America as Captured on Canvas: An Extraordinary Exhibition of One of the Foremost Private Collections Ever Assembled Brings to Life a Vibrant Nation through Its Captivating People and Breathtaking Landscapes

USA TODAY, November 2004 | Go to article overview
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America as Captured on Canvas: An Extraordinary Exhibition of One of the Foremost Private Collections Ever Assembled Brings to Life a Vibrant Nation through Its Captivating People and Breathtaking Landscapes


AMERICAN MASTERS from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection" showcases one of the most important private collections of 19th-century, American art. The exhibition of 51 paintings by 26 artists displays works by such talents as George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, William Stanley Haseltine, Martin Johnson Heade, Fitz Hugh Lane, John Marin, John F. Peto, and William Trost Richards.

"Over the course of his career, John Wilmerding has become one of the most respected and widely known authorities on American art," says Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. "His many books and articles have helped define the scholarly nature of the field as a whole and have also documented the works of key figures.... Through his teaching and lectures, he has introduced literally thousands to the wonders and complexities of our national art."

The exhibition reveals a variety of American art genres: landscapes, marine paintings, portraits, still lifes, and figure paintings, including a group of drawings and watercolors of the scenery of Mount Desert Island, Maine, by artists--among them Haseltine, Lane, Marin, and Richards--who worked there from the 1840s until the early 20th century.

Highlights from the collection include Lane's "Western Shore of Gloucester, Outer Harbor" (c. 1857), a radiant view of sailing vessels on calm water that is particularly notable for its superb state of preservation. Another worth noting is one of Bingham's rare genre pictures,

"Mississippi Boatman" (1850), which depicts a ragged-looking man guarding cargo on the riverside.

In addition, there is Heade's "Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes" (c. 1871-75) and "Still Life with Roses, Lilies, and Forget-Me-Nots in a Glass Vase" (1869); Church's "Newport Mountain, Mount Desert" (1851), Peto's "Take Your Choice" (1885), and Eakins' "Portrait of Dr. William Thomson" (1906) as well as the wonderfully executed watercolor "Drifting" (1875).

Following are brief biographies of some of the key artists in the exhibition:

George Caleb Bingham (1811-79) was one of the leading American genre painters of the mid 19th century. Yet, his fame rests on fewer than 20 pictures that describe aspects of life on what was then the nation's frontier, the Mississippi River Valley and his home state of Missouri. His best-known works fall into two categories: activity on the river, including "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" (1845), "The Jolly Flatboatmen" (1846). "Raftmen Playing Cards" (1847), and frontier politics, including "Canvassing for a Vote" (1852), "County Election" (1852), "Stump Speaking" (1854), and "Verdict of the People" (1855).

Bingham was born on a farm near Charlottesville, Va. When he was eight, the family moved to the frontier town of Franklin, Mo., where he grew up. He was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker and also is thought to have studied briefly with an unidentified itinerant portrait painter. Surprisingly, what is not as well recollected is that Bingham was a prolific portraitist; it was, in fact, his chief livelihood. Biographers estimate he painted at least 1.000 over a 45-year span.

In 1838, he studied three months at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He returned to Missouri, but in the fall of 1840, he moved to Washington, D.C., established a studio in a basement room of the U.S. Capitol, and set up to paint portraits of public figures. All the while he was in the East, Bingham had ample opportunity to see works by the better American painters as well as engravings and copies of Renaissance and Baroque masters. He had an astonishing ability to absorb lessons on drawing and composition through such perusal.

From 1856-59, Bingham was in Germany to attend the renowned Dusseldorf Academy. Many critics feel that this experience ultimately was detrimental in that he seemed to lose his native American vision and strong genre style in favor of an affected or overly refined manner; In any case, during and after the Civil War, his renewed interest in politics and public service diminished his productivity as a painter.

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America as Captured on Canvas: An Extraordinary Exhibition of One of the Foremost Private Collections Ever Assembled Brings to Life a Vibrant Nation through Its Captivating People and Breathtaking Landscapes
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