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Painters of American Life:
September 17 - November 30, 2008
The Telfair Museum
of Art presents Painters of American Life: The Eight from September
17 through November 30, 2008 at the Telfair Academy. The public is invited
to attend a series of related educational programs and events free of charge
during the month of October.
"Although this exhibition focuses on artwork created
a century ago, it is especially germane to artistic issues of today,"
said the Telfair's chief curator of fine arts and exhibitions Holly Koons
McCullough. "By defying the accepted artistic conventions of their
time, The Eight paved the way for artists of the twenty-first century and
initiated the spirit of independence and self-determination characterizing
the contemporary art world."
On February 3, 1908, Macbeth Galleries in New York opened
an exhibition of works by eight living American artists that quickly became
the talk of the town. Thousands of visitors crowded into the galleries,
even lining up outside, all trying to catch a glimpse of paintings by Arthur
B. Davies, William Glackens, Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice
B. Prendergast, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. When the show closed on February
19, The Eight, as they soon came to be known, had become a sensation.
The Eight successfully staged an independent group show
and launched the modern ritual of artistic rebellion in twentieth-century
America. In the past, artists submitted their works to academic juries and
experts before they were on view to the public. The Eight did away with
the established hierarchy and sought a direct channel to reach audiences
and market their work. They deliberately garnered the attention of the press,
which helped them orchestrate their exhibition as a media event. This form
of independent group exhibition became a hallmark of the modern art world.
This year marks the centennial of The Eight's 1908 show
and is an appropriate occasion to revisit the work of this group of illustrious
artists. As with many other group exhibitions that formed over the course
of the twentieth century, The Eight was a temporary gathering of artists
that soon dissolved. But it was also unique and historically important in
its diversity-unlike other independent modern movements, The Eight did not
pursue a single aesthetic. The works included in Painters of American
Life represent a cross-section of subjects that one would have encountered
at Macbeth Galleries, from portraits and landscapes to scenes of urban life.
The exhibition includes works that date from around 1908
while others preceded or followed the legendary show by a number of years.
This broader chronological approach allows viewers to look at The Eight's
artistic output over a longer stretch of time. Over this same period, the
Telfair's fine arts advisor, Gari Melchers, was actively collecting works
by The Eight for the museum's permanent collection. Two such paintings,
Henri's La Madrileñita and Lawson's Stuyvesant Square in
Winter, are included in the exhibition.
Painters of American Life: The Eight is organized by Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art in
Wall texts from the exhibition
- Painters of American Life: The Eight
- One hundred years ago, in February 1908, a group of eight
artists mounted an exhibition that would become a milestone in the history
of American art. Painters of American Life celebrates the centennial
of The Eight with a survey of portraits, landscapes, and scenes of urban
life spanning their careers.
- The Eight included Arthur B. Davies, William Glackens,
Robert Henri, Ernest Lawson, George Luks, Maurice B. Prendergast, Everett
Shinn, and John Sloan. As a group, they sought to show their work independently
from the National Academy of Design, which had set strict rules and standards
for artists. Rejecting the institutional establishment, The Eight organized
an exhibition at Macbeth Galleries in New York that relied on the press
and the general public for validation and promotion. The Eight thus set
a model for artist groups throughout the twentieth century who staged their
own independent exhibitions.
- Robert Henri, a leader of the group, often claimed that
to be independent, American artists had to paint American life. After traveling
and painting extensively in Europe, most of The Eight settled in New York,
and the city became a principle source for their imagery. Critics later
referred to several members of the group as Ashcan artists, but The Eight
were not exclusively urban realists, also painting non-urban landscapes
from coastal Massachusetts to the high desert of New Mexico. The Eight
were united in advancing modern art, but they were intriguingly diverse
in their stylistic approaches. After one hundred years, the group still
stands out as a fascinating movement in the history of modern art in America.
- Jochen Wierich, Ph.D.
- Curator of Art
- Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art
- This exhibition is organized by Cheekwood Botanical
Garden & Museum of Art, Nashville, Tennessee.
- Nature and Landscape
- Although better known as painters of the city, The Eight
had a persistent interest in landscape painting, whether European or American,
rural or urban. For Lawson and Prendergast, nature was a central source
of inspiration, and they often sought out places where city and country
met. Prendergast's images of families strolling through city parks or visitors
at coastal resorts come to mind. Stylistically, these two artists developed
very unique and personal approaches to color and brushwork, transforming
the art of landscape into a field of painterly experimentation. Davies
also drew on nature but approached it with a sense of mysticism and reverie.
In his paintings figures move and dance across the landscape, creating
an atmosphere of imaginative escape. Although Henri, Luks, Glackens, Shinn,
and Sloan made their reputations as painters of urban life, they frequently
painted landscapes during their vacations or travels. From the Maine woods
to the New England coast and the high deserts of New Mexico, the artists
were constantly exploring American scenery. In doing so, they abandoned
older models of landscape painting that staged nature to fit certain ideals
and instead focused on direct and realistic observation. They also asserted
the value of nature in a new century.
- Portrait and Figure
- Portraits of people remained a constant pursuit among
a majority of The Eight. Henri, Glackens, Luks, Shinn, and Sloan focused
either on specific likenesses or figure studies; Davies was more attached
to the figure as symbolic representation. Henri and his circle were rooted
in the realistic portrait and figural tradition of Philadelphia and the
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where Thomas Eakins and Thomas Anshutz
had taught and worked. They also were influenced by a more dramatic and
glamorous portrait style practiced by William Merritt Chase, a Philadelphian
now working in New York, and John Singer Sargent, a cosmopolitan artist
who worked on both sides of the Atlantic. Henri's portrait of a Spanish
bullfighter, El Picador, is a perfect example of the synthesis of
these influences. Many of the great European artists that Henri's group
so admired and emulated, including Frans Hals and Diego Velazquez, were
portrait painters as well.
- While American portrait painters tended to focus on notable
people of wealth and professional merit, The Eight searched for personal
qualities beyond social status. As Henri and others envisioned it, modern
American portraiture needed to be democratic and egalitarian.
- Urban Life
- Ever since French artists such as Manet, Degas, and Monet
began to explore the cities of London and Paris in their paintings, urban
themes have been a hallmark of modern art. American impressionist painters
occasionally painted city scenes around Boston and New York. Focusing on
beautiful architecture, boulevards, and parks, they represented these urban
spaces and sites in balanced compositions, making the city appear well-ordered
and neat. The Eight radically changed the urban image in American art.
Four of them were trained as newspaper illustrators, and their assignments
often involved reportage in hidden alleys and working class neighborhoods
where "respectable" artists would not venture. As depicted by
the Eight, the city appears dark and chaotic, often viewed from an unusual
or unexpected angle. Their scenes of urban life were teeming with characters
that newspaper critics described as "tough" or "low,"
women of ill repute, and street urchins who were peddling or just idling.
The Eight also portrayed aspects of urban entertainment, from barrooms
to vaudeville theaters, previously overlooked in art. They embraced the
city as a place, where, according to the poet Walt Whitman, the urban masses
created a democracy of the street.
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