Young America: Treasures From the Smithsonian American Art Museum
On display through July 29
at Cheekwood’s Museum of Art
Hours: 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat.; 11 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Sun.
For information, call 356-8000 or visit www.cheekwood.org
It’s hard for most of us to see America as a land of limitless possibilities anymore. The growing pains of the past century have tempered our rosy visions of the American Dream with clouds of war, racial injustice, inflation, and crime. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, though, America did seem to most people to be a country that stretched its promise across thousands of miles of unspoiled wilderness and offered that promise to anyone strong enough to grasp it. The Smithsonian exhibition now at Cheekwood provides a tantalizing glimpse of what that America must have felt like.
The wonders of the natural world have always intrigued artists, and 19th-century American painters reveled in the scenic possibilities their young country presented. Twenty landscapes by such masters as Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole are included in the show. Of these, Church’s “Aurora Borealis” (1865) is one of the showstoppers. The work offers a view of the fabled Northern Lights over the Arctic that pollution and global warming have all but erased in our own time. Brilliant greens, blues, and reds shoot skyward from the horizon in a display we otherwise might attribute to the artist’s fancy if there weren’t contemporaneous written accounts that suggest Church was simply painting what he saw. The pyrotechnics in the sky are reflected across the vast expanse of ice in the foreground, where we see a ship trapped in the frozen water. Dwarfed by the neon-colored sky and the ice and mountains that surround it, the ship waits for the dogsled team racing toward it with a promise of rescue. The work brilliantly captures both man’s awe at the power of nature and his confidence in his own power to tame it.
Another landscape in the show is of special interest as much for its creator as for its subject matter. Robert Scott Duncanson’s “Landscape With Rainbow” (1859) presents the Ohio countryside of the artist’s own youth in idealized, even Edenic fashion. The rain has just passed and cattle graze in a green pasture under a luminous clearing sky. The end of a rainbow’s arc frames the canvas on one side; on the other, two small figures walk toward the arc, one gesturing the way. The painting takes on added interest when one learns that the artist who created it was the first African American to gain an international reputation as a painter. Duncanson painted the work in 1852, but he would live long enough to see his vision of a promised land begin to be realized, if not fulfilled, in America before his death in 1872.
Just as the ways these artists observed places reveal much about the country’s character, so do the ways they looked at America’s faces. Portraiture, of course, was the surest path to success for early artists, and there are several examples in the show of the rich (John Singleton Copley’s “Mrs. George Watson,” painted in 1765) and famous (Gilbert Stuart’s “John Adams,” painted in 1826) captured on canvas. Lesser-known or less well-to-do subjects are just as interesting. The subjects of Charles Willson Peale’s “Mrs. James Smith and Grandson” (1776), for example, may not be famous, but their warm relationship is timeless. A grandmother holds her 10-year-old grandson close to her side, their affection for each other as clear as the open book resting in her lap. The young boy, whose bright eyes so resemble those of his elderly grandmother, points to a passage in The Art of Speaking, the book they both grasp in their hands. The text he points to is Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, a fitting thought for a young boy to ponder in America in 1776.
Another fascinating portrait is Lilly Martin Spencer’s “We Both Must Fade” (1869), which depicts a now forgotten socialite named Mrs. Fithian. The painting, by one of the first professional female painters in America, depicts the lovely auburn-haired Mrs. Fithian in a sumptuous blue satin dress overlaid in intricate white lace. Shimmering gold and pearl jewelry accents her bodice and waist, while more jeweled accessories spill over the table on which one hand languidly rests. In her other hand, she clasps a rose that, unnoticed by the lovely lady, drops its fading petals softly on her polished floor. The message is clear: Like the rose, Mrs. Fithian’s carefully cultivated beauty too will pass in time.
The exhibition also features several luscious still-life works celebrating the abundance of fruits and flowers in young America, and some wonderful “slice of life” paintings, including Francis William Edmonds’ “The Speculator” (1852). The piece depicts a hardworking couple caught in a salesman’s grasp. An overdressed land speculator has made his way into their simple home and now sits firmly in a chair, ignoring the couple’s work, which he has interrupted. As he gestures to a sheet of paper marked “1000 Valuable Lots,” the couple peer skeptically at his offering. From the expressions on their faces, it looks like this is one sale the young man won’t close today.
In all, the show features 54 paintings and sculptures that reflect, in epic depictions of America’s natural wonders and in the bright, hopeful faces of her citizens, a country with a growing awareness of itself and its potential. Like the excellent “Brush With History: Paintings From the National Portrait Gallery” exhibit currently at the Tennessee State Museum, this Cheekwood show is the result of the temporary closing of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., for some much needed renovations. And as is the case with the works on view at the state museum, those currently at Cheekwood represent some of the best of the Smithsonian’s holdingspieces that are unlikely to tour the country again as a group anytime soon. So unless you feel like traveling to the nation’s capital, plan to catch this glimpse of “Young America” here in Nashville before it’s gone.
Thank you for this excellent coverage, Stephen! I was stuck inside the cube all day…
If you're looking for Prohibition-era gangster drama, the movie LAWLESS has been turning up a…
I just got done reading your article, and really enjoyed it, thank you. Here is…
I hope Bonnie and Clyde is better than Mob City, which was - as far…
The only website you can call directly is 1-800-FLOWERS.com.