If you had wanted an education in the transition from the 19th to the 20th centuries in American culture, the Taft Museum has been the place to be. In the past year and a half, the Taft has hosted the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s collection of American daguerreotypes, “Telling Tales” from the New-York Historical Society, and “America’s Eden” from the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute. Each has offered visitors to the Taft substantial and well-curated opportunities to enjoy remarkable visual documents about America’s coming to grips with its own history, its changing romance with nature, the rise of the city in a nation haunted by the ghosts of its agrarian ideals, its complex attitudes towards social interconnectedness in a culture built on its visions of strong individualism, its adaptations of Christianity, dramas of race, changing conceptions of gender, among other themes. The Taft’s current show—a survey of about a century of American painting from the early 19th to the early 20th centuries on loan from the Santa Barbara Museum of Art—is another remarkable chance to see America seeing itself.
There is something a little strange about this wonderful sequence of shows we’ve been treated to. The function of most American museums built up from the private collections of wealthy private citizens from the last century or so has been, to put it uncharitably, to make, find, or buy a sense of cultural rootedness. Old Masters and the more conservative wing of French and English paintings are by and large the currency in which they specialize. This is generally true of the Taft’s collections. If you take away the work of the cosmopolitan American expatriates like Sargent and Whistler, there isn’t much American art left, Farny’s “The Song of the Talking Wire” to the contrary notwithstanding. When asked about the recent focus on American art, the Taft has explained that European loans are harder to get these days and more expensive when they can be had. Besides, these are the sorts of shows that can fit in the new but compact space the Taft has for temporary exhibitions. In any case, a museum like the Taft is to some extent always dependent on the sorts of high-quality shows that are offered it, and the Taft is pleased at how successful they’ve been: attendance has been up and, for some shows, quite substantially.
Some portion of the success of this sequence of shows is due to the clear and persuasive vision of American art offered by Curator Lynne Ambrosini. She has arranged the works in the shows in coherent and compelling chapters and is a sharp-eyed cultural historian. I would have been content to scoot past George Henry Story’s “Wonders of the Barn” (1865), in which an adolescent boy holds up a baby chicken for his young sister’s inspection while grandfather, sitting on the same low wall with the help of a cane, looks on. But Ambrosini’s label calls attention to the painting’s concern with the passing on of traditional values at a time—the conclusion of the Civil War—when the country may have feared they were being lost forever. Moreover, Ambrosini frequently calls attention to the ways that artworks are shaped by their prospective audiences, as well as artist’s intentions, here suggesting that “Wonders” would have been an especially appropriate painting for purchase by a thriving merchant—the generation missing from the painting—who might have been nostalgic for his roots.
One of the show’s central themes is the value of community played off against the value of solitude. In one of the show’s earliest works, Alvan Fisher’s “Watching the Boats” (1819), it is sunset on a modest river and at the end of the day, sailboats are converging on a small dirt landing. It is hard to say what they have been doing all day—fishing? trading? exploring?—but now is the time for people to gather and make what community they can. On the other hand, in James Francis Cropsey’s “Janetta Falls, Passaic County, New Jersey” (1846), an artist sits sketching, alone in the woods. The trees and rocks are each as individualized as the artist—chronologically, it seemed like the first painting where a decent naturalist could tell you the names of the trees, shrubs, and weeds that surround the sketching figure. If Ralph Albert Blakelock’s “Lake by Moonlight” is lyrical and mysterious, envisioning a land which no one could easily occupy, George Inness’s “Morning, Catskill Valley” (1894) depicts the successful integration of nature and the human world, each going about its own affairs. A farmer stands in a field, possibly tending his cows; the widely scattered cows are each minding their own business. In the background, we see a row of buildings, which probably contain more farmers and more cows. Several of the trees have twinned trunks, their leaves intertwined. Though things are spread out, they are in harmony.
