"Paris 1900: The 'American School' at the Universal Exposition," at the Montclair Museum of Art, 3 South Mountain Ave., Montclair, N.J. 07042.
What fun to be transported back to 1900 -- and without enduring so much as a time warp!
The Montclair Art Museum's millennial offering, "Paris 1900: The 'American School ' at the Universal Exposition," stunningly recreates the American section of this great international exposition. The United States had just won the Spanish-American War and felt itself a world power. With its entry in this show, America sought to establish itself as a cultural power with its own school of art.
Needless to say, the American art world was as nationalistic in 1900 as it is today. At the previous Exposition in France, in 1889, American art was viewed largely as an extension of French art. Many American artists went to school in Paris, where they learned French academic methods. For the 1900 Expo, the American Department of Fine Arts, led by John B. Cauldwell, decided to include works with more American subject matter, in order to create an "American School."
Montclair's associate curator Diane P. Fischer, who organized the show, hunted down about 80 works from the American pavilion. Paintings are given priority over work in other mediums, and placed together, as they were during the original exhibition. (The French still glorified painting and insisted that it be shown separately.) What's more, the museum has redecorated two huge, high-ceilinged galleries with mahogany wainscoting, green wall coverings and long green draperies at the doorways, so that visitors really get the feeling that they are back in Paris in 1900.
The works range from Winslow Homer's The Fox Hunt and Thomas Eakins' The Cello Player to misty Tonalist American landscapes by Montclair's best-known local artist George Inness.
The American West is celebrated in Charles Schreyvogel's action-packed My Bunkie, which shows four cavalrymen on galloping horses, presumably about to attack some Native Americans. One soldier is falling off a horse as his riding partner pulls him back up.
Only a faint whiff of American Impressionism is discernable in an occasional piece, like Henry Ward Ranger's brightly lit Brooklyn Bridge. (Impressionism in general was poorly represented at the fair, as the French Impressionists were too radical to appear in the French section.)
Two highly esteemed expatriates were included in the American section, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. Whistler's self-portrait depicts the artist as a quizzical dandy who stares straight back at the viewer, and his The Little White Girl: Symphony in White No. II is a delicately colored delight.
Not all the works are so interesting. The show includes many academic portraits and nudes, plus peasant scenes and historical works that were done by Americans in what was essentially a French style. Today, most are simply embarrassing. George Hitchcock's Magnificat strains to be a version of the Virgin Mary suitable to Protestant America ca. 1900. Expatriate American artists tended to produce lots of these stale, Frenchified paintings. One exception is Edwin Lord Weeks who painted Indian Barbers -- Saharanpore, a satisfying example of Orientalism.
Outside the "Les États-Unis" section of paintings are some of the decorative arts pieces that were at the fair. Among these are Grueby, Rookwood and Tiffany vases, and silver by Gorham and Tiffany and a plaster version eight feet high of Augustus Saint-Gaudens' angelic Amor Caritas. A lovely Tiffany & Co. brooch is made with Montana sapphires, natural fresh-water pearls from Wisconsin and Tennessee, diamonds, platinum and enamel. Now that's American.
To complement "Paris 1900," the Montclair Art Museum has also organized an absorbing exhibition called "American Tonalism," through Jan. 2, 2000, featuring works by Inness and his followers along with photographs.
"Paris 1900" travels to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Feb.11-Apr. 16, 2000; the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, May 18-Aug. 13, 2000; the Elvehjem Museum of Art, Madison, Wis., Sept.16-Dec.3, 2000, and the Musée Carnavalet, Paris, in early 2001.
N. F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.