Deconstructing America: Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19-Century American Art

October 22nd, 2013  |  Published in *, October 2013

Deconstructing America:
Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19-Century American Art

Taft Museum of Art
September 20, 2013-January 12, 2014

By Jonathan Kamholtz

“Telling Tales” at the Taft makes its case for American art the hard way.  This excellent loan exhibit from the New-York Historical Society surveys American painting with very few of the go-to works or crowd pleasers that might make it an easy sell. There are no works by the early limners and no delightfully enigmatic folk pieces. There are hardly any pure portraits, either flashy or stern. The show’s chronology stops just before American painters encountered impressionism and made it their own. There is no urban or even suburban romance. There are very few landscapes, either Hudson River or Luminist, and though there are Indians, they are not western. The show’s core dates from the middle third of the nineteenth century, when “wilderness” pretty much meant upstate New York.

When first shown at the New-York Historical Society in 2011-2012, the show went under the title “Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy,” and the installation at the Taft focuses intriguingly on ways that visual arts carry narratives, both explicit and opaque. The making of American taste has mostly been set aside, though it lurks in the text of some of the wall labels like a key to unlock the curators’ principles of selections and many of the paintings themselves. It falls to the excellent catalogue to explain how these paintings met their original audiences, how they became popular either by touring or through stand-alone engravings or magazine illustrations, and how they went from the public consciousness to a public collection. The trade-off has been a highlighting of a few crucial stories that seem essential to the nineteenth century American consciousness.

One of those stories is Americans’ growing awareness of the newness of their New World. This takes the form of paintings that are fundamentally about intergenerational contact, about fathers and children, about patriarchs and younger folk either submissive or rebellious. Benjamin West is represented by two large canvases that balance the generational conflict. One shows Ulysses as a virile warrior submitting to the will of an elderly priest; the other shows Aeneas just on the verge of having to come to the rescue of his father. William Dunlap is represented by “The Artist Showing a Picture from Hamlet to his Parents” (1788), in which the 22 year old painter, holding his paint-stained palette and sporting an even more colorful vest, shows off his work to his parents. The mother’s look is opaque but the father gets it: his son is this country’s new man.

George Henry Boughton (1833–1905), Pilgrims Going to Church, 1867, oil on canvas.
The New-York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, S-117

 

In one of the best-known works in the show, George Henry Boughton’s “Pilgrims Going to Church” (1867), a baker’s dozen or so Puritans trudge through the snow to reach a place of worship. This is not quite an errand into the wilderness anymore; trees have been cut down and the path is well trodden. The young men are armed. On one level, the drama of the painting is that two of the men and a young girl have heard something off in the woods and one of the men, his Bible tucked into his belt to keep his hands free, is readying his gun. But on another level, the painting’s underlying drama is strongly generational. The older the figures are, the more they seem exhausted, with faces lost in thought or pinched in grief or regret. But the younger faces all seem more hopeful, ready for what is new about the world in which, presumably, they were born. In Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s heroic, tabletop bronze “The Puritan” (done in 1899, it is probably the latest work in the show) captures both the old and the new of America’s heritage. Especially under the remarkable lighting afforded it in the Taft’s installation, the figure embodying and paying homage to America’s Puritan ancestry is elderly but almost absurdly vigorous, a very physical hero of the spirit. He carries an over-sized Bible under one arm and a heavy walking stick held out at arm’s length, but the energy of his stride belies a need for support. It is as if he is walking out from under his age (as he is walking out from under his cloak), made new and young by his renewal in this New World.

