Published: April 2, 2002
Albany Exhibits Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
ALBANY, N.Y. – “: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum” is on view at the Albany Institute of History & Art through May 19.
The exhibit presents more than 50 major paintings and sculptures that trace the transformation of the colonies into nationhood. These rare artworks from the 1760s through the 1870s reveal the growing self-awareness and optimism of the new nation.
Several portraits open the exhibition, since portraiture was the surest path to success for early artists. John Singleton Copley’s “Mrs George Watson” (1765) shows a merchant’s wife in colonial Boston, with a lavish lace-trimmed dress, imported vase and exotic parrot tulip. Copley portrays Mrs Watson as a fine British gentlewoman living in a colonial outpost.
Charles Willson Peale painted the tender double portrait “Mrs James Smith and Grandson” in 1776, soon after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The young boy holds a manual of rhetoric open to Hamlet’s soliloquy, his finger resting on the line “To be or not to be,” which doubles as an invitation to both personal and national self-definition.
John Trumbull’s “The Misses Mary and Hannah Murray” (1806) shows two sisters with musical score and drawing pencil, and Gilbert Stuart’s incisive “John Adams” (1826) depicts the formidable former president shortly before his death. Such pictures go beyond mere likeness to reveal deeper characteristics – eagerness for refinement and culture on the one hand, and no-nonsense directness on the other – that were both considered “distinctly American.”
Although mostly self-taught, Lilly Martin Spencer of Cincinnati supported a large family through her painting and was one of the first American women to achieve success in the arts. Her full-length picture of Mrs Fithian in a brand-new satin dress holding a drooping rose is called “We Both Must Fade” (1869), reflecting a Victorian sentiment about the inevitable waning of beauty.
Still life paintings show a similar variety of means and intentions. Raphaelle Peale’s “Melons and Morning Glories” (1813) – a luscious ripe fruit dripping juices and seeds on a tabletop – has a monumentality and simple directness that was in sympathy with the neoclassic taste of its period. By contrast, the exuberance of Severin Roesen’s showy “Still Life with Fruit,” painted almost 40 years later in 1852, appealed to a rising middle class eager for decorative display.
Landscape emerged early in the Nineteenth Century as a favorite subject, capable of expressing many meanings, and no fewer than 20 landscapes appear in the exhibition. Two views of Niagara Falls by Alvan Fisher (1820) include tiny figures awed by the spectacle before them and holding their ears against the roar of the water, suggesting the pride Americans felt in the breathtaking natural wonders on this continent.
Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, chose the biblical story of the great flood for his canvas, “The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge” (1829), intended as an allegory for the new nation. Cole depicts a rocky wilderness with the ruins of earlier civilizations destroyed by floodwaters, evoking corrupt old European monarchies. Bathed in light in the distance, the ark rests in serene waters, heralding the birth of America’s new democracy.
In 1848 – the year of Cole’s death – Asher B. Durand painted “Dover Plain, Dutchess County, New York,” which suggests the nation’s promising future with its pastoral landscape, broad horizon and gentle light. Andrew W. Warren’s “Long Island Homestead” (1859), a small canvas encompassing a large view, presents a family home, flower gardens, grazing sheep, cultivated fields and hillside graveyard as a rural paradise, shortly before the Civil War disrupted this ideal world. Robert Scott Duncanson, of African American and Scottish American parentage, similarly conveyed the peaceful pre-Civil War period in “Landscape with Rainbow” (1859).
In Samuel Colman’s “Storm King on the Hudson” (1866), large steam-powered barges bear down on small sailboats, as if to portray an industrialized future overtaking a simpler past.
Frederic Edwin Church’s two landscapes in the exhibition were painted when Americans were already exploring beyond the boundaries of their own territories. One of these, “Aurora Borealis” (1865), presents an arctic view of a small ship locked in ice as a metaphor for the country engaged in a catastrophic civil war.
The dramatic northern lights illuminating the scene refer to an actual rare display that was visible across the northern United States in 1864, believed by contemporary viewers to be a divine signal that the Union would prevail and the nation would survive its bitter struggle.
The exhibition also includes one bronze and seven marble sculptures, including Hiram Powers’s famous “Greek Slave” (modeled 1841-43, carved circa 1873), a work that summarizes the complicated situation of America’s aspiring artists.
Powers was eager to demonstrate his command of the nude figure, which European academies taught as the highest expression of art, but America’s Puritan and Calvinist background made nudity controversial. By showing an idealized figure of a woman enslaved and disrobed by barbarians against her will, Powers avoided any hint of wanton sensuality.
The Albany Institute is the second to the last stop on the national tour of “.” The exhibit will travel to the Terra Museum of American Art August 9 to October 20.
Founded in 1791, the Albany Institute of History & Art is a museum dedicated to collecting, preserving, interpreting and promoting interest in the history, art and culture of Albany and the Upper Hudson Valley region.
The museum is as 125 Washington Avenue. For information, 518-463-4478.
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