American Revelations, 1825 - 1975 

National Academy of Design

American Revelations features highlights from the National Academy’s extensive collection spanning the period 1825-1975.  Intending the Academy to be an organization of leading American artists and architects, the founders stipulated that upon election, National Academicians were required to donate a representative work to the institution. This rule has guided the formation of a unique collection, which unlike most others, has been formed almost exclusively by gifts from the artists and architects. As the Academy was founded long before the advent of museums as we know them today, the goal of forming a collection was stimulated by the desire to assemble a body of work that would represent the styles, tastes, and contributions of American art and architecture, principally by Academicians.

 

This selection of works provides an overview of 150 years of American art seen through the lens of the National Academy.  The earliest works here date from the founding years of the institution and include a portrait by the Academy’s founder and first president, Samuel F. B. Morse, along with landscape paintings representing the Hudson River School, considered the first American school that followed a cohesive aesthetic.  Simultaneously with landscape painting in the mid-19th century was the development of genre painting, or scenes depicting or referencing contemporary life and consequential issues of the time.

 

In the years following the Civil War one change that was reflected in both American art and American society at large was a looking outward towards Europe.  The increased popularity of study abroad, beginning in the 1870s, created new artistic foundations upon which the next generation of artists would build.  The Academic training that many American artists were receiving in Europe at this time, as well as the impact of a variety of European stylistic influences such as Impressionism are revealed in these works.

 

The National Academy has a strong, highly representative and geographically diverse landscape collection from the first decades of the 20th century.  These works reveal the expanding and increasingly national membership base of the Academy at this time and features important works by leading members of the various art colonies that developed in these years.  In the late 1920s and early 1930s, economic depression and an increasingly conservative art press gave impetus to American Scene painting, a current that was representational in style, and included trends ranging from Regionalism to Social Realism, examples of which are included here.

 

Following World War II American art was overcome by a tidal wave of Abstract Expressionism that garnered immense critical and institutional support. The Academy, however, chose a much more conservative path and remained close to an aesthetic that was a continuation of the realist tradition. Despite the critical attention that abstraction received after 1945, realism remained very much alive in America, and works presented here provide a glimpse at some of the different ways in which it was realized in the post-war years.

 

American Revelations presents the evolving collective viewpoint of the Academy’s membership and covers a broad span of styles and movements from the Romantic era of the 1820s through the re-emergence of Realism in the 1960s and 1970s. Today the National Academy houses a significant collection of American art and architecture, which has its own unique character, flavor, and insight into American artistic culture and reflects the rich histories told through the eyes of National Academicians.

The poet and editor William Cullen Bryant was born in Cummington, Massachusetts, in 1794. In 1810 he entered Williams College, but in the following year he decided to pursue his studies at Yale. His family's finances precluded his further education and he consequently turned his talents to the study of law, and was admitted to the bar in 1815. However, the publication in the North American Review in 1817 of his poem, Thanatopsis, brought him immediate recognition. Bryant abandoned the legal profession in favor of writing verse. He published his first collection of poems in 1825, and in the same year he moved to New York, where he became the co-editor of New York Review and Atheneum Magazine, and in the following year, editor of New York's Evening Post. Bryant's poetry won world-wide recognition. This standing as an author, together with his role as an active editor, made him one of New York's most prominent citizens.

Bryant was a leading champion of the Academy, and his assumption of the editorship of the Post in the year of the Academy's founding provided him the means to give the fledgling organization real and valuable support. He served as the Academy's professor of mythology and history from 1828 to 1837, and remained an especially close friend of the Academy throughout his long life.

The first documentation of this portrait's presence in the collection is its inclusion in the listing published in 1839, however it is likely it had been executed and acquired about a decade earlier. Bryant described the commissioning of the portrait in a letter to William A. Croffot of August 12, 1872, in response to what apparently was a request for reminiscences of Morse: "The members of the Academy took a fancy to ask for my portrait painted by Morse, and I sat to him for the purpose. Thirty dollars was at that time his price for a portrait without the hands. The money was handed to me by Mr. John Morton one of the members, and I passed it over to Morse. 'You will want a frame of course' said Morse. I assented and contributed a frame, and the picture enclosed in it was sent to the Academy in whose possession I suppose it now is."

This work by the "dean" of Hudson River School painting, Asher B. Durand, illustrates the important influence that he exerted on his contemporaries. Durand enjoyed virtually undisputed preeminence in American art during mid-century and became an important mentor for the generation of American landscapists who followed in the path blazed by Thomas Cole, N.A. (1801-1848) from 1825 until his early death. Durand's Landscape, painted just two years after Cole's death, depicts two artists resting amid a scene that strongly suggests an idealized version of the landscape of the upper Hudson looking south to the Catskill Mountains.

