American Identities: A New Look
Welcome to the Brooklyn Museum of Art's collections of American art. Installed in the circuit of galleries you have just entered are nearly three hundred fifty objects representing a portion of the Museum's world-class collections of American painting, sculpture, decorative arts (including furniture, ceramics, silver, glass, and baskets), prints, and photographs. In a museum of this size and universal scope, it is unusual to find an installation that integrates so many different object types. It has been the goal of the organizing Museum team (curators, educators, and designer) to use this wide array of objects to tell as rich and layered a story as possible about life and culture in the United States from the colonial period to the present. In an effort to broaden conventional notions of what constitutes "American" art, we have also included Native American objects, as well as fine and decorative arts of the Spanish colonial era in Mexico and South America from the Museum's equally stellar collections in those areas.
The galleries are organized around a framework of eight themes—some based on time periods and others based on more general subjects—inspired by the strengths of the American collections. We have used a lively sequence of colors to signal the boundaries of each thematic section, as well as to present these works of art in a new light. You may want to seek out the large text panels introducing the themes before beginning your viewing in each gallery. Many individual objects also have text labels written by the Museum's curators. And you will find additional "voices" in the galleries, in labels that offer other perspectives through the words of artists, writers, historical figures, and members of the Museum's diverse Brooklyn community today.
Founding of the Collections
In 1824 a group of civic-minded Brooklyn residents established the Apprentices’ Library Association, the ancestor of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Among the organizers was Augustus Graham (whose portrait is nearby), soon to become one of Brooklyn’s most active philanthropists and the person responsible for founding the Museum’s great collection of American art in 1851.
The BMA’s holdings of American paintings grew rapidly after the turn of the century, as its directors and curators unfailingly valued American art at a time when European art was generally considered superior. For decades this foresight inspired the purchase of important objects rarely obtainable today. The Museum trustee A. Augustus Healy (whose portrait also hangs here) orchestrated the famous purchase of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors in 1909. The painting collection enjoyed unprecedented growth from 1936 to 1952 during the curatorship of John I. H. Baur (also portrayed here), who acquired eighteenth and nineteenth-century works in advance of accepted taste.
The first American decorative arts objects—two silver teaspoons—entered the collection in 1902. The Department of Decorative Arts, first established as the Department of Colonial and Early American Furniture by the trustee Luke Vincent Lockwood in 1914, purchased the first period room the next year. By the late teens the department had begun to set trends with acquisitions in understudied areas, including antebellum American furniture. Curators in the department have carried on this tradition, building important holdings of Aesthetic Movement and Machine Age material.
The establishment of a Department of Ethnology in 1903 reflected the Museum’s intention to collect works from indigenous cultures. The department’s first curator, R. Stewart Culin, acquired thousands of Native American objects, many on Museum-sponsored expeditions. The BMA’s collection of Spanish colonial art was largely acquired in the 1940s and 1950s under the pioneering leadership of Culin’s successor, Herbert J. Spinden.
Today the American collections number more than sixty-three thousand objects ranging in date from the 1600s to the present. They constitute one of the great public collections in the field and make possible the telling of many stories about American culture and creative life. Selected objects from all of these rich collections are displayed together for the first time here, demonstrating the ongoing evolution of the BMA’s historical mission to collect and present American art for new audiences.
From Colony to Nation: The Colonial Period
The objects in this gallery once ornamented colonial interiors throughout the Americas from the late 1600s to 1776. For North American colonists, who were largely middle class, acquiring luxury items was one way of raising their social status in their self-made societies. Their view of the relative value of fine objects may be different from ours: silver (made literally out of money) ranked highest, followed by textiles (the finest of which were imported), large case furniture, paintings and frames, and, finally, ceramics and glass.
Most of the luxury objects made in the North American colonies were modeled on European examples and were executed by artisans who were self-taught or had some very basic training in their country of origin. As colonial wealth and the demand for fine items dramatically increased in North America after about 1750 (particularly in centers like Boston and Philadelphia), a new generation of artists and makers—both native-born and foreign—substantially raised the quality and quantity of colonial art production.
