Published: August 17, 2004
Celebrated in song and dance, the Mississippi River is the subject of the new exhibit “Currents of Change: Art and Life Along the Mississippi River, 1850-1861” at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The exhibit is the first to explore the fine and decorative arts that blossomed in the 1850s along the entire span of the mighty 2,302-mile waterway. It also explores the social and cultural distinctions of life along the muddy river.
The 11-year period was one of stellar prosperity, hope and romance, a brief moment prior to the Civil War dividing America more bitterly than any river ever could. It was the calm before the storm. The West was idealized; the Noble Savage, having been safely expelled, was glorified.
At the same time, the railroad began to displace the steamboat, industry prevailed over the agrarian economy. As the economy along the river prospered, the demand for sophisticated furnishings and refinements exploded. The river itself served as a conduit for ideas about art and culture, fashion and design.
Assistant Curator Jason T. Busch describes the river as having two cultures, one at either end. As lucrative trade began along the northern reaches of the river and artists were attracted by the vanishing wilderness, the agrarian southern end enjoyed its own full-blown golden age. Despite their geographic and chronological distinctions the two cultures were remarkably alike in prevailing ideas of collecting, wealth and taste. It was the current of the river that bound them together.
This is a banner year for the Mississippi River. It is the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition and the sesquicentennial of the Grand Excursion, the journey that celebrated the country’s first railroad connection from the East Coast to the Mississippi. The train carried some 1,200 dignitaries, including President Millard Fillmore, from Chicago to Rock Island, Ill, where seven steamboats took them upstream to St Anthony Falls near St Paul, Minn.
According to newspaper accounts of the time, the purpose of the excursion was “not so much pleasure merely, as a desire to make a thousand, more or less, men of capital and influence acquainted with the enchanting beauty, the boundless resources and the unexampled prosperity of the Great West.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s compelling romantic poem “The Song of Hiawatha” was published to great acclaim the same year. Coupled with the Grand Excursion, “Hiawatha” caused the upper Mississippi to become the subject of unprecedented attention.
An entire section of the exhibit is devoted to Longfellow and his Mississippi River poems. His 1847 “Evangeline” described life along the Mississippi from the confluence of the Ohio River southward to the bayous of Louisiana. It, too, was stunningly popular. Artists rendered views of places described in the poems and sculptors cast images of various characters. The sites described in the poems became instant tourist attractions. The objects on view attest to the immense public interest in these poems and to the artists’ response.
A beautiful sunset and moonrise oil on canvas by Joseph Rusling Meeker glorifies Maiden’s Rock as described in “Hiawatha,” and Meeker’s “The Acadians in the Achafalaya, Evangeline” depicts the bucolic swamp along the southern part of the river. Robert Scott Duncanson and Seth Eastman were each prodigious painters of scenes Longfellow described. Albert Bierstadt painted Minnehaha Falls and Currier & Ives published dramatic and colorful images from “Hiawatha.” Hiawatha and Minnehaha were popular figures for sculptors such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Harriet Hosmer and Thomas Crawford, who rendered imposing monuments. Hiawatha even went to sea: William Gleason’s carved wooden ship’s figurehead of Minnehaha is on view, along with a simply beautiful Indian whirligig of painted wood and feathers. The beauteous Evangeline is the subject of a painting on view by Thomas Faed and a marble bust by William Couper.
Although both poems were widely celebrated and endowed the Mississippi with great cachet, Longfellow never ventured as far westward as the river – he went only as far as Niagara Falls. Instead, he relied on books in his own Cambridge library and on such entertainments as John Banvard’s “The Largest Painting in the World,” a painted panorama of 39 scenes of the river that visited major eastern cities, including Boston. Part of John Egan’s 340-foot-long panorama, the only one remaining, is on view, giving visitors the same vicarious trip down the Mississippi that viewers of the 1850s enjoyed. Such moving panoramas were popular in the Nineteenth Century. As they moved, the viewers saw scenes as they might have viewed them from the deck of a steamboat. Egan’s panoramas were noted for their historic and archaeological images of the river.