As its rising urban world increasingly became a central focus for American artists, it became a social responsibility and a painterly challenge to depict the crowd. What becomes of the individual when the urban setting puts so many of them in close proximity? In Childe Hassam’s “The Manhattan Club” (c. 1891)—the probable site of the origin of the Manhattan cocktail some fifteen years earlier—the luxurious building, made of marble so white that in the shade it glows purple, is surrounded by a modest crowd of several dozen people, moving at a stately pace, and with plenty of empty space between them. By and large, women stroll with other well-dressed women while men stride purposefully together, including up to the steps and into the Club. Though a newsboy stands out (as does a little white dog), it is more an impression of a social class than a painting of a group of individuals. The same could be said of Gifford Beal’s remarkable “Sideshow” (1910), only the social class represented is a clear notch or two lower. Beal—who was drawn to the crush of the urban scene and fascinated by the city’s persistent urge to produce and consume performances—captures a crowd here with more women than men and about as many children as either. Virtually all have their backs turned towards the observer to take in the two exotically costumed people on display—the teasers—and the formally-dressed barker, who appears to be the only man in the crowd wearing a top hat, unlike the men in the Hassam painting, who are virtually all top-hatted. For Beal, people in the aggregate draw their energy from their anonymity. They constitute a middle class crowd with perhaps an immigrant or two among the men with straw hats or the sedately uniformed nannies. There are huge posters flanking what appears to be an entrance just behind the barker. It is impossible to know what is being shown inside, but it is a painting about the burgeoning American economy, made up of loud promises, aggressive advertising, and mystery.
The work of the loose alliance of American painters known as The Eight—which is generally shown in this exhibition to as much advantage as I have ever seen—has a serious investment in the feel of the crowd. Everett Shinn’s “Sixth Avenue Shoppers” (1903) sets out to capture the new energies of city life. Theater can erupt almost anywhere—a number of men and boys gather around an informally set-up cock fight illuminated by a smoldering smudge pot, while the rest of the crowd is on its way to various emporia or is shopping at stands set up right on the street. As a group, they have more in common with Beal’s world than with Hassam’s, though the moving body of humanity is not given a great deal of individuality. Drawing with a cartoonist’s eye, Shinn has given many of the people virtually the same face; their cumulative energy counts for more than their identities. Perhaps the freshest look at the urban crush comes in George Bellows’s “Steaming Streets” (1908), in which a burly man tries to wrestle his team of horses out of the way of an impending trolley bearing down on them out of clouds of steam, while an electrified crowd of both young and old watch from the sidewalk, transfixed. In what is perhaps the masterpiece of a very strong show, the glamor of the city is to be found in its commercial energy and its sense that it is ceaselessly under construction. What Bellows adds is that virtually every face gaping at the wild drama in the street has an individual identity. For one of the few times in the show, we see a complex whole that actually is made up of distinctive parts.
Bellows’s drayman is a hulking but heroic figure, venturing into harm’s way to avert a catastrophe. (It is not absolutely clear that the gawking audience along the sidewalk wish to see a catastrophe averted.) He is a man who has his work cut out for him. He also might be seen as one of the central figures in another one of the exhibit’s central themes, the depiction of people at leisure vs. the depiction of people at work. In several of the earlier paintings in the show, it is not easy to tell whether the people we are seeing are at work or at play. The figures gradually moving towards the center of our attention in William Stanley Haseltine’s “Indian Rock, Narragansett Sound” (1860s) seem to be coming down to fish in the Narragansett’s startlingly clean waters for pleasure. John Frederick Kensett’s “View of the Beach at Beverly, Massachusetts” (1860) shows two men standing by a beached skiff while a boy accompanies another man who is carrying a pair of oars with him. There is an abandoned picnic basket in the foreground. Though I see no reason to doubt that they will eat what they catch, this seems an expedition about pleasure rather than industry. Thomas Moran’s “Mountain Landscape” (1864) expands the scale to encompass the sublime: streams rush by, distant mountains loom into the clouds. But in the foreground, while some figures converse calmly (perhaps including a mother and child), humans have laid down the foundations of industry. There are buildings, perhaps a sawmill providing lumber for more buildings to come at some distant location. There is something heroic in the isolation in the industry that is intimated to be going on. But for all the precariousness of the buildings way up in the mountains (and this is one of several paintings that raised interesting questions about where we were to imagine the artist actually standing to see what he’s seeing), almost as close to the clouds as to the landscape below, it seems like a good, tight fit.
