Montclair Art Museum

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Paris 1900: The "American School" at the Universal Exposition

 

A major exhibition recreating the American art installation from the Universal Exposition of 1900 held in Paris will open at The Montclair Art Museum (MAM) on September 18, 1999. That important exhibition established a distinct and important "American School" of art, rivaling many contemporary European schools and putting American art and artists definitively on the international cultural map. Paris 1900: The "American School" at the Universal Exposition will remain on view at MAM through January 16, 2000 before traveling nationally and internationally.

Paris 1900 offers the first in-depth examination of this pivotal moment in American social and cultural history when a uniquely American art was recognized internationally and considered on par with European work. The exhibition will feature more than 80 objects, primarily from the original installation, as well as additional archival and scholarly material. Works by such masters as James McNeill Whistler, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins and George Inness, who had lived and worked in Montclair, will be included in the exhibition.

The American installation at the Universal Exposition of 1900 was financed by the State Department and was carefully designed to promote the image of the United States as a powerful and civilized nation. While many Americans artists were already internationally recognized as important, American art as a category was not yet established. The exquisite paintings exhibition in the installation at the Exposition, which garnered more awards than any other national group except the French, redefined American art to the world.

"We are delighted to premiere this important exhibition," said Ellen S. Harris, Executive Director of The Montclair Art Museum. "The Museum is dedicated to the exploration and presentation of American art and our exceptional American collection includes many of the artists who were celebrated in the 1900 Exposition. This innovative exhibition demonstrates our ongoing commitment to developing important programs that allow our local, regional and national audiences an opportunity to explore American art and culture."

"With the coming of the new millennium and the centennial of the seminal Exposition of 1900, Paris 1900 offers visitors, scholars, and students alike the opportunity to reexamine the identity of American art and to gain a deeper understanding of our nation's cultural heritage," added Diane P. Fischer, Associate Curator of The Montclair Art Museum.

The exhibition is curated by Fischer. Gail Stavitsky, Chief Curator at MAM, serves as project director. A fully-illustrated, scholarly catalogue, co-published with Rutgers University Press, and a broad range of educational and public programs will accompany the exhibition.

 

History

The U.S. exhibition at the Universal Exposition of 1900 was developed in direct response to previous criticism, at home and abroad, that American art of the late 1800s was "too French." With Paris as the center of the international art world, many American artists had studied and lived there and were greatly influenced by French masters. Through their participation in the annual Salons and other exhibitions, many of these artists acquired international reputations that could not have been earned in America. In order to attract acclaim and patronage, these artists adopted French academic methods, which favored an almost photographic exactitude, and subjects, including exotic narrative and figure painting. The conservative French critics of the era, considered the most discerning in the world, valued academic technique, and American artists who were eager to build their careers catered to their tastes.

At the Parisian Exposition of 1889, French academicism was the accepted standard for judging art. American painters won more medals than artists from any other visiting nation, and a new international status for American art was achieved. French influences, however, displaced typical American tendencies. American artists in the 1890s denounced these foreign characteristics and attempted to restore a national identity to their art, by relinquishing French themes and styles in favor of distinctly American ones.

At the same time, the United States was growing as an economic and military superpower, and the State Department was determined to reinforce that identity in all areas. Eager to promote the idea of a new American "school" of art worthy of the nation's new position, the Department of Fine Arts carefully designed the American installation for the 1900 Exposition to convey a strong message about American society and culture.

 

1900 Universal Exposition

Works for the American installation were carefully screened to convey specific nationalistic messages. Expatriate luminaries, including Whistler and Sargent, were invited to lend international cachet to the group. Distinguished artists practicing in America, including Homer, Eakins, and the recently deceased Inness, who was hailed as the "father" of the new national "school," rounded out the group to convey the full scope and breadth of American art of the period.

