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Westmoreland exhibit draws from American history |
Art & Museums

Westmoreland exhibit draws from American history

'Sunday Morning' by Asher B. Durand (1796–1886)
“Pilgrims Going to Church,” from 1867 by George Henry Boughton (1833–1905)
'Aeneas and Creusa' by Benjamin West (1738-1820)
'The Windmill' by Francis W. Edmonds (1806–1863).
'St. Nicholas' by Robert W. Weir (1803–1889)
“The Last of the Race” by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1813–1884)

The traveling exhibit “Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art,” on display at Westmoreland Museum of American Art, offers a snapshot of American history.

Spanning the early Republic through the Gilded Age, the exhibit is composed of 47 paintings and seven sculptures that demonstrate the great storytelling capabilities of visual art.

“It nearly covers everything in 19th-century American history, and it gives people an idea of what was going on during that century,” says Barbara Jones, the museum’s chief curator.

Drawn from the collection of the New-York Historical Society, the show has been organized into six thematic groupings — “European Inspiration and American Ambition,” “Inventing American History,” “Traditions Retained and Transformed: Painting Literature and History,” “Everyday Life in the Yankee Way,” “Picturing the Outsider” and “The Life of the Spirit.”

The paintings in each group depict familiar storylines, some that prevailed during their respective periods and some that still resonate today.

For example, everyone will recognize the familiar cherubic face of St. Nicholas in a painting by Robert W. Weir (1803-89) created between 1837-38. Weir depicts the saint as a Christmas elf, seen in a pose made famous by Clement Moore’s “The Night Before Christmas” — “And laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.”

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” a large oil from 1867 by George Henry Boughton (1833-1905), depicts colonists solemnly walking through a snowy wood to worship in a distant settlement. Like Weir, Boughton took his inspiration from the written word. But in this case, it’s from William Henry Bartlett’s 1853 book, “The Pilgrim Fathers.”

Jones says the painting was received with “warm praise” when it debuted at the Royal Academy in London in 1867. “By the time it was displayed at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, it was known widely through engravings,” she says.

Several of these iconic images were reproduced as engravings shortly after they were created. Some were rendered by Asher B. Durand (1796-1886), one of the country’s finest engravers, who is best known for engraving the Declaration of Independence for John Trumbull in 1823. But he also was an excellent painter.

Durand was a religious man. He believed strongly in the restorative capacity of nature. His treatment of the landscape in his painting “Sunday Morning” from 1839 echoes those beliefs. In this grand work, Durand depicts a family making their way through a verdant, sunlit landscape to reach a distant church, as if the journey is part of their spiritual preparation for the service that will take place inside.

The ability to tell a story with a sense of humor comes to the fore in a sentimental work by Francis W. Edmonds (1806-63). Set in a carefully ordered, modest household, “The Wind Mill” depicts a child’s intense excitement over a new toy, as the family dog looks on attentively.

It was exhibited in 1858 at the National Academy of Design, Jones says, where Edmonds’ paintings were admired for their humorous storytelling qualities that appealed to the popular feeling of the day.

Finally, painted two years after the phrase “Manifest Destiny” was coined to justify white America’s westward expansion, “The Last of the Race” by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1813-84) centers on the plight of Native Americans as they were eradicated or stripped of their lands and pushed to the edge of the continent.

While Matteson’s depiction shows the Native American family as stoic and dignified, it affirms the common belief of the period that the day of the Indian was coming to an end.

“It’s a visual metaphor,” Jones says. “The sunset implies that the future of the American Indian as they existed was about to come to a close.”

It’s worth noting that this traveling exhibition was first titled “Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy” when organized by the New-York Historical Society. It includes a catalog ($65, 324 pages) of the same title, available in the museum shop.

Kurt Shaw is the Tribune-Review art critic. Reach him at [email protected].

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