Only in America
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915 at
the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
By Maureen Mullarkey
THIS EXHIBITIION COULD BE SUBTITLED The Politics of American 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 time span 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. it is a minor
distortion but one that prepares us for others throughout.
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 Wilson 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 Piero-like measure. (Though count on the recitations to
Copley's tableau of horror, Watson and the Shark (1778), anticipated
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
Art that speaks for itself might say the
wrong thing. The public needs to be supplied with prophylactic commentary to
avoid the dangers of unprotected viewing. 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'
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 two 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' 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' dog in the water telegraphs the sway of-but of
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 him west to paint them in the field during the last Indian battles.
The exhibition closes with George Bellow'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. Art historian Otto Pacht phrased
it so nicely: “In the beginning was the eye, not the word.”
• • • •
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915 at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The exhibition will travel to
the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (February 28 -
May 23, 2010).
This essay appeared first in The Weekly Standard, December 21, 2009.