Published: December 4, 2007
Since its founding in 1931, the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., has assembled an extraordinary collection of some of America’s finest paintings and sculpture. It is surely the premier art collection in any American preparatory school and, indeed, one of the best collections of American art anywhere.
All this is abundantly clear in a grand traveling exhibition of more than 70 selections from the Addison collection, “Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s,” on view at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Museum of Art through February 24. It is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Addison and ably curated by the Addison’s associate director and curator Susan C. Faxon and William C. Agee, professor of art history at Hunter College and an Andover alumnus.
Because of the quality and comprehensive nature of the exhibition, it offers a rare opportunity to trace the evolution of America’s unique aesthetic identity, starting with Hudson River School landscapes and concluding with the emergence of Abstract Expressionism, which secured America’s preeminent position in the international art world. In addition, with masterpieces of Spanish art in adjoining galleries, the Meadows Museum venue provides an opportunity to explore connections and influences between Spanish and American artists in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.
Although the exhibition does not include any Colonial-era paintings, it begins with a bang with works by the Hudson River School artists, who toward the beginning of the Nineteenth Century used depictions of the country’s bountiful, pristine landscape to help shape a national identity and distinguish America’s art tradition from that of Europe.
Leading the way, along with Thomas Cole, was Asher B. Durand (1796‱886), who both painted and wrote about what he called the “virgin charms of our native land.” Durand’s “Study of a Woodland Interior,” circa 1855, shows a quintessential sylvan glade, replete with a precisely delineated, moss-covered rock surrounded by a lush, tangled forest.
Other works document the manner in which Durand’s contemporaries utilized distinctly American landscapes to forge a national expression. Frederic Church chronicled the beauty of Maine’s Lake Millinocket and Mount Katahdin, Jasper Cropsey created a glowingly romantic view of New Jersey’s Greenwood Lake, and German-born Albert Bierstadt suggested the dramatic impact of an impending storm on deer and nature alike.
Around midcentury, Luminists like Fitz Henry Lane cast a romantic glow over marine and inland scenes, while George Inness brought a darker Barbizon School touch to evocative canvases such as “The Coming Storm,” circa 1879.
Other standouts are Martin Johnson Heade’s elegant “Apple Blossoms and Hummingbird,” Eastman Johnson’s evocative “The Conversation,” William Merritt Chase’s vigorously brushed portrait of a cigar-smoking young tough, “The Leader,” and fascinating trompe l’oeil works by William M. Harnett and John F. Peto.
George de Forest Brush, whose Native American images will be the subject of a National Gallery of Art exhibition in 2009, also specialized in idealized views of his family, such as “Mother and Daughter.” In the background is the Cornish, N.H., home of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, where the work was painted. Saint-Gaudens is represented by a small, bronze version of his majestic “The Puritan”; a full-sized version stands outside the museum compound in Springfield, Mass.
Winslow Homer (1836‱910), who brought a sense of realism and narrative to iconic pictures of Americans at work and play †and eventually to paintings of the titanic struggle between land and sea †is well represented in the exhibition. Two are mature Homer masterpieces: “Eight Bells,” 1886, which conveys dangers and challenges confronting men who go to sea, and “The West Wind,” 1891, in which Faxon in her catalog essay says, “The artist has held the silhouetted figure, wind-whipped vegetation and whisper of foaming salt spray in an eternal equilibrium of human, land and sea with an artistic power unmatched by his contemporaries, whether in Europe or America.”
Thomas Eakins (1844‱916) is represented by a depiction of a young woman engrossed in her music, “Elizabeth at the Piano,” 1875, and his rather static view of a Philadelphia boxer acknowledging the crowd in “Salutat,” 1898.
Among the Nineteenth Century expatriates on view is James McNeill Whistler (1834‱903), who made his career in France and England, and is best known for Aesthetic Movement paintings utilizing close color harmonies and flat, decorative surfaces, as exemplified by “Brown and Silver: Old Battersea Bridge,” 1859‱863. Late in his career, Italian-born John Singer Sargent created high-keyed, vigorously brushed vignettes of Europeans at leisure in the countryside, like “Val d’Aosta: A Man Fishing,” circa 1906. Meadows Museum officials note that this work “is filled with the sun-soaked skin tones and quick, fluid attention to the colorful reflections on water so characteristic of&⁛Spanish artist Joaquin Sorolla y Bastuda’s] luministic beach scenes.”
Impressionist Theodore Robinson (1852‱896) did his best work while communing with his friend Claude Monet in Giverny, as demonstrated by his sweeping “Valley of the Seine,” 1892. John H. Twachtman (1853‱902), by contrast, was at his best in intimate landscapes around his small farm in Greenwich, Conn. His “Hemlock Pond,” circa 1900, captures the quiet hush of winter in his backyard. Childe Hassam, the most popular of all American Impressionists, brought an energetic sense of light and color to numerous subjects, especially his World War I Flag Series in New York City, like “Early Morning on the Avenue,” 1917.