Painted two years after Cole's death, it depicts two artists resting amid a scene strongly suggesting an idealized version of the landscape of the upper Hudson looking south to the Catskill Mountains.

The Bash-Bish is widely recognized as one of John F. Kensett's masterworks. The painting depicts a popular waterfall in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, that was admired as "one of the wildest and most beautiful cascades in the country," according to a writer for The Crayon in 1855. Kensett depicted the site repeatedly during the 1850s, altering the scale, format, vantage point, effects in each. This version, painted on commission from James A. Suydam, is the largest of the series and thrusts the viewer out into the open water of the pool at the waterfall's base while creating a symmetrical balance of the cliffs on either side of the falls. In contrast to the majestic, overwhelming power of Niagara, Bash-Bish Falls provides a more subtle and restrained subject with its almost three-hundred-foot cliffs skewed to a more human scale. The fact that this, one of Kensett's most ambitious compositions, was painted on commission from his student, Suydam, reveals the complexity of their evolving relationship.

This painting is meant to represent a member of the notorious New York Irish-American street gang known as the Dead Rabbits. In the 1850s the gang achieved renown for their prowess as thieves, burglars, pickpockets, and thugs. In riots their emblem was a dead rabbit impaled on a spike. In July 1857 their street battle with their rival gang the Bowery Boys in the Five Points District of lower Manhattan cast a national spotlight on urban gangs.

The American social historian Joshua Brown has recently remarked that Hall’s painting “offers us an entrée . . . into the [mid-19th century] native-born, middle-class perception of the immigrant working class. Rendered shortly after the 1857 riot, [the painting] depicts a mutton-chopped young man naked to the waist, cradling a brick in one hand while caught in a state of uncharacteristic repose, a distant, come-hither expression on his upturned face. The painting starkly conveys the fear and fascination that fueled the class and ethnic conflicts of an era in a way that no other piece of antebellum evidence I have come across does.”

Hall presented this painting in 1882 as a substitute for his original diploma work, an unidentified fruit still life that the National Academy Council had accepted in 1868. His reason for replacing it with A Dead Rabbit is not known, but it may reflect a desire to be represented at the Academy as a painter of figures — the highest form of artistic expression, according to academic tradition.

This seemingly satirical painting by Thomas Hicks is the only direct representation of the Civil War in James R. Suydam's extensive collection, which he bequeathed to the National Academy of Design. Notable for its sense of irony, the work shows a Union soldier holding yarn as he woos a young woman under the contemptuous watch of her chaperone, rather than being engaged in the service of his country. Moreover, the soldier is no symbol of virility, with his balding head and slender limbs. The work is more likely a veiled indictment of the Union's poor management of its manpower than a critique of the soldiers themselves.

The Sorcerer's Slave was executed in Paris while Dewing was studying at the Académie Julian. It is an académie, a full-length study of a nude painted from the live model. The classical treatment of the figure of the young boy, with its elongated contrapposto and careful articulation of anatomical detail, as well as the setting -the palm fronds, the smoking censer, and the elk-skin rug - recall the mannered bodies and Orientalist themes favored by Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre, Dewing's instructors at the Julian.

Bridgman's election as a full Academician followed his highly successful New York exhibition in 1881. On May 1, 1882, an interim study was accepted by the Council as his diploma contribution pending the arrival of a more important work. Oriental Interior is a simpler, quieter variant of Bridgman's usual cafe type. An Interesting Game, 1881 (Brooklyn Museum) and another work also entitled Oriental Interior, n.d. (unlocated) show more complicated arrangements of six or seven figures engaged in communal activity. The interior here conforms well to the general description of Arab café's offered in Bridgman's 1890 book Winters in Algeria: "mud floors and walls, with soot-stained palm-tree ceilings and doors, with nooks and corners of the most curious possible conception."

The Young Orphan was first exhibited at the Society of American Artists' 8th annual exhibition, held in the spring of 1884. Chase probably found his model at the Protestant Half Orphan Asylum, located at 67 West 10th Street, next door to the Tenth Street Studio Building where he was working and residing at this time. The artist changed the title to At Her Ease when he showed it in June of 1884 at the exhibition of Les Vingt in Belgium. It is interesting from an aesthetic point of view that Chase chose the more neutral title over the socially provocative one when he sent the work off to the salon of this progressive group. Chase directed attention away from the figure's character and position in life and, conversely, focused viewers on the painting as painting. Compositionally and stylistically the work is indebted to Whistler's Arrangement in Black and Gray, No. 1 (Portrait of the Artist's Mother) (1871, Musée d'Orsay).