Nationalism was communicated through a variety of pictorial types in the paintings exhibition. The nation's future was seen through innocent American children as in Rosina Emmet Sherwood's Head of a Child; the nation's virtue was depicted by chaste American women as in William Merritt Chase'sPortrait of Mrs. C. (Lady with a White Shawl); America's strength was demonstrated through virile men as in Charles Schreyvogel's My Bunkie; America's ruggedness shone through seascapes as in Homer's Maine Coast; George Inness' Sunny Autumn Day and other fertile landscapes showcased American resources; and American power was highlighted in the technologically superior cities as in Henry Ward Ranger's Brooklyn Bridge. Works by the American expatriate celebrities showed more traditional European subjects - peasants, nudes, and grand narratives - but also expressed a distinctly American point of view. Including foreign themes ensured that the installation did not suffer from a provincialism which would have been inconsistent with the State Department's agenda.

The designation "school of art," which refers to a group of compatriot artists whose work is connected both thematically and stylistically, was of great importance to artists of the era, as the term "school" was applied only to the most distinguished group of artists. The campaign to create such an American "school" at the 1900 Exposition was a great success. Key French critics and officials enthusiastically praised American art and sanctioned the "Ecole Américaine," as it would come to be known throughout the twentieth century.

 

Paris 1900: The "American School" at the Universal Exposition

Prior to this exhibition, the location of many of the original paintings was unknown, as they were dispersed following the 1900 Exposition. Nearly 100 were located by Fischer and more than 50 will be included in the exhibition, from collections across the United States and Europe, including Whistler's The Little White Girl: Symphony in White No. II from the Tate Gallery, Inness' Sunny Autumn Day from the Cleveland Museum of Art, Homer' s Maine Coast from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and four works from the Musée d'Orsay never before shown in America.

The exhibition will also include a wide variety of objects outside of the paintings installation - including six sculptures and eleven decorative art objects, as well as ancillary and archival material - to bring the Universal Exposition of 1900 to life, and offer visitors an in-depth examination of the social and cultural milieu of the era. Highlights include The Montclair Art Museum's versions of Hermon Atkins McNeil's Sun Vow and Bessie Potter Vonnoh's Young Mother, Augustus Saint-Gauden's Amor Caritas from the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, and Tiffany Studios' Cypriote Vase from the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The legacy of this milestone in American art and culture has not previously been thoroughly examined in the American art historical canon. In response to the overwhelming success of the State Department's crusade, critics on both sides of the Atlantic proclaimed that the "Ecole Américaine" would become the school of the future. The exhibition also formed a bridge between American art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, showing the transition from the peak of the cosmopolitan 1880s to the emergence of American Modernism.

 

Publication

The scholarly catalogue features five essays by noted scholars, as well as an annotated catalogue of the original paintings installation. The principal essay by Fischer analyzes the selection of works for the 1900 Exposition installation and notions of distinctly American qualities at the turn of the century. Other essays provide a broader context for understanding the full significance and impact of the original exhibition and the Universal Exposition of 1900, including the continuing influence of the "American School" in Paris on twentieth-century American art (Stavitsky), French reaction to American fine and decorative arts (Gabriel P. Weisberg, Professor of Art History at the University of Minnesota), manifestations of cultural nationalism in the arts between the world's fairs of 1893 and 1900 (Linda J. Docherty, Associate Professor at Bowdoin College), and an exploration of the overall American presence at the 1900 Exposition (Robert W. Rydell, Professor of History at the University of Montana).

Paris 1900 has been made possible through the generous support of The Florence Gould Foundation, The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, and the Baird Family Fund. Funding for all Museum programs is made possible, in part, by the New Jersey State Council on the Arts/Department of State, PNC Bank, and Museum members.

Images from top to bottom: Hachette et Cie, Paris Exposition, 1900; Tiffany & Co. Brooch, Tiffany & Co. Archives; James McNeill Whistler, The Little White Girl, Symphony in White No. 11, 1864, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London, Bequeathed by Arthur Studd, 1919; Thomas Eakins, The Cello Player, 1896, Oil on canvas, 64-1/4 x 48-1/8 inches, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. Joseph E. Temple Fund, 1897.3; Underwood and Underwood, The Grand Palace of Fine Arts, Exposition 1900, Paris, France, 1900, Stereograph, 3-1/2 x 7 inches, Private collection; Gallery B, U.S. Paintings Exhibition, Grand Palais, Paris Exposition, 1900, Archives Nationales, Paris

Read more about the Montclair Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

For further biographical information on selected artists cited in this article please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

rev. 10/26/10


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