In the era around that war, America’s art began to come of age, with the success of American works at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; the impact of charismatic teacher Robert Henri and his realist followers in The Eight and the Ashcan School; art impresario Alfred Stieglitz’s promotion of avant-garde art, and the impact of European Modernism at the celebrated Armory Show of 1913. From these events, observes art historian Agee in the catalog, “emerged many of the basic structural, expressive, and technical approaches to America’s Modern art in the first half of the Twentieth Century.” He notes that the Addison collection is strong in these approaches, which include “realism, color, cubism, classicism, and the use of new materials and techniques.”
An especially interesting early Twentieth Century work is “Moonlight, Wolf,” circa 1909, by Frederic Remington (1861‱909), the nostalgic chronicler of the Old West, who created superb nocturnes toward the end of his aborted career. Agee sees “A Symbolist mood of mystery lurking in a nighttime setting&†[in] a remarkably modern picture for its sense of the contingency of existence.”
The Ashcan School painters, who recorded the bustle and grit of burgeoning New York City, are well represented by works by Henri, George Luks, John Sloan and George Bellows. Sloan (1871‱951), the dedicated Socialist with an empathy for working people, excelled at recording vignettes he had observed, such as the colorful and expressive “Sunday, Women Drying Their Hair,” 1912.
Bellows (1882‱925), who came from Columbus, Ohio, to dazzle the New York art world with his vigorously stroked evocations of city life, reveled in such spectacles as boxing, polo and tennis matches and public entertainments. In “The Circus,” 1912, he captured the glamour, movement and excitement of a circus performance.
Other notable, later urban scenes on view include works by Louis Lozowick and Jacob Lawrence.
Particularly in the wake of the Armory Show, American artists, notably Patrick Henry Bruce, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and Georgia O’Keeffe, sought to translate European training and/or aesthetic ideas into singularly American expressions. Bruce (1881‱936) incorporated studies with Matisse in Paris and observations of Cubism and Cezanne’s work in “Peinture/Nature Morte,” a circa 1924 still life, which Agee calls “a vibrant symphony of color orchestration.”
Hartley (1877‱943) traveled extensively in Europe, soaking up various avant-garde styles, before returning to his native Maine to paint powerful evocations of the coast, such as his large “Summer, Sea, Window, Red Curtain,” 1942. It is, says Agee, “a literal fusion of house, sea and sky.”
Other standouts among the early Modernist works are Stuart Davis’s brilliantly colored Cubist take on ships, docks and barrels in Gloucester, Mass., “Red Cart,” 1932; Dove’s high-keyed “Autumn,” 1935; and O’Keeffe’s hauntingly beautiful view of a distant lighthouse beacon off the coast of York, Maine, “Wave, Night,” 1928.
The strain of realism, which runs through much of American art, is especially notable in the work of Edward Hopper (1882‱967) and Charles Sheeler (1883‱965). Hopper’s tight composition “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” 1928, carefully delineates the solid architecture of skyline buildings. Sheeler, a major proponent of Precisionism, captured the solidity and clear, sharp lines of soaring industrial buildings in canvases like “Ballardvale,” 1946, painted while he was in residence at Phillips Academy. Applying a Cubist manner to this depiction of old, abandoned mill buildings near Andover, it “paved the way for a third wave of Cubism, from 1936 to 1965,” says Agee.
The Addison trove includes a surprisingly large number of Abstract Expressionist and other paintings that confirmed the triumph of American art after World War II. Outstanding are striking Piet Mondrian-influenced grids by Burgoyne Diller and Charmion von Wiegand; a black, gray and white geometric abstraction by influential German-born painter and teacher Josef Albers, and nonrepresentational paintings by William Baziotes, Adolph Gottlieb, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Jackson Pollock and Ad Reinhardt.
There is a nice selection of Modernist sculpture, starting with Paul Manship and advancing through Alexander Archipenko, Alexander Calder, Naum Gabo, Gaston Lachaise, Eli Nadelman and David Smith.
As Agee concludes, these and other more recent works “helped propel America to the forefront of world art well into the 1960s and beyond, part of a coming of age, a vision of the new and possible, that is still being defined today.” As this exemplary exhibition documents, there are few better ways to trace the development of America’s art from its relatively humble beginnings to today’s world eminence than by studying the Addison Gallery’s holdings.
After closing in Dallas, “Coming of Age” travels to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London (March 14⁊une 8) and the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice (June 27⁏ctober 12).
The catalog, with essays by Faxon and Agee, is published by Yale University Press in association with the American Federation of Arts and is priced at $50.
The Meadows Museum, a division of Southern Methodist University, is at 5900 Bishop Boulevard. For information, 214-768-2516 or www.meadowsmuseumdallas.org .
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