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The American Evolution: A History through Art

March 1 - July 27, 2008


Exhibition Walk-Through


The American Evolution: A History through Art offers a fresh look at the Corcoran's time-honored collection of American art. A display of nearly 200 objects in a wide range of media, dating from the colonial era to the present, the exhibition focuses on five overarching themes that have shaped American culture: Money, Land, Politics, Cultural Exchange, and The Modern World. These themes are fundamental to the way the United States has developed and to the stories we tell about ourselves.

The term "evolution" suggests change over time, and The American Evolution embraces the idea that the United States is a dynamic nation in a constant state of re-definition. From Gilbert Stuart's stately c. 1803 portrait of George Washington to Andy Warhol's irreverent 1973 likeness of the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, and from Frederic Edwin Church's dramatic 1857 view from the brink of Niagara Falls to Richard Diebenkorn's abstract 1975 rendering of the suburban expanses of Ocean Park, California, The American Evolution explores many of the ways that American life and art have developed over the past 250 years.



The lure of money has long held powerful sway over American culture. The settlers who established the North American colonies were motivated as much by a desire for economic opportunity as by the promise of political and religious freedom and the colonies' economic subordination to England was one of the primary motivations for the American Revolution. As the United States developed into a global superpower, the ideal of free enterprise continued to shape the nation's political, social, and cultural agendas.

Economic interests directly informed the earliest American art. Painting in the colonies was limited almost exclusively to portraiture, a genre that developed alongside and bolstered the burgeoning consumer society. As in Europe, prosperous merchants and landowners commissioned likenesses of themselves and their families in elegant poses and fine dress as a means of asserting their financial success and elevated social stature. Prominent colonial artists such as John Singleton Copley and Joseph Blackburn amassed their own small fortunes producing these distinguished likenesses of America's elite.

In the later 19th century, America became the world's leading economic power. Mark Twain famously described the era as "The Gilded Age," in reference to both the great wealth created and the ostentatious lifestyle it engendered. Magnates of industry and commerce collected still-life paintings and images of upper-class women in interiors that conveyed the opulence and abundance of this culture and offered a visual respite from the more unseemly aspects of industrialization. A select group of artists, including John George Brown and Lewis Hine, focused their attention on the working-class population that resided on the other side of the nation's widening economic divide.



There is perhaps no substance or ideal more central to America's mythology than the land. For a young nation challenged to define itself in the absence of a history or intellectual heritage, the native landscape was an important source of pride. The vast forests, fertile plains, and great mountains of North America offered seemingly limitless opportunity for exploration and invention, as well as commercial exploitation. Over the years, the land has served as a wellspring of aesthetic inspiration, spiritual sustenance, and economic opportunity.

In the early 19th century, a group of landscape painters founded the nation's first native painting style. For the Hudson River School artists and their audiences, majestic images of the natural wonders of the northeastern United States, such as Frederic Edwin Church's awe-inspiring depiction of Niagara Falls, rivaled the grand history paintings of their European counterparts.

Later 19th-century artists such as Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Remington joined prospectors in "mining" the American West for pictorial material. These artists' often-idealized depictions of the frontier were symbolic of Manifest Destiny -- the belief that Americans had been chosen by God to explore and settle the entire continent, at any cost.

American artists' interpretations of the land took a more personal turn at the end of the century. Painters such as Ralph Albert Blakelock, Winslow Homer and George Inness produced poetic images that evoked a mood rather than the specifics of geography or topography. Childe Hassam, Willard Metcalf and other American Impressionists produced expressive landscapes that depicted fleeting atmospheric effects and embraced the subjectivity of vision.

Nature continued to inspire artists into the 20th centery. Abstract painters including Joan Mitchell and Richard Diebenkorn produced large-scale canvases that drew on the experience of intense light and color, and which produced environmental, atmospheric effects. Other artists took a more oblique approach to the issues of landscape and nature. The works of Willem de Kooning and Helen Frankenthaler, for example, are animated by the organic forms, lush surfaces, and writhing energies of the natural world.



