This exhibit will feature significant events and figures throughout American history as told through the Cincinnati Art Museum collection. We have provided a few facts about each object to get you started. We encourage you to look closely, listen intently and inquire often.
As you go through the exhibition, click on objects or captions to see them in higher detail.
Francis Bailey was a printer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania & printed some of the great, iconic works of our Early American nation. Among other accoomplishments, he was the first to name George Washington in print, as the Father of His Country & was an official printer for Congress, responsible for the first official printing of the Articles of the Confederation.
Bailey's wife Eleanor was also depicted by Charles Wilson Peale (right).
Click the image above to zoom in on Bailey's hand. What is he holding? What significance might this have?
Stephen Decatur, Jr. was a United States naval officer and Commodore notable for his many naval victories in the early 19th century. He was the youngest officer to earn the rank of captain in the US Navy at the age of 28. He was a vital figure in the Tripolitan War (1801-1805), setting fire to the USS Philadelphia, which had been commandeered by Tripoli enemies.
Why would an officer commemorate his accomplishments through portraiture? What use would such a small portrait serve?
A French military officer, Marquis de Lafayette served as a major-general in the Continental Army under George Washington during the American Revolution. He served as the primary link between the American and French Revolutions, advocating for American democratic constitutional principles. Lafayette continued to work as a diplomat, establishing trade agreements between the US and France. Due to his allegiance to both nations, Lafayette became known as the “Hero of the Two Worlds.”
President Abraham Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862, decreeing that all slaves in rebel states would be set free at the start of the new year in 1863. This asserted the moral tone of the Civil War and the fight for freedom. This statue was John Quincy Adams Ward's response to the Proclamation - the depiction of a male slave, breaking free from the binds of slavery. As one of the first sculptural depictions of an African American, the figure is portrayed as a classical Greek hero, noble in his pose and dignified in his upward glance toward the heavens.
How does the material used for this sculpture enhance its meaning? How would this piece have differed if carved from limestone or marble?
Charles T. Webber created this painting in order to recognize the courageous efforts of both African Americans and white abolitionists who worked to help slaves north to freedom before the Civil War. The treacherous conditions are evident in the landscape as well as the weariness of the subjects' faces. This scene depicts two specific families of abolitionists, the Coffins and the Haydocks, who friends of the artist and worked along the Underground Railroad. Both whites and blacks are depicted with distinction, working together toward a common goal.
Why was Cincinnati such a pivotal point on the Underground Railroad? Why is the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center located today along the banks of the Ohio River?
Order #11 (from 1863) was set in place by Union Army Brigadier General Thomas Ewing; it required the depopulation of areas along the Kansas-Missouri border, including the evacuation of ALL citizens within the prescribed area. The region was quickly left in desolation. Artist George Caleb Bingham lived in Missouri at the time and was staunchly pro-Union, but recognized the excessiveness of this decree, calling Order #11 an “act of imbecility.”
His response was to not only paint the scene, making General Ewing infamous for his destruction, but to also distribute the painting via printed postcards and photographs, assuring that his work be seen by a broad audience. The soldier on the horse is believed to be Ewing.
Was this the first instance of a smear campaign? How is this handled today?
With the industrialization of many eastern U.S. cities, intensified by the Louisiana Purchase (1803), many Americans began to move West in search of new opportunities. This attitude was justified by the concept of Manifest Destiny in the 19th century, a “god-given right” to expand across the nation. The Hudson River School of painters, led by Thomas Cole and including Sonntag, sought to express this romantic notion of opportunity through landscape paintings. These scenes portrayed the vastness and overwhelming beauty of the American landscape, avoiding scenes of industrialization and urban pollution.
Landscapes at this time portrayed the “spirit of the nation.” What made the American landscape so special? How did it differ from the scenery in Europe?
Although the push west provided many opportunities for American immigrants, there was also a significant negative impact on Native populations, pushing them off their historic land while monopolizing many of their natural resources. During this time many artists sought to capture the image of the “noble savage,” portraying Native Americans as dignified yet ignorant to modern conventions.
Farny was known for his sympathetic views of Native people, aligning himself with the noble savage mentality. This painting depicts a Native American approaching a white men's camp, tension flooding the scene while the central character's arm is raised as a symbol of peace. The American frontier likely saw many of these chance encounters, filled with apprehension and uncertainty.
In the 1850s, as American settlers continued to displace Native populations, modern Indian reservations were created by the federal government to accommodate tribes evicted from their land. These reservations were often comprised of the land deemed unattractive and useless by white settlers, severely lacking in the natural resources upon which these populations depended. Tensions remain into the present day regarding the treatment of Native American citizens and the conditions on Native American reservations - obesity, alcoholism, and unemployment are rampant throughout these communities.
To what degree should the federal government intervene on reservations today?
LEFT: John Steuart Curry was known as a Regionalist, painting scenes of the American Midwest where he was raised. In 1929, U.S. stock prices began to fall, resulting in the stock market crash and the offical start of the Great Depression on October 29, 1929.
This painting depicts Curry's parents in 1929, at ease on their farm. The couple enjoys a degree of prosperity, as evidenced by the modern phone and electric fan in their home. Little do they know, like many other Americans, they will lose their entire livelihood as a result of the Depression. Crop prices plummeted, as did the prices of many other goods and services, leaving many poor and unemployed. Recovery did not begin until 1933 with Roosevelt's New Deal programs and was accelerated by the U.S. involvement in WWII beginning in 1941.
RIGHT: Edward Hopper was an American Realist painter, interested in everyday representations of urban life and the impact of new technologies. Hopper purchased his first automobile in 1927, enabling him to travel the picturesque New England towns to inspire his paintings.
This street in Gloucester, Massachusetts first appears vibrant and cheerful, but upon closer investigation it becomes apparent that the scene lacks any human figures, generating a sense of loneliness and isolation.
As our country continues in technological advancement, consider how technology, which is supposed to make us more connected, can actually lead to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Author — Nicole Kroger, Web + Digital Media Manager, Cincinnati Art Museum