The new prosperity along the Mississippi from its headwaters in northern Minnesota to the Louisiana bayou gave way to a demand for the accoutrements of affluence and elegance. Consumers demanded fashion, paintings and furnishings as elegant and sophisticated as those found on the East Coast. Artists and craftsmen eager to capitalize on the new demand began to make their way up and down the river in search of commissions. Art exhibitions sprung up along the riverbanks offering works by Thomas Cole, George Caleb Bingham, Seth Eastman and even copies of Rembrandt prints dressed up as originals.
All things French were the objects of desire. Rococo revival was the rage. Shops like E. Jaccard & Co of St Louis and the New Orleans decorator Prudent Mallard offered the finest in French porcelain, cut glass, silver, textiles, chandeliers, papier mache, paintings, sculpture and rococo revival furniture. The crème de la crème, however, were the brothers Roux, Frederic in Paris and Alexander in New York. Their furniture was highly coveted, particularly among the affluent of New Orleans and Natchez, Miss. A partial bedroom set in satinwood and rosewood on view was made by Alexander Roux and includes an ornate bed, a nightstand and an armoire. It was purchased in New Orleans in about 1859 and descended in the January family of St Louis.
Portraits much in the style of the daguerreotype were also de rigeur. Those on view are frequently of parents and an adult child. They have a characteristic photographic quality, which was highly desired by their stylish sitters.
The newly affluent relied on retailers along the river for the modish furniture for their new homes. The river retailers traded through New Orleans with eastern manufacturers. When goods produced along the Mississippi valley were shipped downstream by steamboat to New Orleans, they were loaded on ships bound for the East Coast. When the ships returned to New Orleans, they were filled with desirable eastern cargo of furniture, ceramics, glass, silver and other accoutrements of the fashionable life. Those cargoes were then shipped upstream to buyers eager to purchase the latest and greatest.
Retailers also took advantage of the steady stream of passengers aboard the hundreds of vessels traveling up and down the river. Furniture merchants and steamboat captains entered partnerships in which the steamboats themselves became design centers. They were decorated with the most luxurious rococo revival furniture and accessories to impress their passengers, who could make purchases on board or at the merchants’ grand emporia at New Orleans or St Louis.
Marie Adrien Persac’s gouache and collage view of the steamboat Imperial reveals an elegantly appointed main cabin with gilt brass chandeliers, fanciful architectural tracery, stained glass windows and the finest in floor and table coverings. Passengers seem awed by the interior of the vessel.
New Orleans painter and gilder Rudolph Lux enjoyed a successful career decorating porcelain for steamboats. Several examples of his work are on view.
When planter and commission merchant Frederick Stanton built “Belfast,” his splendid home in Natchez, he looked to Henry Siebrecht, premier decorator in New Orleans, to furnish it. The house, now called Stanton Hall, was lavishly appointed. Its immense double parlor housed a set of rollicking rococo revival furniture. A rosewood parlor chair from that set is on view. The rococo revival hallstand and chairs from Stanton Hall are also on view.
The upper Mississippi had such great appeal in the public imagination that it was perceived as a vanishing wilderness, supplanting the Hudson River, which had previously been given that distinction. As dramatic as the landscape was, the river remained the main artery and traffic was brisk. Cities and towns sprung up along its shores in response to the influx of settlers and the expansion of commerce.
Currents of Change: Art and Life Along the Mississippi River, 1850-1861 is also the exhibition catalog written by Minneapolis Institute of Arts curators Jason T. Busch and Christopher Monkhouse and art historian Janet L. Whitmore. It is beautifully illustrated and presents a cogent story of the varied forces that drove art and decoration along the Mississippi River just prior to the Civil War.
“Currents of Change: Art and Life Along the Mississippi River, 1850-1861” remains on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts through October 10. The museum is at 2400 Third Avenue South. For information, or 612-870-3000.
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