In contemporaneous Spanish colonial societies in Mexico and South America, also represented in this gallery, the Catholic Church played a major role in establishing guilds to create art and furnishings for elaborate churches and homes. The productions of these guilds were shaped in part by the arts of native peoples, in a convergence of European and native cultures that was not paralleled in the North American colonies. The Zuni water jar on view here, created at the same moment as many of the European-derived portraits and furnishings in the gallery, serves as a reminder of the independent continuity of Indian artistic traditions in North America throughout the colonial period.
From Colony to Nation: Symbols of the Early Republic
The United States achieved political independence from Great Britain in 1783 and elected George Washington as the nation’s first president in 1789. Citizens of this new democratic republic were highly self-conscious about the radical nature of their experiment in government. What form would the now-independent nation take? In composing the Constitution, the Founding Fathers were inspired by classical principles of reason and the perceived virtue of classical Greek and Roman culture. Classical art accordingly was adopted as the appropriate style for the new nation that considered itself heir to those original democracies. Greek and Roman imagery were embraced as powerful symbols of national identity and reminders of civic duty.
By the early nineteenth century, almost every aspect of American visual culture—architecture, fine arts, interior decoration, and fashion—was affected by classical models. Classical artistic vocabulary includes pediments, columns, arches, volutes, wreaths, and garlands, and can be observed in many of the objects in this gallery.
Inventing American Landscape
American Scenery . . . is a subject that to every American ought to be of surpassing interest; for, whether he beholds the Hudson mingling waters with the Atlantic—explores the central wilds of this vast continent, or stands on the margin of the distant Oregon, he is still in the midst of American scenery—it is his own land.
—Thomas Cole, “Essay on American Scenery” (1836)
In the early nineteenth century, Americans in search of national and cultural identity increasingly turned to the natural grandeur of North American scenery. Landmarks in the East and then in the Far West were celebrated in literature and poetry, represented in paintings and prints, and even reproduced on dinnerware and furniture. These sites became powerful symbols of American history and culture, invested with national resonance as well as with religious associations. They also motivated a booming tourism industry, which posed a conflict between the preservation of unspoiled wilderness and the national mandate for progress. The tensions embodied in this set of opposing values still pervade American thought and attitudes to nature today. The landscape style known as the Hudson River school—with its panoramic vistas, deep space, deft atmospheric effects, and precise details—predominated from the 1820s to the 1860s. After the Civil War, different styles and approaches emerged. More intimate, freely brushed landscape subjects, substituting poetry of mood for a specific sense of place, became increasingly fashionable. French landscape painting strongly influenced both patrons and painters—first, with the freer brushwork and more subdued colors of the Barbizon school, and later with the brilliant palette of Impressionism.
The abstract styles introduced in the early twentieth century were also applied to the portrayal of American landscape. The subject continued to hold profound meaning during times of great artistic experimentation in the second half of the century. Celebrated in works ranging from meticulously realistic to barely recognizable in terms of location or subject, the American landscape remains an essential inspiration for subsequent artistic generations.
Everyday Life: Looking Inside
To “look inside” something suggests that we seek to discover the contents of an enclosed space—a box, a house, a person’s private thoughts. All of the works on view in this area—genre subjects, still lifes, portraits, and household objects—tempt us to look inside to find evidence of national and artistic ideals expressed in the nonpublic realms of home, studio, and thought.
In the mid-nineteenth century, American artists gave increasing attention to depicting domestic interiors where people, imagined or real, lived. Then, as now, houses revealed the taste, status, and values of their occupants. Yet by portraying these private interiors in paintings that were destined for public exhibition, artists opened rather than restricted access to the spaces they pictured. Thus, these paintings are not simple reports of observable reality. They express a point of view, but whose? The artist’s? The patron’s? A critic’s? Or did some artists cater to what they perceived as the taste of the majority of their audience?
Portraits, in addition to conveying likenesses of specific people, often compel us to think about emotional or psychological interiors. The portraits in these galleries tell us about family kinship and public identities, and frequently convey values concerning parental duty and the sanctity of home. Still lifes are also included here. These arrangements—whether mundane pieces of laundry strewn across a floor or a gloriously extravagant collection of fruits and flowers—register as selected or composed interior views that spark the imagination into considering the domestic spaces they occupy.
