"The Spirit of America: American Art from 1829 to 1970," Nov. 1, 2002-Feb. 15, 2003, at Spanierman Gallery, 45 East 58th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022
In this post-9/11 era, thoughtful people find themselves reconsidering what "patriotism" now means. For those of us in the art world, one good place to take such thoughts is Spanierman Gallery in midtown Manhattan, where a large survey exhibition aptly reflects these new concerns.
"The Spirit of America: American Art from 1829 to 1970," which includes 90 works spanning over 150 years, heralds an America so glorious that it truly seems inextricably linked to Manifest Destiny, the mid-19th-century political philosophy devoted to expanding the "boundaries of freedom." The works at Spanierman portray a country possessed of an astonishing array of beautiful landscapes, vibrant cityscapes and alluring individuals. The inventory of America's bounty seems almost immodest.
Works by Albert Bierstadt, George Inness and Albert Pinkham Ryder are especially good examples of the equation of glorious landscapes and American nationalism. Among the lush scenes of nature is a small but stunning work by Frederick Edwin Church titled Moses Viewing the Promised Land (1846). The light-filled landscape study shows the prophet atop a hill, overlooking what is obviously upstate New York. Clearly, for Church, Moses could discover a "promised land" no more perfect than the great expanse of the Hudson River Valley.
The "promised land" theme is not uncommon. From the purple mists of Philip Leslie Hale's Niagara Falls (ca. 1902) to the muted and reflective tones of Arthur Wesley Dow's Flood Tide, Ipswich Marshes, Massachusetts (ca. 1900), American artists imbued their nature scenes with a sense of wilderness, beauty and national pride. These artists combined the accomplished techniques of Barbizon painting with the homegrown sense of superiority spurred by American citizenship.
"The Spirit of American Art" also includes a haunting portrait of a young boy by George Bellows, perhaps the most celebrated "Urban Scene" painter. In the ca. 1905 picture, the boy stares out from a shroud of darkness. In the same gallery, a Boston School depiction of a woman reading from the 1890s is still and moving. Around the corner, and perhaps most thrilling, is Fletcher Martin's movement-filled Lullaby (ca. 1942), which features the final and dramatic blow dealt in an interracial boxing match.
One of the last pieces in the show is Guy Carleton Wiggins' Manhattan Winter (Fifth Avenue looking South at 48th Street) (1934). Alone in a corner section of the gallery, this snow-filled city scene is quiet and intense. The cars date from the 1930s but the view is eerily reminiscent of the city today. But the American flag in the painting is what makes it so dramatic. New York City in 1934 was draped with the patriotic symbol, and so is the New York of today.