Nov 14, 2015 - Jan 24, 2016

Visions of US

New Orleans Museum of Art

Drawn from NOMA’s world-class collection of American art, Visions of US brings together paintings, sculptures, photography and decorative arts to tell a rich and inclusive story about how we imagine and represent the United States.

George Washington
Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, portraiture was America’s most valued art form, helping early American settlers sort out who and what was “American” as people poured into the country from all across the globe.

This painting is one of the most recognizable and commonly reproduced images in American art. Serving as the basis for the portrait of George Washington still found on the dollar bill, it was one of over 100 portraits Stuart made of Washington during his lifetime.

Even during Gilbert Stuart’s own time, American artists and writers recognized the role that Stuart’s portrait played in representing Washington—and by extension the United States—to the world. As early American writer John Neal wrote, “The only idea we have of Washington is Stuart’s Washington.”

Romeo and Juliet
Benjamin West revolutionized American painting, becoming one of the first artists of the period to depict present day concerns. West, like many artists of the time, often turned to plays to illustrate contemporary social issues, especially as public theater became increasingly popular in the United States in the late 18th century.         

A famous 1753 staging of Romeo and Juliet was likely responsible for West’s initial interest in this play, but the theme of star-crossed lovers also evokes the brewing tensions between Britain and the United States at the dawn of the Revolutionary War.

Portrait of General George Watson
Jonathan Singleton Copley was the most prominent portrait painter of the American Revolution, even though he never truly took sides in the battle. Working between Boston and London for much of his life, he became one of America’s first internationally successful painters.

Copley painted both American revolutionaries like Paul Revere and loyalist English subjects like this portrait of prominent colonial merchant and trader George Watson, all while keeping his true political sympathies unknown.

The Free Woman of Color pictured here was part of a dynamic, multi-racial culture in New Orleans in which people of color often had significant rights and freedoms, especially when compared to the rest of the United States. The portrait’s simplicity and naturalism reflected new trends in European art of the time, and the portrait’s sitter likely regarded the painting’s straightforward artistic style as a mark of worldliness and sophistication

The portrait also reflects the influence of photography: Like many portrait painters of the time, Fleischbein was also a photographer, and opened a gallery specializing in daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in the Marigny in the 1850s.

Louisiana Indians Walking Along a Bayou
While in Louisiana,  Alfred Boisseau took particular interest in the state’s Native American population. The 1830s and 1840s witnessed the passage of the Indian Removal Act and devastating atrocities against Native Americans, and Native Americans’ rapidly disappearing culture was the subject of considerable international concern

This painting travelled the world to be exhibited in New York, New Orleans and at the 1847 Paris Salon.

In the mid-19th century, landscape painting became central to American artists’ attempts to craft a sense of place and identity for the young nation. American artists began painting grand, sweeping views of American scenery that made the landscape a metaphor for the country’s promise and potential. They often portrayed the American landscape as a vast and untamed wilderness—an endless source of power and strength. Such paintings were often a source of great inspiration and pride, but they also often registered the complications and contradictions of this progressive vision for the country, especially as more and more American land was overrun with railroads, farms, and, eventually, factories.

Asher Brown Durand’s paintings inspired a generation of American artists to revere landscape painting as the most elevated form of American art. Durand was an important teacher whose students went on to paint all across the country, from the Hudson River Valley and Louisiana’s swamplands to the American West

Durand implored American artists to “go first to nature,” to learn all of the most important principles of fine art, arguing that the humblest rock could teach painters more than the finest art school.

When Joseph Rusling Meeker arrived in Louisiana, its landscape struck him as utterly unlike the Northeastern forests and mountains he had studied with his teacher Asher Brown Durand.

Meeker first visited Louisiana as a Union Navy paymaster during the Civil War, and created hundreds of sketches of its dense and tangled swamplands. Throughout his career, he created paintings of Louisiana whose hazy, indistinct views challenged many of the conventions of landscape painting of the time.

Julius Robert Hoening studied art in Düsseldorff, Germany before immigrating to New Orleans at the age of 23. In New Orleans, Hoening shared a studio with B&G Moses Photography, and quickly began advertising his services to enlarge, and paint copies of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes in oil, watercolor and ink. Hoening worked at the intersection of photography and painting at a time when the relationship between the two mediums was hotly debated.

In this painting, the subject matter of “crossroads” thematizes this idea of transition and transformation between painting and photography. Juxtaposing lush natural scenery with clear signs of human civilization, Crossroad in the Forest also reflects changes to the American landscape itself as more and land was developed and settled.

In the late 19th century, American artists were part of a vast network of artists that exchanged artworks and ideas on both sides of the Atlantic. American artists brought together an international array of artistic influences in their search for a distinctively American style.

Called “a brilliant ambassador between his patrons and posterity,” John Singer Sargent’s sensitive and emotional portrayals of his sitters won him portrait commissions from some of the wealthiest and most famous people of the day.

Edgar Degas was only important French painter of the Impressionist generation to travel to the United States and make paintings of American subject matter. Degas himself grew up in France, but his mother was Creole and born in New Orleans, and he often called himself a “fils de Louisiane,” or a “son of Louisiana.”

Degas likely created this portrait of his blind sister-in-law Estelle Musson Degas in part to reconcile himself to his own failing eyesight, but the portrait also captures the rapidly fading way of life of the city’s French-speaking Creole inhabitants, who were increasingly being pushed aside by a wave of new English-speaking “American” settlers.

Robert Henri was part of a vanguard group of New York City artists known as the Ashcan School, which spurned American art academies and museums and rejected the more conservative painting style of artists like John Singer Sargent. Instead, artists like Henri sought to capture the grit and grime of modern American cities, painting the destitute and homeless, the working class and prostitutes

Artists like Henri often appropriated art from different cultures—here a blue kimono from Japan—in order to capture the vibrant mix of cultures and people in modern American cities.