A Sunlit Hillside offers striking evidence of the transformation of Vonnoh's brushwork and palette which occurred around 1888. Composed of a textured jumble of colorful hatch marks, the sweeping hillside establishes the diagonal which anchors the work and is reiterated by the lines of the roofs and the tumbledown fence. The impastoed surface of acid greens, pinks, yellows, and purples finds its balance in the reduced, flat geometry of the buildings nestled into the slope at right. An absence of doors and windows stresses the abstract elements of this blocky configuration. Such qualities have prompted comparison of A Sunlit Hillside to the work of Paul Cézanne. The painting's lumpy facture and a remark of Eliot Clark recorded in Academy records identifying its location as Giverny have naturally led to discussion of Vonnoh's relationship to Claude Monet, as well. While aspects of the painting resemble known depictions of Giverny, May Brawley Hill has identified the buildings as the Moulin du Roi at Grez-sur-Loing.

Painted in New York shortly after his return from over ten years in France, Mrs. Thomas Hastings immediately became one of Alexander's most celebrated portraits. It was critically praised for its elegance and vitality, and for being more than a mere likeness, presenting an abstracted blend of softened color and calligraphic line. The sitter, the former Helen Benedict, was the wife of the architect Thomas Hastings and a well-known socialite.

Behind the figure is a cast related to the Winged Victory of Samothrace. The shadowy lines of the sculpture correspond to Hastings' sinuous profile and begin the sense of dynamic movement continued by her rising figure. Alexander commented in 1909 that as a piece of art, "the Winged Victory is the most superb female figure in the world." His juxtaposition encourages the viewer to see the same characteristics he found in the Winged Victory - strength, dignity, and freedom of movement - in his portrayal of Helen Hastings.

The subject of the painting appears to be from the Gospel of Saint Luke, 5: 1-11, which tells of one of Christ's miracles, and his calling of Simon Peter, James and John to follow Him. Standing by the Sea of Galilee, Christ sees two boats at the shore and their fishermen washing their nets. He enters Simon's boat, and after preaching to a crowd of followers on the shore, tells Simon to go out upon the lake and cast his net. Simon protests that they have taken nothing all the previous night, but at Christ's bidding will try again. Their net fills with so many fish it breaks; they call to the other boat for help, and both boats become so laden with fish they begin to sink. Simon, James and John are amazed and fearful, for they feel unworthy of such a miracle. Christ tells them not to fear, "for henceforth thou shalt catch men. . . . they forsook all, and followed him." Tanner was not a literal illustrator of Biblical stories. He distilled their spiritual essence by reducing all representative details to a few essentials and rendering these in a nearly expression is the style.

Lilian Westcott Hale was born in Hartford, Connecticut and studied at the Hartford Art School before continuing her studies with William Merritt Chase in Shinnecock, New York and later at the Boston Museum School with Edmund Tarbell and Philip Leslie Hale, whom she would marry in 1902. Known primarily for her sensitive indoor portraits, she would occasionally paint pure landscapes, imbuing them with the same sensitivity and impressionistic touch. Hale was an avid gardener and An Old Cherry Tree likely depicts the yard of her Dedham, Massachusetts home.

This vivid depiction of the New Mexican landscape displays the artist's interests in modernist aesthetics and the symbolism of Pueblo visual culture. The looming storm front over the mountains is reduced to stylized ovals of clouds, radiating lightness upward and weighing heavily downward on the valleys below. The artist's rich palette in the foreground addresses agricultural bounty in contrast to the powerful force at work in the distance. Blumenschein's work adheres more closely to an earlier form of symbolism than to the purely evocative scenes of his contemporaries.

In 1924 Sample went to New York City, but soon thereafter they relocated to Pasadena, California. Sample entered the Otis Art Institute and by 1925 he was teaching at the University of Southern California, where he would soon become assistant professor and later head of the painting department. His work was shown widely and he joined the circle of prominent California artists that included Millard Sheets, Dan Lutz and Phil Paradise. In 1936 he and his wife spent a few months in Europe, after which Sample secured an appointment as artist-in-residence at Dartmouth College where he remained until his retirement in 1962.

Sample was a landscape and genre painter. His landscapes of the New England countryside were traditional and achieved success in commercial publications. His genre work partook of both regionalism and social realism in his depiction of the American scene. He often painted the American labor movement, particularly during the depression era. Works such as Unemployment and others from this period are highly designed and complex; they are not atmospheric but rather are constructed with clearly drawn lines and shapes and are influenced by Peter Bruegel. Unemployment is likely Los Angles and depicts the effect of the depression on the common man. This painting won the Isidor Gold Medal from the National Academy in 1932.

This painting is a fully developed study for the work titled Nude in the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Bishop painted female nudes almost from the beginning of her career. These works reflect her admiration for Fragonard, Rubens, Renoir and Rembrandt. She created nudes only of women because "the female nude is a tradition. . . . the tradition . . . of the female nude ... is not only a subject but an art form, as [art historian] Kenneth Clark said. In other words, one would have to have a rather special attitude to study the male nude." Bishop's nudes have long been admired by other artists. She proudly recounted that the Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning reportedly said "That woman's nudes are the best damn nudes ever."