It struck me that one of the many interesting things about the exhibit’s collection of so-called genre paintings is that genre paintings tend to be more engaged with people at work. In Santa Barbara’s version of John George Brown’s “Pull for the Shore” (there seem to be several), seven statuesque men are navigating a rowboat barely large enough for them to all fit in with a boy perched on the bow. If they are fishermen, it’s hard to see where in this boat you could stow enough catch to make a trip profitable. A storm seems to be kicking up, adding some urgency to their work. A couple of the rowers are looking off into the water by the boat’s side, though we can’t tell what they are looking at or for. They are making their way towards landfall at a distant cliff; there are no other boats on the horizon. The men are redolent of masculinity and seem to an untrained eye to represent a modest range of white ethnicities. They are richly bearded and their hats and pants are dirty. But they are elegant specimens of working men, at ease with their strenuous efforts, marked by what appears to be a philosophical calm about their situation. I would probably consider Frederick Remington’s “Fight Over a Waterhole” (1897) to be a “genre” picture as well, though that is probably a sign of the uselessness of the term. It is illustrative—quite literally: Remington painted it in grey tones so that it could be more easily printed in a collection of his work published in 1897—and narrative. Two white men are firing their rifles at a dozen or so Indians who are, for the moment, circling at a distance. The pair are defending their stakes in the least prepossessing waterhole in the history of the west: four logs surround a casual wooden framework almost buried in the sand. If there’s good water in there, we can’t see it. The men are ready to meet their fates with cool, professional indifference. They are perhaps a bit more unlucky than Bellows’s drayman, but like Brown’s rowers, they are portrayed as men who are just doing their jobs.
It is, I think, intended that most viewers will admire the doomed plainsmen, in part because they are depicted as calmly going about their work, which in this case includes making a futile but heroic last stand. They are cool, detached, and professional. It is, I think, clearer what we are supposed to feel about them than it is to grasp what they are feeling themselves. This will, of course, become the way of the American cinematic cowboy in the years to come. (A reenactment of the painting was made into a silent film in the first decade of the 20th century.) Something is being idealized but also being closed off from inquiry. There is a widely-held set of values that is being experienced in an almost inaccessibly private way. Does that make the Remington sentimental? Perhaps even more to the point, is it any more or less sentimental than the early 19th century depictions of the welcoming landscape or the early 20th century depictions of a vigorous city?
Somewhere in this show is an important but tricky argument about sentimentality and the American aesthetic. I am not furnished with a definition of the sentimental that can stand up to wind and weather, and even if I did, I’m not prepared to go to war against sentiment. The exhibit made it clear to me that what might at first be only readable as treacle can also be read as historical pivots, as the labels did with “The Wonders of the Barn,” for example. It doesn’t seem wrong to hope that viewers will feel things as a result of their coming into contact with art, and besides, there has been a substantial rehabilitation of the sentimental mode in the past few decades. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is once again becoming almost as canonical as the slyer and more ironic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But it is hard not to feel that we are on shaky ground from time to time.
In Frank Tenney Johnson’s “Cowboy with Lasso on Horse” (1920s), you have a full-grown vision of the myth of the American West. A slim horseman wearing chaps, dark shirt, red bandana, and a felt hat that provides his face with ample shade is riding a galloping horse, headed straight towards us, his low-slung gun catching the light. He is up on the high ground—a mesa top, perhaps—riding swiftly away from an adobe-roofed town far below. He is a solitary figure with an undefined relationship to his fellow citizens. He is swinging his lasso to capture…what? His look is intense and off to one side—the horse is looking straight at us—and his mouth is tight and his eyes are hidden from us by the shade of his hat. He is acting out one set of our national ideals without having to have any personal stake in them. It feels anachronistic. Two decades earlier, Remington used to complain that his own cowboy paintings—his bread and butter—were already anachronistic visions of the West. Perhaps one could argue that Johnson’s painting represents a set of skills and knowledge in danger of being lost forever, intended for the purchase by people who no longer felt connected to horses and six guns and lassos and who found themselves thriving in a world where being a loner was a harder and harder thing to be. If John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance had been about the world of artists instead of newspapermen, they might have said, “When legend becomes fact, paint the legend.”
After its wonderful evocations of the shared energy of the rising cities in the early 20th century, “Wild West to Gilded Age” thins out towards the modern. It is scanty on American Impressionism, with really only one striking landscape by Ernest Lawson. Though there is an interesting early work by Stuart Davis, the show is not rich in American experimental modernism a couple of short decades before American art would become world art. The show has a different set of stories to tell, revolving around how the values and visions of the 19th century evolve into a related set of values and visions about the 20th. It’s a good story, a complex and interesting one, and once again, the Taft Museum tells it very well.