Edward Hicks, among others. The scriptural verse and the painting motif alike prophesy a time of peace in which the aggressive and the meek, i.e., the leopard and the lamb, may coexist in harmony, and that "a little child shall lead them." One of Hicks's most fully realized treatments of the subject, including a painted frame with the words from Isaiah inscribed on it, is on loan for the exhibition from the Mead Art Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. This remarkable painting, through its serene depiction of the creatures of the world, poignantly encapsulates American hopes for the young nation, its moral compass, and its future generations.

Portraits of children from this time also frequently feature animals as a sign of the sitter's relative affluence, as only wealthy families would have regarded cats and dogs as pets -- and worthy subjects for art -- rather than beasts of burden. Animals in portraits could also convey messages about the character of the child they accompanied, alluding broadly to innocence or employing more specific symbolism dating from the middle ages. The idea of a kind of moral kinship between children and animals persisted through the 20th century, with idealized depictions of children at play. Also included in the exhibition are a collection of toys with animal themes.

Many modern and contemporary artists have also found that animal forms provide appealing and timeless themes for their work. Artists like Marguerite and William Zorach found and depicted nobility in their own household pets, while their daughter, Dahlov Ipcar, uses the widely varied shapes, colors, and patterns of the animal kingdom to create richly textured canvases and illustrations. The work of Bernard Langlais taps into the emotional power of animals, with wood sculptures and works on paper that seem to examine the inner life of creatures both domestic and untamed. Although these were trained artists, the persistence of an essentially non-academic artistic approach can be detected in their work. As earlier artists were, they are drawn to a fundamental purity -- an uncontrived nature -- in the motif of the animal, a concept that is reflected in their approach to their art.

Among the other artists included in the exhibition are Mildred Burrage, Will Barnet, Wendy Kindred, Scott Leighton, Hunt Slonem, and Roger Winter.

The exhibition also includes a special group of works related to political cartoonist Clifford K. Berryman, who is credited with the creation of the "Teddy Bear." Early in his long career, Berryman created this loveable and timeless character as both a personification of and a fictional companion to President Theodore Roosevelt. Illustrations by Berryman and a group of political pins featuring the teddy bear, all on loan from an important private collection, add another layer to the idea of American animals in this election year.


Related event

Family Festival : The Family Menagerie

Saturday, September 27, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Community Studio and Galleries, Free with Museum admission. All children must be accompanied by an adult. Limited to 10 families.

To reserve a spot, register at www.portlandmuseum.org or call 775-6148, ext. 3293.

Collect a menagerie of sketches at the Museum as you look at the animals in the paintings and sculpture in the exhibition American Menagerie and within our permanent collection galleries. Each member of your family will receive a "Looking Kit" with paper & pencil and prompts to guide you to stop, look, and sketch. At the end of the hour, we'll head to the studio to put all the drawing papers together to make a "family menagerie."

Exhibition Checklist

To view the checklist for the exhibition please click here.


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