Everyday Life: Looking Outside
I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia. . . . I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, The American Scholar (1837)
Emerson’s appeal for a vital national culture rooted in direct perceptions of present-day American life has been called an intellectual declaration of independence. Many felt that this goal could best be realized in the visual arts through genre subjects, where artists characterized the daily life of ordinary people. The early genre works exhibited here spin out sentimental, humorous, and often nostalgic narratives in outdoor settings that would have been familiar to contemporary audiences.
The paintings often depict unique “American” characters: the Yankee, the westerner, and the yeoman farmer. These national stereotypes, with specific regional, racial, or ethnic attributes, appeared in the theater, in literature, and in popular culture, and carried a variety of social and political messages. Idealized rural life was often presented as a beneficial contrast to congested cities. For an urban audience, genre paintings often embodied more than just popular nostalgia for youth and simpler times. These subjects also affirmed the rise in social and economic status of city patrons by evoking their less cosmopolitan origins.
American lifestyles have continued to fascinate and preoccupy artists as they have undergone dramatic redefinition over the course of the twentieth century and into the present. As was the case for many of the genre painters of the nineteenth century, humor and hyperbole often serve modern and contemporary artists who consider or question the customs of this country.
A Nation Divided: The Civil War Era
Dramatically few American artists undertook the challenge of representing the Civil War. The majority, unwilling or unequipped to confront the physical destruction, loss of life, and psychological trauma of the war years from 1861 to 1865, continued to record the American landscape and home life for an audience in moral disarray and seeking reassurance that their former way of life and notion of nationhood might survive. It fell to photographers and illustrators to document the brutal facts of current events. The burning issue of slavery also remained virtually untouched by artists, with such exceptions as the painter Eastman Johnson, who attempted throughout the war to refashion the popular image of African Americans into one that was individualized, sympathetic, and supportive of the anti-slavery cause.
The works on view in this gallery demonstrate the ways in which American artists referred to the Civil War and its causes without picturing them directly. With few exceptions, the works created during the course of the war refer to the conflict symbolically, whereas those created in its aftermath (particularly from the war’s end to the turn of the century) were part of a virtual industry devoted to memorializing the Union cause and its heroes and heroines. It remained for artists of the twentieth century to fully confront the violent injustices that continued to divide the nation long after the war had ended.
Expanding Horizons: New Subjects and Styles
We are a composite people. Our knowledge is eclectic. . . . It remains, then, for us to be as eclectic in our art as in the rest of our civilization.
—James Jackson Jarves, The Art Idea (1864)
Is it important for American art to have a distinct national identity? James Jackson Jarves, a critic and collector, was not alone in his belief that the arts in the United States would fail to thrive if the nation’s artists worked in isolation. This view reflected practical as well as idealistic considerations. European art was still in far greater demand on the American market, and Americans had no hope of competing with their foreign rivals unless they could match them aesthetically and technically.
With travel restrictions lifted at the close of the Civil War in 1865, a new generation of American artists began to look farther afield for subjects and training. Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, American students gravitated to the art capitals of Paris, Munich, and London, where they received rigorous academic training and experienced the tremendous changes taking place in contemporary European art. Many found new painting grounds throughout the Continent, and others embraced the vogue for exotic subject matter, traveling to the Near and Far East.
As the works in this section demonstrate, the results of foreign experience were varied, and in that sense, Jarves’s call for eclecticism was fulfilled. Nationality remained a source of pride, but for many American artists, it was no longer considered central to the work; rather, they sought to participate competitively in the international arena.
Making Art: Plain Styles
Plain style is a new expression proposed as an alternative for terms such as primitive, naïve, outsider, and folk art to describe the paintings, sculpture, and decorative and utilitarian objects exhibited in this section.
While the unschooled artists and makers of “plain” objects sometimes employed the stylistic conventions and techniques of formally trained art-makers, they often misunderstood rules or modified them to suit their own abilities or visions. Because of this, their efforts produced art that is like the work in other sections of these galleries, but simpler. They are plain versions of what in other cases may be very elaborate or complex. While these works may be lacking in a certain technical sophistication, it has long been recognized that such simplicity has a power and appeal of its own. Collectors, scholars, and critics in the earlier twentieth century often associated this plainness with a set of ideal American social and moral values such as homeliness, sincerity, and independence. Others have interpreted the clarity, boldness, and distinct surface patterns of these works as forerunners of the pared-down forms of modernism.