Philadelphia Museum of Art, 171 pp., $50.00; $39.95 (paper)
A viewer familiar with early- and mid-nineteenth-century American decorative arts, specifically with the painted ornamentation on the furniture, clocks, and china of the time—the squat travelers on their way, the sailboats with their pointy sails, the trees with their one-brushstroke boughs—might do a double take looking at the work of Thomas Chambers. It is as if all the curvy, streamlined, and dexterously executed flourishes on those pre–Civil War wood, fabric, and lusterware domestic items have been captured by, or perhaps stolen by, this British-born, American marine and landscape artist of the time. Whether he paints shipping in Boston harbor, with flags and clouds stretched by the wind, or sloops making their way up the Hudson River on a glistening autumn afternoon, or his subject is the wonder of being face to face with a giant waterfall, Chambers’s work, currently the subject of a rousing exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, seems at first less like the product of a particular person than an emanation of antebellum American life as a whole.
Adding to one’s initial sense of disorientation when looking at Chambers—who in all probability died in 1869, at sixty-one—is a salient detail associated with his shadowy presence in the annals of American art. The first time he was exhibited was in 1942, in a New York gallery, where, as part of the show’s title, he was called “First American Modern.” At the time, such an appellation was hardly far-fetched. In the early 1940s, modern art, in sculpture as well as painting, could be seen as almost synonymous with boldly simplified forms and with brushwork and intense, bright color that call attention to themselves. In that world, where American nineteenth-century folk painters such as Edward Hicks and Ammi Phillips could seem kin to Miró and Calder, Chambers—whose mountains, ship sails, clouds, waves, sprays of spume from waterfalls, and boulders along the shore have the presence of so many flat yet animate shapes, and give some of his pictures the beauty of arabesques—could certainly strike viewers as having an affinity with Hicks and Phillips, if not exactly as our first “modern.”
If the label stops us in our tracks today, it may be because the connotations of “modern art” are less clear now than they were in the early 1940s, and the description can feel dated as well. Making the acquaintance of Chambers is thus a doubly spooky experience. It is as though in looking at him we are coming in contact primarily with the taste of the 1940s in addition to the taste of the 1840s—a condition set in motion because the artist as a person is a blank to us. After his auspicious debut, Chambers became sought after by serious collectors of folk art; but given that the present show is now only the second he has had and is …