Made for George B. Sloan (1831–1904), the richest man in Oswego, New York, this cabinet closely follows a form produced by the Lamb cabinetmaking firm in Manchester, England. The large painted panels representing spring and autumn, and the smaller ones of Taurus and Leo were probably executed by Christian Herter, who was a principal of the firm along with his half brother Gustave. The painted decoration has astrological connotations and might well refer to Sloan’s wife and marriage.
From Colony to Nation: The Colonial Period
The diverse array of objects in this gallery, ranging from Copley portraits of prominent New Englanders to an Argentine low table, once ornamented colonial interiors throughout the Americas from the late 1600s to 1776. They represent the kind of luxury items through which colonists raised and maintained their social status in their self-made societies. Small groupings within the gallery focus on the artistic traditions of the Anglo-Dutch colonists of New York; the high styles of colonial Boston; and paired comparisons of North and South American portraits and furniture based on shared European stylistic sources. Among these colonial productions, a Zuni water jar stands as a reminder of the continuity of Native American artistic traditions in North America throughout the colonial period. Symbols of the Early Republic The grand and elegant objects showcased in this section of the gallery were designed to visually link the young American Republic to the illustrious democracies of classical Greece and republican Rome. Ambitious American artists of the Federal Era combined refined European styles of the moment with classical symbols, including columns and eagles, to produce paintings, furniture, architectural elements, and porcelain for fashionable, upper-class patrons. Inspired by high-minded ideals and ornamented with symbols of national identity and civic consciousness, such objects share a formality and restrained opulence considered appropriate to the time. Among the owners of the works displayed here were illustrious Brooklynites whose homes were maintained at the height of the period’s fashion.
A Nation Divided: The Civil War Era
The contents of this gallery underscore the fact that dramatically few nineteenth-century American artists undertook the challenge of directly representing the Civil War or the burning issue of American slavery. The majority, unwilling or unequipped to confront the destruction, loss, and trauma of the war years, continued to record an undisturbed American landscape and home life for an audience seeking reassurance that their former way of life and their nation might survive. The paintings, sculpture, and decorative objects gathered here demonstrate the ways in which American artists did refer to the war and its causes: with few exceptions, the works created during the conflict refer to it symbolically, whereas those created in the decades that followed were part of a virtual industry devoted to memorializing the Union cause and its heroes. It remained for artists of the twentieth century, whose work is also featured in this space, to fully confront the violent racial injustices that continued to divide the nation long after the war had ended.
The Centennial Era, 1876–1900: Tradition and Innovation
The one-hundredth anniversary of the United States in 1876 initiated a period of intensive national self-examination and self-promotion. The Centennial was celebrated in a series of massive cultural fairs, beginning with the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition, which displayed not only American resources, products, and technology, but Native American crafts, colonial antiques, and the works of living American artists. The contemporary art objects exhibited at the fair, like those on view in this gallery, were dramatically varied, as artists embraced a surprising array of past traditions and current subjects, revival styles and progressive forms, in their diverging efforts to redefine a national style. The art of the period in these galleries ranges from colonial history paintings to modern urban views and European-inspired nudes; from furniture in historical-revival styles to the machine-made; and from storytelling porcelains to japoniste glass and silver to Native American pottery and baskets produced for a white market. This remarkable pluralism predominated through the turn of the century, until it was overtaken by the forces of modernism. First Americans in the Centennial Era The opening of the 1876 Centennial exhibition in Philadelphia coincided with the beginning of a decades-long era of severe repression of Native American populations. As the works in this gallery demonstrate, white portrayals of Native Americans from this moment became dreamily idealized or solemnly heroic, casting American Indians as symbols of a distant, unthreatening, past. At this moment when carefully documented Native American dress and artifacts were employed to lend such portrayals authenticity, Indians were being forced to abandon their traditional activities for the imposed regimen of reservation life. Ironically, it was the “scientific” displays of Native American objects at the late nineteenth-century expositions—viewed as documents of indigenous cultures nearing extinction—that helped to stimulate the turn-of-the-century market for certain handcrafted native objects. Although this market was controlled primarily by white ethnologists and entrepreneurs, Indians embraced the opportunity to revive and perpetuate traditional artistic methods and designs, and produced objects for eager tourists, collectors, and department stores. The selections here include the baskets, pottery, textiles, and jewelry that were among the most popular items of the period.
