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Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art 1660-1893 from the Yale University Art Gallery

September 9 through January 4, 2008


Following is the gallery guide text for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery, on exhibit at the Speed Art Museum September 9 through January 4, 2008.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery
We are delighted that you have joined us to view the grand exhibition, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery. These more than 200 extraordinary objects illustrate the sweep of the American experience from Plymouth Rock to the Gilded Age. This exhibition showcases the visual power and rich histories of Yale's greatest American treasures, many of which have never before left the university.
A Historic Gift
In 1832, the American artist John Trumbull gave more than 100 of his paintings to Yale College, establishing the university's eventual museum. Built upon Trumbull's legacy, the Yale University Art Gallery possesses one of the world's finest collections of American art.
Along with paintings like Trumbull's iconic images of the American Revolution, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness features extraordinary furniture, silver, ceramics, glass, and other materials. Highlights include one of the most important surviving pieces of early eighteenth-century American silver, a luxuriously embellished monteith bowl made by the Boston silversmith John Coney around 1705.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, an elegant New York City-made sofa evokes the early decades of the nineteenth century. Gilt ornament inspired by French models glitters against the couch's dark surfaces.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness concludes with America's westward expansion and her Gilded Age. Albert Bierstadt's Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail presents a mountain guide and his tourist clients surveying that grand Western vista. The Gilded Age might best be represented by Thomas Wilmer Dewing's idyllic painting Summer. As the world and America faced a new century, the canvas harkens to calmer times.
Join us, as we celebrate all of the creativity and diversity that has made our country.
Expressions of Heritage
The works in this gallery explore the religious and ethnic diversity of a land of immigrants. These objects reveal the range of artistic and cultural currents in colonial America. From the delicately crafted silver to the crudely-constructed though ornate pine and iron chest, Expressions of Heritage offers up the rich diversity that was and remains America.
Jewish silversmith Myer Myers worked in New York City. His dish ring was to hold bowls or plates containing hot foods, this piece is the only colonial American example of its kind.
The old Spanish Southwest produced many pieces of everyday furniture. The chest from New Mexico's Rio Abajo region is decorated with flowers, lions, and pomegranates (lions and pomegranates are common Hispanic images and often employed in heraldry).
Quaker preacher and artist Edward Hicks's The Peaceable Kingdom and Penn's Treaty envisions the outcome of Quaker William Penn's historic treaty with the Delaware Indians. Hicks is best known for his series of Peaceable Kingdom paintings, which number more than 60.
Ambition and Display
This gallery documents the lofty goals of early Americans as their quest for independence began to meet with success. Silverware and fine furnishings created in this country rival European works in design and craftsmanship. Portraits of wealthy Americans reveal a refinement in dress and setting that could only have been imagined by the nation's earliest settlers.
Jeremiah Dummer's pair of candlesticks are the earliest known surviving examples of American-made silver. Dummer was the first native-born New England silversmith.
The massive, nine-foot-tall desk and bookcase constructed of mahogany and decorated with precisely carved shells, was made for the Providence, Rhode Island merchant and patriot John Brown. In addition, to developing a global trading business, the Browns helped create what is today Brown University.
John Greenwood's Elizabeth Moffatt Sherburne may have been painted to celebrate her marriage to merchant John Sherburne around 1750. The book she holds, "Spectator Vol. 7" was a reprint of a London collection of philosophical reflections and cultural and literary analysis that, though it had been published a generation earlier, had become popular reading material in the colonies.
The Making of a Nation
In 1831 John Trumbull (1756-1843) presented eight Revolutionary War paintings to Yale College to form the foundation of their American art collection. Those eight paintings are on view in this gallery. Trumbull's original vision was to create a series of paintings "in which should be preserved as far as possible, faithful portraits of those who had been conspicuous actors in the various scenes, whether civil or military, as well as accurate details of the dress, manners arms & costumes of the times."
Four of these paintings, The Signing of the Declaration of Independence, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, The Resignation of Washington and The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, hang in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C. portraying the nation's struggle for independence in life-size canvases.
As a man who exuded the intellectual curiosity and industry that defined early colonial leaders, the completion of this iconic series was one of many triumphs for Trumbull who was also George Washington's second aide-de-camp, Major General Horatio Gates's deputy adjutant general, the first American artist to graduate from college, a member of the Jay Treaty Commission, and an architectural designer.
Class, Race, and Conflict
Class and race are universal issues that societies the world over have dealt with or ignored through the ages. Settled by Europeans seeking better lives, what would become America's "melting pot" generated its own tensions and conflicts often over class and race. From our War of Independence to the Civil War to the Westward expansion, the young country sometimes employed conflict to attain its goals just as mankind has for centuries.
