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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
A heady exhibition in Sarasota documents how artists shed European influences and declared their independence.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published February 18, 2007
Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara, 1857, oil on canvas, 421/2 by 901/2 inches.
[Photos: Ringling Museum of Art]
Aaron Douglas, Into Bondage, 1936, oil on canvas, 603/8 by 601/2 inches.
John Singer Sargent, Madame Edouard Pailleron, 1879, oil on canvas, 82 by 391/2 inches.
SARASOTA - Let's see . . . we could start with Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington. Iconic! But what about the Albert Bierstadt or Frederic Edwin Church? (Those landscapes!) Then again, the Thomas Eakins work is major. As is the John Singer Sargent. (A whole story could be written about the ruffles on a dress!) Can't ignore Winslow Homer. Edward Hopper. James Abbott McNeill Whistler.
That's the quandary in "Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings From the Corcoran Gallery of Art" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. There are about 70 works on view and almost as many artists, all of which are worthy of ink. A large number are worthy of lots of ink.
The show is a broad survey of American art from the mid 1700s through the mid 20th century. It challenges the viewer, who must digest so much individuality, each work different from the next, rather than a buildup of similarities and associations one finds in a typical special exhibition with a single theme.
But given the quality of the works included, it's worth the extra time and concentration. The reward will be a real sense of how American art grew up and into its own along with the nation.
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Many of the paintings emulate European art; it would be a long time before American artists developed their own vernacular. Portraiture was the genre of choice in the Colonial era, a way to document the colonists, who dressed and posed like their English cousins. The few examples of nontraditional portraiture - Joshua Johnson's painting of a young matron with her daughters - would today be called outsider or folk art. It stands out for its original point of view and personality. Johnson really would have been considered an outsider artist, style aside; he is one of the earliest black American artists, self-taught and not beholden to the European tradition.
It would be decades before American artists got over their inferiority complex. Two canvases by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), for example, are allegories set in the English countryside and bear more than a passing resemblance to the great English landscape painter John Constable. (They're quite beautiful, by the way.)
Rebellion was afoot, however. We see it most in genre paintings, a popular narrative style in the early 19th century that portrayed everyday scenes.
In 1837, the same year Cole painted his allegories, William Sidney Mount's The Long Story breaks all kinds of standard composition rules - the stovepipe cuts the painting in half visually, for example - in portraying three men gathered around a fire, one spinning a yarn that fascinates the other two. Subject matter such as common people gathering for discussions evolved increasingly into documentations of a national debate that eventually flamed into the Civil War.
The land was another arena for small departures from well-trod paths. Its vastness, newly discovered by more of the American population, was as exotic a subject matter as anything the old country could offer. In the latter 19th century, the Hudson River School painters extolled our geographical virtues in a kind of idealized realism; George Inness took a softer approach in Sunset in the Woods. Winslow Homer's seascape broods and shimmers like a sleeping giant, punctuated by the unexpected, monumentally proportioned female figure.
Still, Europe exerted a strong pull. Childe Hassam was among a group of American artists who embraced French impressionism in the early 20th century and transported it back home. Whistler set up permanent camp abroad in the mid 19th century, followed by Sargent a few decades later, both courting patrons from afar.
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The real revolution toward artistic independence began in the first two decades of the 20th century, concurrent with the American impressionist movement and a reaction to its conservatism. The Eight were iconoclasts who shook things up. Five of them - William Glackens, John Sloan, Robert Henri, Arthur B. Davies and Maurice Prendergast - are represented here. They, along with regionalists such as Thomas Hart Benton and realists such as Hopper, rejected cerebral European influences, especially surrealism. The show ends before abstract expressionism transformed American art after World War II and gave the United States equal footing internationally.
"Encouraging American Genius" is the first exhibition in the new Searing Wing at the Ringling, along with "Bedazzled: 5,000 Years of Jewelry From the Walters Art Museum" and both put the big space through its paces dramatically. (A review of "Bedazzled" will appear in a few weeks.)
Architect Yann Weymouth's design gives curators generous gallery spaces with a long axis at each end. Associate curator Diana Weber's arrangement of the American paintings show invites comparisons that go beyond the obvious.
On one wall, for example, Henri's portrait of an American Indian echoes the saturated colors of Marsden Hartley's Berlin Abstraction, and Benton's swirling landscape contrasts nicely with Yasuo Kuniyoshi's angular one. Stand at an axis and see Benjamin West's Cupid Stung by a Bee Is Cherished by His Mother (1774), full of Renaissance references, and then turn to view Davies' Stars and Dews and Dreams of Night (1927), an equally lush but entirely different treatment of the female nude. Weber begins the exhibition with Johnson's early 19th century group portrait and ends with a 1936 painting by Aaron Douglas, another black artist whose depiction of the slave trade Johnson would have experienced firsthand.
That's the CliffsNotes version of this exhibition. Do experience the complete one with all its chapters and verses.
"Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings From the Corcoran Gallery of Art" is at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, 5401 Bay Shore Road, Sarasota, through April 29. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Admission, which also includes the circus museum and Ca d'Zan, is $15 adults, $13 seniors, $5 students. Free art museum admission Monday.