Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Telling Tales' Illustrates the Creation of a Nation's Visual Identity

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Telling Tales' Illustrates the Creation of a Nation's Visual Identity

Article excerpt

Controlling the narrative has been a big issue in the recent political campaigns, but it's nothing new to nation building. A handsome exhibition at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art contains images that reflect the story of a young country -in turn realistic, embellished, idealized and sometimes covert.

"Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-century American Art" runs through Sunday and comprises 53 artworks from the New-York Historical Society, itself a national treasure. It includes images and artists that any schoolchild would know.

The line of somberly dressed men, women and children walking across an equally stark winter landscape, "Pilgrims Going To Church" by George Henry Boughton, is a visual that is integral to our Thanksgiving lore, the devout and long-suffering community that stopped to give thanks in the midst of hardship. "The Puritan," a bronze by the esteemed Augustus Saint-Gaudens, is more formidable, with his stern face, billowing cloak and determined stride.

Rembrandt Peale's iconic portrait "George Washington," painted a half-century after his death, shows a mature leader who projects the dignity of the father of a country, while John Gadsby Chapman sets a much younger Washington within a landscape, perhaps one he is surveying.

Other stories are less familiar, or more controversial.

Tompkins Harrison Matteson pictures Native Americans, "The Last of the Race," pushed figuratively and literally to the end of the continent; Pocahontas is shown saving Captain John Smith; and John Brown blesses an African-American child.

The Civil War is the subject of two paintings. The more realistic "An Episode of the War -the Cavalry Charge of Lt. Henry B. Hidden" (1862) by Victor Nehlig, is a detailed representation painted in the midst of the conflict. "Charging the Battery" (1882) by William Gilbert Gaul is more interpretative and emotional, perhaps indicative of the ongoing reflection being given this horrendous chapter in the American story.

William Sidney Mount is a notable genre painter whose images were at times not as straightforward as they appear to contemporary eyes, signaling through such things as clothing an individual's political leanings. …

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