The mixture of art and politics is a complex brew, at once intimate and wide-reaching, broad and oblique. The Corcoran's holdings give a sense of the power and range of such connections. The collection surveys some of the great figures and moments from the nation's history, but beyond that, a glimpse into the ways that artists' images have shaped it.

Painted portraits of 18th- and 19th-century political and military leaders such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are fundamental to the way we have come to understand them: heroic, noble icons central to the nation's mythology. Paintings of everyday life-known as genre scenes-which gained prominence during the 19th century, emphasize a different aspect of political life. Often created with a particular slant on the day's events, and focused on daily interactions and backroom workings, these pictures by artists such as William Sidney Mount and Horace Bonham tell the story of American democracy as born of humble origins rather than exalted leaders.

Throughout the 20th century, politically oriented artists often took a more subversive approach. Some, such as the photographers who documented the Civil Rights Movement, including Ben Fernandez and Danny Lyon, made pictures of dissent and struggle that expanded the language of both politics and culture. Others, including Rupert García, Kerry James Marshall, Lorna Simpson, and Kara Walker, made issues of class, sexuality, race, and slavery their explicit subject. Central to their work is a concern with stereotypes, and the ways in which seemingly neutral traditions, histories, and images are filled with significance. In an attempt to influence political dialogue directly, their art encourages viewers to question received wisdom, and creates new meanings in the process.



The arts of the United States -- a nation founded by immigrants that continues to nurture a large foreign-born population -- are shaped by various histories and traditions both inside and outside its borders. Influence and exchange with the wider world fundamentally informs the art we call "national."

Before the Civil War, Italy was the most popular foreign destination for American artists, who saw classicism as a fitting aesthetic for a burgeoning republic modeled on the political ideals of ancient Greece and Rome. Italy proved a particular draw for sculptors such as Hiram Powers, who took advantage of the readily available materials and assistants.

As the 19th century progressed, many Americans were drawn to the international art centers of Munich, London, and Paris. While some of the nation's most influential artists, including Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler, and John Singer Sargent, chose to live much of their lives in Europe, they were active participants in stateside art activities.

The opening of Japan to Western trade in 1853 brought East Asian culture before the American public, and painters such as Thomas Wilmer Dewing, began to incorporate aspects of this work in their own. Euro-American artists also found inspiration in the country's indigenous cultural forms. This influence traveled in two directions -- in the early 20th century, Native American artists such as Fred Kabotie revived traditional tribal styles and techniques and adapted them for a western market.



Largely unburdened by longstanding tradition and the weight of the past, the United States has served as a beacon of "the new" throughout its history. In the 20th century, advances in industry, technology, and social freedom transformed its landscape and culture. Change seemed to many to be the nation's defining characteristic. Attempting to reckon with the modern world, artists developed new and radical ways of picturing it.

In the early and middle part of the century, artists experimented with different ways of incorporating the modern world into their work. Some, such as Guy Pène du Bois and Charles Sheeler, approached the diversity of modernity's subjects with a style derived from America's powerful realist and landscape traditions. Others, including Marsden Hartley and Patrick Henry Bruce, who spent time abroad, were more international in outlook, infusing European-inspired abstraction and Cubism with American popular culture and concerns. The compositions of Stuart Davis incorporated the rhythms of jazz and urban life, while Arthur Dove's abstractions drew inspiration from nature.

As the century progressed, many American artists made work that was completely freed from the anchor of representation. Concerned with form and materials rather than subject matter, the work of the Minimalists and their progeny was radically ambiguous. By incorporating industrial processes, materials, and techniques, as did Tony Smith, or by merging sleek geometries with an organic physicality, as did Martin Puryear and Richard Tuttle, these artists made work that straddled the boundaries between painting and sculpture, and between craft, industry, and idea. Their work did not represent the modern world so much as engage with it on its own terms.


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