The Veteran (Portrait of George Reynolds) by Thomas Eakins employs the artist's sophisticated technique of using subtle facial expressions and poignant bodily gestures to describe the social standing of the subject. George Reynolds, a student of Eakins at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, was a Medal of Honor recipient from the Civil War.
Pitcher, which recreates Hiram Power's popular sculpture The Greek Slave in earthenware, depicts a Christian woman about to be sold into slavery by her Ottoman captors during the Greek War of Independence (1821-32). Power's work became a popular image as Americans wrestled with the issue of slavery.
Winslow Homer's In Front of Yorktown is a marvelous example of the art that first established the artist as a pre-eminent painter of the Civil War for Harper's Weekly. Yorktown captures five soldiers from the New York 61st Infantry Regiment on picket duty in Virginia.
Photographers, too, captured the Civil War. George N. Barnard's Rebel Works in Front of Atlanta would be produced with other photos and sold in albums to an American public hungry for news about the war.
Education and Discovery
Intellectual curiosity and personal industry defined early colonial leaders and became the standard by which Americans measured success. Americans were quick to build businesses, settle frontiers, and make education a universal right.
University of Pennsylvania Professor of Physics George Frederic Barker's The Moon provides an interesting glimpse into nineteenth-century scientific inquiry. Chemist, physician and physicist, Barker took this photograph in 1864 to explore the use of photography in astronomic research. Barker later joined the University of Pennsylvania committee that oversaw the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge's work in motion studies. Several of Muybridge's pioneering motion study photographs are on view in this gallery.
Robert Walter Weir's The Microscope reveals the American mid-nineteenth-century fascination with science. Here the founder of microscopy in America, Jacob Whitman Bailey (1811-1857), shows the device to his children.
Changing Landscape and the Rise of Industry
Industrial activity and invention exploded throughout Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century. As the inventions of the Industrial Age gained wider application, a growing middle class would be able to choose from an ever-greater supply of quality goods while longing for earlier, simpler times.
Martin Johnson Heade's Sudden Shower, Newbury Marshes presents two individuals manually harvesting hay near the Massachusetts coast. The oncoming mechanization of agriculture would eventually end farming at this soggy location.
Old Mill by Winslow Homer depicts the prevalent uneasy mood that spread across America after the Civil War. America was transforming from its early agrarian roots to a more urban and industrial nation.
Hook Mountain, Near Nyack, on the Hudson by Sanford Robinson Gifford was a popular location for both pleasure and commercial craft. The Presence of the steamship in the picture may represent the Industrial Age's encroachment on nature.
Transportation and Moving West
As settlers pressed westward, Easterners became eager for images and reports about the frontier. Artists responded with works that both portrayed the West and interpreted it.
Heathen Chinee pitcher from the Union Porcelain Works of Brooklyn, New York offers a polar bear handle and a walrus pouring spout. Its sides presents two scenes of how the American Northwest was settled. This pitcher may have been used to dispense beer or other popular beverages.
Frederic Remington's What an Unbranded Cow Has Cost depicts the devastation of a gun battle over a stray cow. Reproduced in an 1895 issue of Harper's Monthly to illustrate an article by Owen Wister (who would go on to write the Western novel The Virginian), the painting may depict the Western "cattle wars" of the 1880's and 90's.
Many of the American West's settlers were immigrants. The sewing table in this gallery was produced by a German furniture craftsman who along with other furniture makers from Germany immigrated to New Braufels, Texas in the mid-nineteenth century. Displaced by the mechanization of their industry in Germany, they hoped to ply their trade in the American West.
The Gilded Age
As the nineteenth century drew to an end, America was approaching a height of prosperity previously unimaginable. The phrase coined to describe it -- The Gilded Age -- barely hints at the opulence of the decorative arts produced during the period, roughly 1870-1898.
Furniture manufacturer Kembel & Cabus Produced furniture in a wide range of prices and materials. The parlor cabinet features ebonized cherry with painted panels and printed-paper appliqués, gilding, brass, velvet, and mirrored and transparent glass. Heavily influenced by Japanese designs, the piece was intended to reflect the owners status.
Thomas Jerome Wheatly's vase was created in Cincinnati, Ohio at T.J. Wheatly & Company between 1880 and 1882. Wheatly's ceramic pieces were immediate successes in the marketplace. A fire destroyed the building and much of the inventory in 1882 ending the firm but ensuring that this example is a rare Gilded Age treasure. Dripping with shells, shellfish, and seaweed, it symbolizes the opulent tastes and heady ambitions of late nineteenth-century Americans.
Thomas Eakin's John Biglin in a Single Scull suggests America's growing interest in both health and sport. Painted in Philadelphia on the Schuylkill River, this work presents this minor sports figure preparing to compete for the world championship in a pair-oared race with his brother in 1872.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University art Gallery was organized by the Yale University Art Gallery. The exhibition is made possible by generous funding from Happy and Bob Doran, B.A. 1955; Carolyn and Gerald Grinstein, B.A. 1954; Mrs. William S. Kilroy, Sr.; Mrs. Frederick R. Mayer; Nancy and Clive Runnells, B.A. 1948; Ellen and Stephen D. Susman, B.A. 1962; The Eugénie Prendergast Fund for American Art, given by Jan and Warren Adelson; and the Friends of American Arts at Yale.
The audio guide was made possible by Ellen and Stephen D. Susman, B.A. 1962, and Susman Family Foundation.

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