Everyday Life: Looking Outside
This gallery features work by artists who depicted the daily life of people at home, on the farm, and out West, in what are known as genre paintings. These images spin out sentimental, humorous, and often nostalgic figural narratives in outdoor settings that would have been familiar to their audiences. Some depict unique “American” characters—the Yankee, the westerner, and the yeoman farmer—types that also appeared in theater, literature, and popular culture of the nineteenth century. Idealized rural life was often presented as a beneficial contrast to congested cities, where most of the patrons who enjoyed these paintings lived and worked. American lifestyles have continued to fascinate and preoccupy artists as they have undergone dramatic redefinition over the twentieth century and into the present. As was the case for many genre painters of the nineteenth century, humor and hyperbole often serve contemporary artists who consider or question the customs of this country. Looking Inside All of the works on view in this area—portraits, still lifes, interiors, and household objects—offer a window onto the private, domestic spaces for which they were produced, and which a number of them depict. Then, as now, houses and their contents revealed the taste, status, and values of their occupants. Portraits can reveal the ambitions, attainments, or personal relationships of their sitters. Still lifes can suggest the preference of an artist or his audience for humble or lavish arrangements of objects. Interior scenes and furnishings provide a more immediate sense of lifestyle, whether opulent or humble. The lives of women, so integral to the notion of home life in any period, are the focus of a particular group of objects in this section.
The works in this section demonstrate the impact of foreign travel on American fine and decorative arts in the decades immediately following the Civil War, at a time when wartime travel restrictions were lifted and a new generation of American artists began to look farther afield for subjects and training. The results of foreign experience were varied: the works here range from paintings of European and Middle Eastern subjects to Japanese-inspired porcelains to French-influenced furniture. Motivated at least in part by a desire to compete with the European art that was fast overtaking the market in the United States, young American artists sought to enhance the sophistication and cosmopolitanism of their productions through contact with foreign cultures. Many of these Americans took pride in their nationality but no longer found it central to their work.
Inventing American Landscape
Ranging from well-known Hudson River School subjects and expansive western panoramas to abstracted modernist landscapes and contemporary interpretations of environment, the landscape subjects on view in this gallery demonstrate an enduring, universal preoccupation with humanity’s ties to nature and place. The American landscape movement emerged in the 1820s as artists, writers, and cultural leaders began to employ landscape subjects as symbols of national identity and manifest destiny. Painters of the period celebrated American scenery and landmarks in carefully composed and detailed paintings and prints that were often reproduced on dinnerware and furniture. These objects helped to motivate a booming tourism industry, which posed a conflict between progress and preservation—a tension that still shapes American attitudes to nature today. After the sobering experience of the Civil War, American landscape painters gravitated to more intimate settings and adopted a more evocative and freely brushed style inspired by newly popular French art. The abstract styles introduced into the art of the United States in the early twentieth century were also applied to the portrayal of American landscape. They ultimately led to the highly individualized, contemporary interpretations of natural features and settings that are also on view in this gallery.
This gallery holds a wide variety of art objects created by untrained artists in what can be described as plain style, another way of referring to works considered to be folk or naive art. Among them are appealing utilitarian objects, including ceramic kitchenware and painted furniture, as well as carved animals, devotional paintings and sculptures, and portraits. While the unschooled artists and makers of these objects sometimes employed the stylistic conventions and techniques of formally trained art-makers, they often misunderstood or modified rules according to their own abilities or visions. Although their works may be lacking in technical sophistication, it has long been recognized that such simplicity has a power and appeal of its own. From the second quarter of the twentieth century, collectors and critics have associated these plain-style objects with the ideals of sincerity and independence, and they have linked their clarity and boldness to the pared-down forms of modernism. The Academic Figure All of the artists represented in this area attended art academies—either in the United States or Europe—where they were taught to draw and paint according to a set of “academic” rules that guaranteed acceptance among an influential audience. Academic teaching placed the art of the ancient Greeks, and especially the Greek ideal of the perfectly proportioned human form, as the standard to which artists should aspire. In their depictions of the figure, some of the artists represented here adhered to academic teaching, whereas others struck out on more independent stylistic paths over the course of their careers. Innovation in the representation of the human form increased beginning in the late nineteenth century, when American artists first encountered Impressionism and subsequent European early modernist developments, and new approaches to the figure continue to emerge.
