The Magazine

Only in America

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

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.

Art that speaks for itself might say the wrong thing. So The Music Lesson (1870), a delightful sample of American Victoriana and if-music-be-the-food-of-love scene, comes with a dour reminder of dropping birth and marriage rates in the post-Civil War era. Might the drop be due to a generation of men slaughtered and women left destitute? No. The catalogue is pleased to note that the rise of independent women put paid to the notion that marriage is essential to civilization. The posted blurb adds a swipe at "women who cling to men for support." (An odd snub, given the curatorial class's own dependence on the kindness of museum benefactors and the grant system!)

Along the same wall, a contented couple and their two children take a rest on moving day in Henry Mosler's Just Moved (1870). Their good cheer draws frowns from a wall text that smirks at the word breadwinner (in scare quotes on the plaque) and casts doubt on the family as the haven it appears.

Military history is almost extinct in academia where curatorial sensibilities are shaped. Perhaps that accounts for the sparseness of Civil War paintings, despite the number of artists who treated it. The war appears largely as a backdrop for discussions of the era, some of them forced or fanciful. Winslow Homer's Croquet Scene (1866)--to pluck just one example--is a straightforward plein-air vignette built on similar pictorial concerns as Monet's Women in a Garden, painted the same year. To break the stasis of a line of standing figures, Homer depicts the central one, a man, bending to help a woman place her ball on the green. It is a credible device, since hooped and crinolined women were hard-put to set the ball out of range of their own skirts. Unsmiling, the wall plaque knots the scene into an emblem of female "choices" and "opportunities" following the war.

The museum's public role expands here to guardian of mental health. Its audio guide enlists a clinical psychologist to reassure us--soothing violins audible in the background--that nothing unseemly is afoot in Seymour Guy's three radiant, post-Civil War gems of childhood, timeless in their veracity. In one, an older sister dramatizes a scary bedtime story for her brothers. In the second, a younger girl admires herself, baby chest exposed, playing dress-up. (Not to worry, croons our expert: The older girl means no harm; and the little one is quite normal.) The very presence of a clinician on tape raises the specter of disquiet where none exists.

Elsewhere on the guide, artist Eric Fischl, doyen of voyeuristic narratives, looks at Thomas Eakins's Swimming (1885), a manifesto for the exploration of human form in motion, and sees his own libidinal interests. Six young men skinny-dipping must be a "sexual allegory." Eakins's dog in the water telegraphs the sway of--but of course--"animal instincts."

Frederic Remington's iconic Fight for the Water Hole (1903) seems to have been hung, together with Charles Schreyvogel's 1899 cavalry scene, only to shoot down "masculine escapist fantasy." The wall text informs us that it is now fashionable to read Remington's work as an embodiment of xenophobia: "In such reading, the gunmen fighting Native Americans signify Anglo Saxons defending the United States against waves of immigrants." Such interpretation might have surprised those Army officers who invited Remington west to paint them in the field during the last Indian battles.

The exhibition closes with George Bellows's Club Night (1907), a gritty boxing scene designed to illumine rippling vectors of force between racked contestants in a darkened arena. Spectators' faces are rendered grotesque, even demonic, by pleasure in combat. Nothing here extols the subject; quite the opposite. By playing reading games, we could easily declare the painting a metaphor for the violence then occurring in the wake of the bloody Philippine-American war. Posted commentary plays Aunt Polly instead. It shakes a finger at masculine ways: "[Bellows glorifies] virile action more than quiet thought, and popular experience more than highbrow culture."

By now, we know who the quiet thinkers are.

In sum, American Stories is lovelier and more valuable than its supporting donnishness. When it comes to art, looking is the thing, not reading. The art historian Otto Pacht phrased it nicely: "In the beginning was the eye, not the word."

Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture.