Corners of the American Scene

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, February 28–May 23, 2010
Catalog of the exhibition edited by H. Barbara Weinberg and Carrie Rebora Barratt.
Metropolitan Museum of Art/ Yale University Press, 222 pp., $60 .00; $40.00 (paper)
Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
Richard Caton Woodville: Politics in an Oyster House, 1848

“American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915,” at the Metropolitan Museum, is a version of a show our museums have done on and off over the years and no doubt will continue to do. Given the Met’s own superb collection of American paintings, though, and its clout as a borrower—there are well-known works here by Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singleton Copley, and Mary Cassatt, among others, that one is amazed were lent by their respective museums—few future such exhibitions, it seems, will be as richly stocked.

The point of a show like this, as its installation and catalog make clear, is more social history than art. We are to see how artists mirrored concerns and illusions current in the culture of this or that generation. So, during the period of the Revolution and the early Republic, we follow as artists served their audience with images of industrious and dynamic individuals (this is where Copley’s stunning Paul Revere hangs); and then, from the 1830s on, we look at images—or, as the catalog puts it, “stories”—the culture asked for about the relationship of whites and blacks, or the way backwoodsmen tamed the wilderness. We’re shown how, after the Civil War, women became more visible in public life (the zone where the fashion-conscious young Homer’s deliciously crisp Croquet Scene can be found), city life burgeoned, and, during the Gilded Age, courtesy of John Singer Sargent, the well-to-do took tea.

To a degree, this emphasis on themes is welcome. Our sense of art is so geared to the biographies of artists that it can be a relief to see a show that has little to do with the drama of this or that creator’s life. But treating artists as illustrators of attitudes held by society in various bygone eras has a way of taking the pleasure out of looking at pictures, and it is especially dampening at the Met’s show, where many works have a life of their own.

The theme-based approach is at its worst right at the start, with pictures of people in boats. Here are paintings by George Caleb Bingham (Fur Traders Descending the Missouri), Eakins (The Champion Single Sculls), and William Sidney Mount (Eel Spearing at Setauket), which in each case are among the finest works the artists did. But then there is also a striking oddity by Copley (Watson and the Shark) and strong pieces by Homer. The half-dozen paintings range in time over a century and go in different directions in terms of mood, color, and sense of space. The Met’s curators must have thought they were leading off with a bang, but these powerful works nullify one another.

Most viewers, I think, will be able to put aside the textbook spirit of the exhibition in its latter half, with the works…

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