The Magazine

Only in America

The pictures, not the curatorial sermons, tell the tale.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
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American Stories

Paintings of Everyday Life,

1765-1915

Metropolitan Museum of Art

until January 24, 2010

Los Angeles County

Museum of Art

February 28-May 23, 2010

This show could be subtitled "The Politics of Everyday Life." Above all else, it is a splendid walk through American painting from the colonial period to the beginning of World War I.
It is also a demonstration of the mischief in ready-to-wear tutorials that serve the mind's eye of curators ahead of the art. When the history of an era and its works--the story--is told in terms of the values and preoccupations of the present, art becomes a stage for current creeds.

Divided into four chronological groups, the exhibition is a lively ensemble of paintings that fit under the social historian's umbrella of race, class, and gender studies. This requires substantial omissions in the timespan under review. The artists excluded--Benjamin West, John Trumbull, Fitz Lane, Martin Johnson Heade, Washington Allston, William Harnett, John La Farge, John Peto, and luminaries of the Hudson River School--had their own tales to tell. Trumbull, for one, told of the Revolutionary War, an event strangely absent here.

Happily, the selections on view are inherently engaging. Aspects of the national experience--modes of seeing and feeling--materialize in shifting approaches to pictorial realism as it developed from the indigenous limner tradition, through the influence of European modes, to the American Impressionists and their usurpers, the Ash Can painters. As the nation grew, so did opportunities for artists. The changing status of artists in the life of the nation threads through the storyline.

American realism's commitment to the concrete begins in portraiture, the one profitable venture in the colonies' infant art world. John Singleton Copley's penetrating portrait of Paul Revere (1768) testifies to tensions in the sitter at a fragile moment in pre-Revolutionary history. Revere, pensive and limpidly rendered, holds a silver teapot--a piquant symbol while fellow Bostonians were boycotting tea. The luminist vision begins here in Copley's crystalline surfaces that betray no hint of his hand.

Nearby, Gainsborough breathes warmly on Gilbert Stuart's more painterly 1790 portrait of Anna Foster at her embroidery. In his loose, sensuous glazing lies the difference made by training abroad. For storytelling purposes, adjacent commentary stretches the conventional female pose into a signal of Anna's want of a good match. However, both Copley and Stuart used the same pose to depict older, married women. Potential inheritance was the more likely lure on the marriage mart, not needle skills which cut across class lines.

Emphasis falls naturally on narrative paintings, those often neglected genre scenes that lost the art-historical sweepstakes but open the past to us with striking immediacy. From a Hogarthian vignette of sea captains carousing in a tavern to a slave ball, beautifully and unselfconsciously depicted, every selection rewards the time spent greeting it on its own merits. Men argue politics, women choose beaux, horse traders haggle, Indians gamble, trappers hunt, and languid ladies take tea. Human interest reigns, some of it drawn from life, some translated from literature. Sentimental potboilers, too, have their period charm.

A dedicated Linnaean, Charles Willson Peale painted The Exhumation of the Mastodon (1805-08) to commemorate an excavation he had led in the marshes of Newburgh, New York. It is a vivid illustration of the way swamps were drained at the turn of the 19th century: by a hand-cranked ferris wheel of circulating buckets. (Mrs. Peale looks on, standing amiably beside her two deceased predecessors.) Samuel Morse, another in the distinguished American fraternity of artist-scientists, imagined a gallery in the Louvre hung as it would be if Morse had his way. George Caleb Bingham's Missouri classicism is here. So are William Sidney Mount's gracious depictions of dealings between blacks and whites, the race of his subjects subordinate to compositional mathematics and measure. (Though count on the recitations to highlight race.)

Copley's tableau of horror, Watson and the Shark (1778), anticipated Géricault's Raft of the Medusa (1819) and initiated a taste for the terrible that excited subsequent romantics. Commissioned by the controversial Watson himself in later life, it is a stirring example of art's abiding utility in renovating a man's public image.