Exhibitions: American Identities: A New Look

The Centennial Era, 1876–1900: Tradition and Innovation

Gallery view of The Centennial Era, American Identities

Gallery view of "The Centennial Era, 1876–1900: Tradition and Innovation," American Identities

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

Gallery view of The Centennial Era, 1876-1900: Tradition and Innovation

Gallery view of "The Centennial Era, 1876–1900: Tradition and Innovation," American Identities

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.

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