ART REVIEW: “American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915”-Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“American Stories”, which exhibits at LACMA from February 28 to May 23, was a fresh new experience for me as an art enthusiast. American art is not at all my forte; I am used to the comforting familiarity of European (especially Renaissance and Baroque) art, and I am used to feeling knowledgeable about what I am seeing. However, I was the learner when I went to see this exhibit, and I was eager to learn and understand what characterizes and influences American art. This exhibit displayed American art from several periods of time: there was art from the pre-Revolutionary War period, art from after the war, art depicting the nineteenth century westward expansion, art during the time of the Civil War, and a special section with art pertaining to Californian landscapes, painted during the time of the Gold Rush. It was fascinating for me to watch the transition of styles and themes over time. For example, before the Revolutionary war, when Americans had no national identity and considered themselves British citizens, American art was a commodity, to be bought and sold and displayed as a sign of wealth. Thus the art during this period is mainly portraiture of affluent patrons who had no real interest in art and these paintings, while technically adept, possess little real innovation or emotion.

Art during the war takes on heroic, dramatic subjects, which can be seen in the painting “Watson and the Shark” by John Singleton Copley, painted in 1788. The work is a violent emotional narrative that depicts the rescue of fourteen year old Brook Watson from a shark. All of the figures are animated, and the composition is dynamic, which leaves you fearing for Watson’s life.

(lacma.org)

After the war the idea of the American citizen was established, and the subject of American art changed to honor the life of the ordinary American. The art of this period, which includes art until the mid-1800s, depicts a multitude of commonplace subjects, which included domestic scenes and social gatherings and everyday instances, such as the 1858 painting “The New Bonnet” by Francis William Edmonds. The painting depicts a young lady delighting in her new elegant, lace-trimmed bonnet. Artists of this period painted their friends and family and also did public commissions.

With the nineteenth century came the great expansion Westward, and the art created during this time depicts families going west and struggles between settlers and native Americans. One of the works during this time that caught my eye was “Advice on the Prairie”, by William Tylee Ranney. This painting reminded me of a Laura Ingalls Wilder book: the wise father addressing his family while resting. However, this painting did not seem realistic because the journey West was long and arduous and painful, while all of the figures in the painting are spotless. This painting, with its bright colors and romanticized composition and subject matter, seemed to me to be an idealized imagining of what the trip west was like, and was most likely intended for audiences back East. During the civil war, a time of great turmoil in the United States, the art reflected the bleakness and despair that the war created, but also the promise of hope and renewal. The Winslow Homer work “The Veteran in a New Field” is a colorful, yet stark, depiction of a soldier who has gone back to farming after the war. He has abandoned his Union coat and ceased fighting and is farming, representing renewal and peace and prosperity. Also featured in a small room in the exhibit was a collection of paintings from the mid 1800s about California. There were lovely views of Yosemite and early undeveloped Santa Monica, but the emotional center lay in the stark depiction of a dog mourning its dead master in a snowy wasteland. Much of the art from California at this time depicts gold miners going to make their fortunes, but many were romanticized pictures, while the painting mentioned above was harshly real and gripping.

Then we come to the turn of the twentieth century, and American art once again changes form. American artists of this time were inspired by the Impressionist movement of France. The museum has on display one of the masterpieces of Impressionism, “Woman Preparing to Wash Her Sleepy Child” by the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists: Mary Cassatt. This wonderful painting depicts a woman and her sleepy child, who is in motion, squirming like a real child would. Other art of this time period depicts city life, as evidenced in a breezy, light-shifting painting by George Bellows depicting a street in New York. The figures and buildings are sketchy, but still you are transported to the world of the painting.

This exhibit is definitely a must-see. For those without a background in the development and evolution of American art, it is informative. For those American history buffs, it is an illustrated journey through the triumphs and trials of our country. And for those who love art, it really should not be missed.

Comments

  1. This is amazing! I just learned that there truly can be an incredible depth to a piece of art, especially these. I feel like I am sitting in the picture watching everything happen from the way you describe them. You'd be a great Art Historian

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  2. That's cool :D I think I know the Mary Cassatt picture you're talking about.

    P.S. This may be just the formatting of the blog, but these might be easier to read if you indented your paragraphs.

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  3. I posted my feedback on the wrong blog! My comments on this one are on the MFA blog. Ooops. So in exchange...next time I am in Boston, I will check out the MFA right BEFORE I check out Fenway Park!

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  4. Wow, what a journey! I already feel more knowledgable about the path American art has taken. Thank you for the informative article and great reccomendation!
    --Brelamay

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  5. What a journey! I already feel more knowledgable about the path American art has taken! Thank you for the informative article and great reccomendation.
    --Brelamay

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  6. Each post is better than the next! I will be sure to catch the exhibit, and keep an eye out for the pieces you mentioned!

    xx
    maya

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  7. I'm not really into art but this looks interesting
    From ben

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  8. see-it all doesnt have to be madonna and child. well-written, but need more paragraphs. was rthere no photography in show? the civil war marked to start of photo as art inm u.s. and tour of that period should have included some. loved the piece,thouygh. grandmere

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  9. Great insights and description. Makes even me want to see this exhibit!

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  10. Great detailed review!
    Look forward to checking it out!
    XXAunt E

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