The Ice Hole
By the early 20th century, the new art coming out the United States fused ideas about modern art from Europe with influences culled from America’s unique culture and scenery

Marsden Hartley was one of many of early 20th century American artists to search for new subject matter in remote, rural parts of the country. In 1908, he moved to an abandoned farm near Lovell, Maine, and produced a large series of experimental winter landscape scenes like The Ice Hole, Maine

In these paintings, Hartley sought not so much to capture the precise topography of the Maine coast, but rather the raw feeling of its wild and desolate terrain.

As artists like Hartley looked towards rural Maine, others like Henry Ossawa Tanner traveled even further afield, forsaking Philadelphia and Atlanta for Paris and the Middle East.

Tanner was the first African-American student to study at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and fled the United States for more egalitarian Paris partly due to his unequal treatment in American art schools. Through paintings like The Good Shepherd, Tanner sought to convey a spirit of compassion and equality that, as he famously said, might “make the whole world kin.”

For early American modern artists like Stuart Davis, energetic cities and widely varied terrain offered intriguing new ground for artistic experimentation. During the first decades of the 20th century, Davis lead the shift from realism to abstraction in American art.

Rocks, Gloucester is a pivotal transitional work for Davis, painted just as he started working in a more experimental style; the bright new colors and bold new forms of paintings like Rocks, Gloucester were a way of capturing the mad rush of American life.

Smokestack and Tank
Arthur Osver’s towering paintings of America’s skyscrapers, smokestacks and chimneys garnered him considerable international fame during his lifetime, including a prominent spot at the 1954 Venice Biennale.

The crisp lines and bold geometric shapes of Osver’s paintings conveyed America’s faith in technology and progress, and were a source of inspiration for many artists as they sought to adapt painting to the conditions of modern life.

In the 1930s, Georgia O’Keeffe turned away from the clamor of Manhattan and towards the still and quiet of the deserts of the American Southwest.

O’Keeffe painted the red hills around her Abiquiú, New Mexico with a softness and sensuality that causes them to slip between landscape and dreamlike abstraction

Titling this painting My Backyard, O’Keeffe called forth an intimate connection between self, landscape and nation.

Her First Communion
Josephine Crawford was one of the most experimental painters in the American South during the 1930s and 1940s. In the late 1920s, she traveled to Paris to study with the modern French painter André Lohte. Crawford’s paintings of New Orleans marry the stark, geometric forms of modern art with sensitive emotional depictions of the city’s people and diverse culture.

In New Orleans, Crawford’s work was widely praised for capturing the city’s local culture as well as bringing a more international perspective to the city’s art, with The Times Picayune praising Crawford as “a painter not [just] for New Orleans, but the world.”

Composition
In the wake of World War II, American artists achieved international acclaim for a daring new style of abstract painting called Abstract Expressionism. To many, the boldly expressive, large-scale abstract paintings of young American artists like Jackson Pollock seemed the apotheosis of American post-war vitality and strength, and of a character entirely different than anything being made in Europe at the time.

Artists like Pollock viewed abstract art as a portal to the unconscious, and felt that the act of painting could unearth images and emotions buried deep within the unconscious mind.

Sam Francis developed his signature “open” or “empty center” painting style. Influenced by the Zen Buddhism’s concept of infinite space, Francis began painting only around the edges of his canvases, leaving broad expanses of pure white color running down their center.

This imparts paintings like White Line I with an astonishing level of depth and dimensionality that makes them seem almost sculptural, as if they might open out into real space.

In the 1960s and 1970s, many American artists began stripping their art down to its most basic materials and forms.

This painting’s rhythmic ascending and descending planes of color reflect the influence of music and dance, animating Stella’s otherwise minimal squares of color with a spirit of motion and dynamism.

John T. Scott brought together influences from African, Caribbean and African-American music and culture to create vibrantly colored kinetic sculptures like Alanda’s Dream Tree.

For Scott, his kinetic sculptures helped him see the relationships between all things, with moving parts that constantly put different elements and forms into dialogue.

Dogwood Display II
Alma Thomas was an art teacher at a public school in New Jersey for 35 years before debuting her paintings at an exhibition at Howard University at the age of 75.

The first graduate of Howard University’s fine art department in 1921, Thomas, at the age of 84, also became the first African-American woman to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Rauschenberg grew up in Texas and Louisiana, and was very influenced by Southern art and culture, from its quilting traditions to its unique landscape.

In Melic Meeting, Rauschenberg’s fabric collage technique explicitly references Southern quilting traditions, to which Rauschenberg adds a myriad of other found images and objects.

Melic Meeting was part of a series of large-scale works Robert Rauschenberg made between 1975 and 1983, which he entitled Spread. The term is used to describe a wide expanse of land as well as a fabric covering for a bed.

Clementine Hunter was a self-taught artist who lived most of her life on plantations in rural Louisiana and did not begin painting until her 50s.

She was also an accomplished quilter, creating quilts that depicted recognizable scenes, and also quilts like this one that are composed of abstract arrangements of fabrics, patterns and forms.

The connections between artists like Rauschenberg and under-recognized artists like Hunter is only just beginning to be acknowledged and understood.

Nancy Graves’ Exclude is based on an aerial map of the world as seen from above, and places the United States in a broader global context.

Graves based her vibrantly colored paintings of the 1970s and 1980s on aerial maps of natural phenomena like weather maps and moon maps made by NASA.

Here, the barely visible “US” scrawled on the painting’s upper right tests the limits between realism and abstract art, seeming to reference the “US” of the United States but also interpretable as a completely abstract set of marks.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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