Modern Life: Technology and the City
The works in this section of the gallery are all tied to the notion of modernity—a concept most often associated with rapid technological innovations that change society radically. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the awareness of modernity was exceptionally strong in cities, in large part because technology, including electricity, elevators, and skyscrapers, was transforming the patterns of people’s daily lives. Urban change was further stimulated by the influx of rural Americans and immigrants eager for work in economic and industrial centers. Most of the paintings displayed in this area concentrate on New York scenes, in a variety of styles, in which artists investigated the pictorial possibilities of these new subjects: city people, construction sites, urban entertainments, and bustling traffic. The decorative-arts objects on view draw more generally on forms abstracted from urban architecture and machine technology. Nonobjective Art The abstract or “nonobjective” art in this gallery represents a period in the early twentieth century when American artists began to follow their European counterparts in questioning the purpose and nature of art. Many avant-garde (progressive or experimental) artists rejected traditional ways of representation out of a belief that clearly identifiable and traditionally painted subjects were limited in their ability to express meaning. Instead, some artists relied on the basic formal elements of art—for instance, line, shape, and color—to suggest abstract, universal concepts (love, war, music, spirit, energy). Other artists believed that the subject matter should be limited to art itself, and purposely confined their work to analyzing visual elements to discover their purest forms. Americans who had not witnessed the aesthetic revolution taking place in Europe could see avant-garde art and discuss theory in the small New York gallery of the photographer-dealer Alfred Stieglitz. In 1913 the debut of the controversial Armory Show in American cities introduced contemporary avant-garde European art to a broad segment of the American public, establishing firm battle lines between traditional and avant-garde tastes that still exist today. Art after 1945 With the close of World War II in 1945, the United States was thrust into a position of political, economic, and cultural predominance over a war-ravaged Europe. This was the beginning of the atomic age and the Cold War—a perplexing era characterized by both a booming economy and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Young American artists experimented with the achievements of pioneering European modernists and sought to create new visual languages. With the ascendancy of the intuitive, gestural style of Abstract Expressionism by the late 1950s, New York became the center of the international art world, and American artists the trendsetters. Building on this momentum, artists and designers of the 1960s created the pure forms of Minimalism. The increasing rapidity of social, political, and technological change throughout the remainder of the century found parallels in an art world that was equally destabilized. Pluralism dominated the 1970s, and the subsequent decades have brought about an even richer diversity as artists have forcefully explored issues of race and gender. The post-1945 American works on view here reveal a wide array of formal approaches and themes, and demonstrate the individualism and innovation that have been the hallmarks of American art production for the past fifty years.
American Identities: A New Look
September 12, 2001–February 28, 2016
This major installation of more than three hundred fifty objects from our premier collection of American art integrates a vast array of fine and decorative arts (silver, furniture, ceramics, and textiles) ranging in date from the colonial period to the present. For the first time, major objects from these exceptional collections are joined by selections from our important holdings of Native American and Spanish colonial art.
The galleries are organized according to eight innovative themes: From Colony to Nation; A Nation Divided: The Civil War Era; The Centennial Era, 1876–1900: Tradition and Innovation; Everyday Life; Expanding Horizons; Inventing American Landscape; Making Art; and Modern Life (see highlights at left). Through these themes you can explore historical moments and crucial ideas in American visual culture over the course of nearly three hundred years. Featured within these sections are American masterworks for which these collections have long been known, by such artists and makers as John Singleton Copley, Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, Herter Brothers, Union Porcelain Works, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Edmondson, David Smith, Richard Diebenkorn, and Robert Colescott.