The Barrel of Fun was once located at the ocean side entrance of the Coney Island Amusement Park. The historian John F. Kasson has noted that this huge revolving cylinder "frequently rolled patrons off their feet and brought strangers into sudden, intimate contact." Marsh transforms the scene into a voyeuristic scramble of bodies in motion. The artist was a great admirer of the work of Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix, and sought to transfer the vitality and energy that he discovered in their work into his modern urban subjects. Marsh's teacher and mentor Kenneth Hayes Miller remarked that Marsh used "the principles of design in the art of the past and [applied] them to the raw materials of the present."

In an era dominated by new media and abstraction, Pearlstein has helped to refocus attention on the human figure-particularly in painting, drawing, and printmaking-since the early 1960s. Pearlstein nevertheless credits abstraction as his most important influence: "The lesson we learned from the action painters and those who immediately preceded them was the idea that a unique, unexpected combination of forms could take place in front of you. It made going back to nature a meaningful thing." The artist's unconventional angle of vision, radiating shadows, truncated body, and individualized figure found in Nude Torso are each distinctively modern aspects of Pearlstein's work that have helped to revitalize life study, and realism itself, in the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.

Born in Kewanee, Illinois, Richard Estes studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1952 to 1956. He worked in advertising and publishing for a decade before giving full time and attention to painting. In the late 1960s Estes emerged, along with a number of other like-minded artists who were working in a highly realistic style that in many ways was a response to the minimalist and other pervasive abstract styles. As a recognized leader in the contemporary movement that became known as Photorealism, his work has been seen with ever-increasing frequency in exhibitions presented by museums and galleries throughout the United States and Europe.

During the late 1960s and through the 1970s it was the urban landscape that most captivated the artist. Estes was struck with wonderment by the variety of the city and the reflections created by the massive amounts of glass building fronts. NYC Parking Lot illustrates the artist's interest in depicting these reflections by depicting a group of cars and the distorted reflections of the city around them. Working from photographs instead of slavishly copying from the photo, the artist recreates and often readjusts the images once the composition is underway. Of his use of the camera, Estes wrote, "the camera is like one eye and it really deals only with values. And painting is trickery, because you can make people respond by guiding their eyes around the picture."

As a committed social and political activist for more than fifty years, May Stevens has addressed the challenging political, social, and cultural conditions of American life, with a specific concentration on the oppression of women. Stevens received her B.F.A. from the Massachusetts College of Art before continuing her studies at the Academie Julian, Paris, and the Art Students League, New York, eventually earning her M.F.A. equivalency from the New York City Board of Education. The artist often works in series and over the course of her distinguished career she has incorporated history and narrative into her work while tackling some of the most important contemporary social and political issues.

Benny Andrews, the Artist, and Big Daddy Paper Doll is from a series of paintings and prints that Stevens created beginning in the late 1960s that deal directly with various aspects of the Vietnam War and a general overarching notion of patriarchal power. This particular painting includes Stevens' close friend, the African American painter, and collage artist, Benny Andrews with the uniform of a police officer, as a symbol of dominant hegemonic authority. On the one hand, the painting is a vociferous protest against this authority and at the same time serves as a tribute to Andrews, who was teaching art to prisoners at Riker's Island with Stevens' husband, Rudolf Baranik, at the time.

Informed by the triumphs and struggles of black people, Charles White's work is inherently humanistic and was dedicated to universal themes of equality and freedom. Born on the South Side of Chicago, White won a scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1937. Two years later he was commissioned by the Federal Arts Project to execute the mural Five Great American Negroes, for the George Cleveland branch of the Chicago Public Library. This was followed by subsequent mural commissions for the artist.

White was drafted into the Army in 1944, but served only briefly due to health problems. In 1947 a trip to Mexico, he met the great muralists David Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, and attended the Esmirads Escuela del Arte, and the Taller de Grafica. The experience had a profound effect on his art. White moved to Los Angeles in 1956, where he taught at the Otis Art Institute for the remaining years of his life.

White worked extensively in lithography and drawing, as well as painting, and his subjects were exclusively African American. Like many of his works, Mother Courage II depicts not a specific person but is intended to represent a universal symbol of dignity and strength. The painting has the hallmarks of the artist's late work with a single central figure that dominates the composition before a faceted background. He told an interviewer for the Negro History Bulletin, "I like to think that my work has universality to it. I deal with love, hope, courage, freedom, dignity--the full gamut of human spirit. When I work, though, I think of my own people. That's only natural. However, my philosophy doesn't exclude any nation or race of people."

Credits: Story

Curator - Diana Thompson

Communications Associate - Harineta Rigatos

Special thanks to our intern Amy King

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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