The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA Presents 150 Years of American Masterpieces

Los Angeles, – The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) presents American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765 1915, , a major exhibition highlighting the variety and strength of American artistic achievement during an epochal century and a half, from the colonial era through the period leading to World War I. American Stories—the first survey of American narrative painting in more than thirty-five years—features over seventy works, including loans from leading museums and private collections, as well as key works from LACMA’s collection. LACMA’s presentation—the exhibition’s only West Coast showing—will be on view in the museum’s Art of the Americas building from February 28 through May 23, 2010.

William Sidney Mount, “The Power of Music”, 1847. 17 1/16 x 21 1/16 inches. The Cleveland Museum of Art. ©The Cleveland Museum of Art

“American Stories features many of America’s most celebrated artists, represented by some of their best works—iconic examples that have appeared in American textbooks for generations,” says Bruce Robertson, consulting curator of American art at LACMA. “These images reflect their times, but they also actively develop and shape what we know about the past, as great works often do.”

Between the American Revolution and World War I, a group of British colonies became states, the frontier pushed westward until the new nation spanned the continent, a rural and agricultural society became urban and industrial, and the United States—reunified after the Civil War under an increasingly powerful federal government—emerged as a leading participant in world affairs. Throughout this complicated, transformative period, artists recorded American life as it changed around them. The exhibition concentrates on a core group of major painters: John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, George Caleb Bingham, William Sidney Mount, Richard Caton Woodville, Eastman Johnson, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and George Bellows. In addition to
selections of these artists’ works, the exhibition features key examples by lesser-known artists that encompass a broad array of subjects and styles.

Excluding images based on history, myth, or literature, American Stories emphasizes instead those derived from artists’ firsthand observation, documentation, and interaction with clients. Recurring themes such as childhood, marriage, family, and community; the notion of citizenship; attitudes toward race; the frontier as reality and myth; and the process and meaning of making art illuminate the evolution of American artists’ approach to narrative.

American Stories opens with a thematically organized gallery that illustrates the continuity of stories through the full extent of the exhibition, as well as the different ways in which artists told these stories. These range from John Singleton Copley’s dramatic Watson and the Shark (1778) to William McGregor Paxton’s The Breakfast (1911). Copley portrays an encounter between a large shark and a fourteen-year-old boy swimming in Havana harbor, but also tells a story of the community of sailors who save him, while Paxton depicts the unraveling of another kind of community: marriage. LACMA’s presentation of American Stories is arranged in five broad chronological sections and includes a supplemental section devoted to stories unique to California.

Inventing American Stories, 1765–1830
Many early American artists focused on individuals, specific locales, and relationships, but the cleverest among them responded to broader narrative agendas, telling stories within the bounds of portraiture. Although portraiture dominated artistic enterprise into the post-revolutionary era, patrons gradually learned to read paintings as more than mere likenesses. Affected by shifts in society, artistic practices, and clientele, portraitists began to reveal their sitters’ desired social positions and to delight them with more elaborate compositions. Charles Willson Peale’s painting Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming (1788) portrays his married patrons as if they were still courting.

Stories for the Public, 1830–1860
In the early 1830s, artists began to paint more scenes of everyday life, filled with recognizable types: the good mother, the old Revolutionary War veteran, the canny Yankee, and other stock characters. Artists avoided subjects that might be melodramatic or unpleasant, unless they took place far away, in the new frontiers of the West. Audiences enjoyed the chance to see themselves, their neighbors, and a full range of Americans on the stages of these canvases, and to do so in the safety of their own homes. These scenes celebrate self-consciously the distinctive strengths and peccadilloes of a new nation. A few artists, however, did hint at the darker side of American experience—the danger of luxury, the taint of slavery, and the violence that lurked under the bustling, go-getting surface of American society—as in Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South (1859), a subtle allegory of the strength of black Americans’ family bonds despite the pressure of poverty and slavery.

Stories of War and Reconciliation, 1860–1877
The unique and overwhelming circumstances of the Civil War and the years of Reconstruction challenged American artists. The confluence of charged political and economic events, as well as profound social change, created such turmoil that many artists chose to examine only small, reassuring slices of the human experience in subtle, open-ended narratives. Seeking to assuage the sorrow of the war and heal the nation’s fractured spirit, painters turned away from military and political content. Artists depicted women in new roles who were grappling with the responsibilities left to them after the loss of so many men in combat. And, as the agrarian basis of American life yielded to urbanization and industrialization, artists who lived, studied, worked, and exhibited their paintings in cities looked to the countryside for subject matter. Winslow Homer’s masterpiece The Cotton Pickers (1876, LACMA) addresses all of these issues in a monumental study of two black women picking cotton in Virginia after the war.

Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories, 1877–1900
By the mid-1870s, the tastes of American viewers and patrons had changed in response to the expanded opportunities for travel. They were as likely to paint people enjoying everyday life in Paris or the French countryside as they were in New York or New England. Their works evade the harsh realities of urban existence, and, compared to earlier genre scenes, their stories are ambiguous and at times elusive. Mary Cassatt’s study of a bored young sitter in Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (1878) touches on these issues. Many painters recorded the lives of women as devoted mothers, dedicated household managers, participants in genteel feminine rituals, and resolute keepers of culture. A few artists told tales about men at work and leisure while celebrating new American heroes. The cowboy emerged as an icon of American masculinity and the shrinking frontier, as is seen in Frederic Remington’s Fight for the Water Hole (1903).

Stories of the City, 1900–1915
By 1900, the city had become a significant theme for artists, a place of pleasure and excitement rather than danger. The artists of the Ashcan School (so-called because they were accused of painting ash cans, or garbage, rather than higher-class subjects) were known for celebrating the immigrant neighborhoods of the city and their entertainments rather than ignoring or condemning them. George Bellows and John Sloan in particular delighted in the raucous qualities of working-class culture, as seen for instance in Bellows’s spectacularly aggressive Club Night (1907) or his vivid Cliff Dwellers (1913, LACMA). But even as they championed the ability of painters to capture life itself, other artists were exploring abstraction. While storytelling painting would continue, it would now share the stage with radically different artistic forms.

California Stories
Exclusive to LACMA’s presentation is an additional section dedicated to California Stories, curated by Ilene Susan Fort, Gail and John Liebes Curator of American Art at LACMA. Drawn from local collections, a selection of a half dozen paintings focuses on themes of mining, tourism, and ethnicity unique to California, illustrating stories of the Gold Rush, the region’s extraordinary natural beauty, and the Hispanic and Asian heritage of the state. Among the artists represented will be Albertus Browere, William Hahn, and Ernest Narjot.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 is organized by The Metropolitan Museum of Art and curated at LACMA by Consulting Curator Bruce Robertson, professor of art history, University of California, Santa Barbara, in collaboration with H. Barbara Weinberg, Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, and Carrie Rebora Barratt, associate director for collections and administration, both of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Margaret C. Conrads, Samuel Sosland Curator of American Art, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, also contributed to planning the exhibition. Prior to its showing at LACMA, American Stories was on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010).