Paintings of Everyday Life Tell America's Story

USA TODAY, November 2009 | Go to article overview

Paintings of Everyday Life Tell America's Story


FROM THE DECADE before the Revolution to the start of World War I, many of America's most acclaimed painters captured in their finest works the temperament of their respective eras. They recorded and defined the emerging character of Americans as individuals, citizens, and members of ever-widening communities. "American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915" brings together for the first time more than 100 of these iconic pictures that tell compelling stories of life's tasks and pleasures.

The exhibit features masterpieces by John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, William Sidney Mount, George Caleb Bingham, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, John Sloan, and George Bellows, as well as notable works by some of their key colleagues. It examines stories based on familiar experiences and the means by which painters told their stories through their choices of settings, players, action, and various narrative devices. The artists' responses to foreign prototypes, travel and training, changing exhibition venues, and audience expectations are examined, as are their evolving styles and standards of storytelling in relation to the themes of childhood, marriage, family, and community; the production and reinforcement of citizenship; attitudes towards race; the frontier as reality and myth; and the process and meaning of art-making.

The exhibition is arranged in four chronological sections. The first--Inventing American Stories, 1765-1830--begins with artists who told stories through portraits. Serving their sitters' self-conscious interest in how they appeared in the eyes of others, American portraitists often emulated British compositions. Although these artists focused on individuals and particular locales and relationships, the cleverest of them responded to broader narrative agendas and the natural impulse to tell stories.

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In his portrait of his colleague, "Paul Revere" (1768), Copley embedded subtle narrative into a traditional single-figure format, with the silversmith's gestures and gaze conveying volumes about the time in which he lived. As their patrons learned to read portraits for more than likeness and to appreciate artistic license, portraitists began to gratify their sitters by telling subtle personal stories in increasingly elaborate compositions. In his ingenious double-likeness of Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming (1788), for instance, Peale implied the sexual bond that defined their marriage. Later in this period, some painters told grand stories in pictures produced for public exhibition, rather than purely for private enjoyment. In "Gallery of the Louvre" (1831-33), Samuel F.B. Morse proposed that his compatriots must achieve cultural independence from Europe even while they learned from the Old World's greatest artistic achievements.

In the second section--Stories for the Public, 1830-1860--American artists responded to an expanding and increasingly diverse audience for public exhibitions; new mechanisms for selling and reproducing art; and middle-class patrons' growing cultural literacy and wealth. They almost invariably looked to precedents in European genre painting to help them tell their stories, drawing inspiration from Dutch Old Masters or more recent French and English examples, known through popular prints. Genre painters preferred domestic scenes, lighthearted narratives, clear settings, stereotyped characters, and obvious gestures and details so that viewers could read their pictorial dramas easily and recognize themselves in relation to them. Many American genre painters favored rural locales, which were associated with fundamental national values.

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In "The City and Country Beaux" (c. 1839), Francis William Edmonds suggested the virtues and vices of each locale, as a young woman chooses between a slick Yankee and a self-satisfied country bumpkin. …

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