The Art Institute of Chicago has triumphantly reinstalled and expanded its Galleries of American Art by integrating the 50 best paintings from the now-closed Terra Museum of American Art with 650 paintings, sculptures, decorative artworks and pieces of furniture from the Art Institute's permanent collection.
According to Judith Barter, the Art Institute's Curator of American Art, the "pictures from the Terra Foundation Collection are perfect complements to our own. In picking the 50 paintings, we followed the curatorial standards and sensibilities that have made the Art Institute's collection among the best in the world: esthetic quality, condition, historical meaning and relationship to the rest of our permanent collection."
Barter has installed American art from the colonial period to 1950 in 23 contiguous spaces on two floors. Work of the 18th and 19th century is presented in two spacious central galleriesone for sculpture and one for larger paintingssurrounded by period rooms with smaller paintings, sculptures, furniture and decorative arts. The 700 objects are so gracefully installed that nothing seems crowded.
Visitors watch America mature from a colony with a derivative European culture into a nation with a personality of its own. In addition to its considerable esthetic interest, the art raises issues of national identity and the relationship between artists and the public. There's so much work here--and so much to be said about it--that this article covers the expanded galleries up to about 1900. In a second article, we will describe the galleries of American art from 1900 to 1950.
Skylit Sculpture Garden
In the center of the American galleries is a skylit sculpture garden with 19th and 20th century works in white marble and bronze. The marbles are mythological figures (Truth, The Last Pliade) and idealized versions of people from history (Pocahontas). These sculptures, which follow Classical models, are formally accomplished, with much attention paid to anatomy and drapery. Nydia, Blind Girl of Pompeii resonates with our time. Nydia became separated from her companions as they fled the eruption of Vesuvius. Like a victim of a terror attack, she gropes alone through fire and chaos, her garments flying.
Among the bronzes is a maquette for Abraham Lincoln (1916), the familiar Daniel Chester French sculpture in the Lincoln Memorial. Even at greatly diminished scale, this depiction of the greatest American is surprisingly powerful. There are three bronzes by Frederick W. MacMonnies: Nathan Hale, Pan, and Bacchante With Infant Faun (1894). The latter is a nude woman with a baby in one arm and grapes in the other (she's looking at the grapes) dancing enthusiastically. In 1894, when this athletic work was first shown in Boston, the newspapers denounced it as "lewd" and an "invitation to drunkenness."
In the Colonial galleries, there are four portraits by John Singleton Copley, three by John Wollaston, and several by other artists. Wollaston's Portrait of a Young Man (1749-52) and Portrait of a Young Woman (1749-52) show single figures, gently lit from one side and with landscapes behind them. Change a few details and these paintings could have been made during the Renaissance.
Colonial portraits such as these reflect a world of shared belief. Subject and artist had a religious faith and a common vision of law, government and civil behavior. These sober people lived at a time when many died young in epidemics and families often ran completely out of food. American colonials could not have imagined today's fashionable attitudes of ironic detachment -- and much of what we see in these portraits has gone out of art. Nave and outsider art has a public today, in part because it is made by people who believe in something, even if they are obsessive, cranky and lacking skills.
Empire Style, Rococo and Remington
Greater variety comes into the art after independence. The most exciting work in the Empire Style gallery is General Andrew Jackson (1819), a head in unglazed terracotta that shows Jackson as a dashing man of action rather than the familiar white-haired patriarch on the twenty-dollar bill. A stiff military collar frames Jackson's narrow face and long jaw. A breeze animates his hair and his eyes look restlessly to one side beneath bristly, bushy brows.
Thomas Wakeman Wood's The Yankee Pedlar (1872) is a pleasing genre scene. The peddler has parked his wagon in the farmer's barn and displays his goods. The husband, who listens to his pitch, has eggs by his side, possibly for use in bargaining, and the wife holds cloth in her hand that she may already have purchased. Their blond-haired little daughter looks on.
It's hard to resist Constant Mayer's Love's Melancholy (1866), in which a terribly sad, ever-so-slightly windblown young woman in a black silk dress stands outdoors with flowers in her hands. She looks modestly downward and to one side. Behind her in the distance lies a village. The sky is partly overcast.
During the Rococo Revival, furniture takes center stage with its dark wood and carved roses, vines, fruit, fish and dog heads. The sofas and chairs become positively orgiastic with ornate shapes, bright-colored upholstery in fancy patterns, lots of dangles and fringes and even cow horns. Still life paintings, some quite lush, hang on the walls of these galleries, as well as Mary Cassatt's After the Bullfight (1873) and works by Elihu Vedder, a symbolist whose work owes much to the Pre-Raphaelites.
In the Aesthetic Movement gallery, the furniture calms down and the painting perks up. We recognized Sargent's Breton Woman With a Basket (1877), a sketch for Oyster Gatherers of Carcate, from the Terra Museum, and also liked The Caf (1882-84), by Fernand Lundgren. This handsome painting, which was obviously made in Paris, is done in a distinctive style that no one would confuse with French artists of the time.
One of the period rooms contains eight (!!) Whistlers--five from the Art Institute and three from the Terra, all small, informal, and economical with wondrous color and light. In The Artist in His Studio (1872), Whistler gives tremendous life and personality to nearly transparent figures that he paints in pale white, peach and gray. The Whistler Room (What else can we call it?) also contains several Tiffany Glass vases.
American art comes explosively into its own in the Frederick Remington room. His Wild West paintings and bronzes depict topography, light, colors and people that exist nowhere else on earth. Savage-looking Indians fight toe-to-toe with the U.S. Cavalry, while rootin' tootin' six-gun shootin' cowboys gallop across the Great Plains. Native American portraits by Elbridge Ayer Burbank provide a thoughtful counterpoint to Remingtonian mayhem.
But, still, it's not over yet! There are wonderful things in the big central gallery, including Hudson River School paintings by Frederic Edwin Church and Thomas Cole; Dorothea and Francesca (1898), Cecilia Beaux's lovely, liquid portrait of a young woman teaching her little sister how to dance; Lotus Lilies (1888) by Charles Courtney Curran, a Terra Museum favorite; and Winslow Homer's Croquet Scene (1866), an Art Institute icon.
The Art Institute owns George Inness paintings from all periods in his career, including two that he made late in life while he lived in Tarpon Springs, Florida: Early Morning, Tarpon Springs (1892) and Home of the Heron (1893). Both are spiritual, almost valedictory paintings that perfectly render Florida's flat, wet landscape and semi-tropical vegetation. In Early Morning, Tarpon Springs, a lone figure (the artist?) stands in a marshy area with scattered trees and a hawk in the sky behind him. Home of the Heron, a landscape at sunset, hovers between figuration and abstraction. When he made these paintings, Inness surely knew that he did not have much time left. Like the true artist that he was, he challenged himself, produced this work, and in so doing, affirmed life.
For my money, the Innesses are the two best paintings in these galleries. Anyone who disagrees must look at this feast of art and choose personal favorites. By the time they're done, they'll be much too pleased to argue about anything.