Richard Caton Woodville (1825–1855), The Cavalier’s Return, 1847, oil on canvas.
The New-York Historical Society, Bequest of Kate Warner, 1914.2

 

Richard Caton Woodville’s “The Cavalier’s Return” (1847) does everything it can to humanize the figure of the absentee father, home from the wars against the Puritans in 17th Century England. He is kind and attentive as he is being reintroduced to his young child who clearly does not know him. We cannot see the child’s face but perhaps, it seems to be implied, generational reconciliation is possible, and the cozy, comfortable, nuclear family will be restored. When did the fathers lose the certainty that their children would come around? When did the old stories cease to be compelling for a new generation? In Eastman Johnson’s “Sunday Morning” (1866), that time has come. An extended family sits and listens, listlessly at best, while the pater familia reads to them from the Bible besides the coals of a dying fire. The mother seems exhausted by her maternal labors, a young woman turns away, and whatever is distracting the two fidgety youngest children, it is unlikely to be Bible stories. Against the wall a young man, sitting coiled with latent energy waiting to be able to burst free, fingers his ring. One slightly older child listens in a reverie, but the only other figure whose posture suggests that he is entranced sits with his back to us. Though the family members are gathered together, they all seem absorbed in their individual worlds, any common spiritual cause seeming to be very distant. The old man does not seem to have noticed that Sunday mornings in his household have become decidedly secular.

The show, which has been thoughtfully divided into six sections, includes a number of paintings that tell twice-told tales, with themes from Shakespeare or nostalgic ventures into British history, presumably because these seemed to convey—or to appropriate—instant cultural legitimacy. But the show’s core paintings suggest that the dramas of the new country would be played out in its own domestic spaces. Asher B. Durand’s “The Pedlar” (1836) seats an itinerant salesman in a drab room, about to close the sale of some knick knacks to a child; the father is just starting the long, slow reach into his pocket for some money. Only the peddler’s face is happier and more animated than the child’s. But it is impossible to underestimate the dreariness of this room, and the peddler’s stuff brings the excitement of the new, the addition of something tangible to a space suffocating in its brown miasma, and the certainty of some color. Francis W. Edmonds’s “Bargaining” (c. 1858) also depicts indoor salesmanship as a man holds out a plucked turkey for the cautious but shrewd examination of an old woman. Though the wall label calls sympathetic attention to her poverty and her need to be careful with her limited resources (and as well to the Panic of 1857, an historicizing note surely unlikely to have occurred to most viewers), to me the painting emphasized the earnest reasonableness of the seller. She has her dignity, but he has a job. He is a model citizen, and the possibility of his being able to make a living seems even nobler than her poverty.

William Sidney Mount (1807–1868), Farmers Bargaining (later known as Bargaining for a Horse),
1835, oil on canvas. The New-York Historical Society, Gift of The New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts, 1858.59

 

The exhibit seemed especially rich in dramas that illustrated the commercial workings of American rural life. In William Sidney Mount’s “Farmers Bargaining” (1835), two men are engaged in the rituals of salesmanship and consumership that will end in one of them getting the horse in the background, who is patiently ignoring them. Both men are overdressed (who farms in a vest and tie?), but their gentility is at least slightly shabby. Both are whittling on sticks with pocketknives as if it were the most important thing in the world, in a process that a related painting suggests would be called “coming to the point.” A distant woman stares fixedly at them, making the whole deal slightly theatrical. Considering how simple the story behind the picture ought to be, the narrative portion is enigmatic, even when it comes to the basics: who is the buyer and who is the seller? I’m going to venture that the older man, whose horse will no longer be harnessed to the old yoke discarded in the barn, is selling to the younger man, returning to the intergenerational thread that runs through so many of the paintings selected for the exhibit. I’d put my money, by the way, on the advantage going to the seller, as the younger man seems a bit simple, too thoroughly distracted by the older man’s knife work. But the power of the painting is precisely in its narrative indeterminacy. Over and again at the Taft, we are asked to reconsider the nature and meaning of narratives that may have initially appeared to be straightforward.

Some of the labels on the wall do some disservice to the paintings by being stridently New Historical, assuring us that the art work is really about the Panic of 1857 or—most frequently—the conflict between north and south that will lead to or has already led to the Civil War. The labels sometimes treat carefully culled historical facts as if they were the answers to a singular riddle. I would not wish to dehistoricize the paintings at all, especially in an exhibit many of whose works seem to be designed to offer a reading of American history and find—or construct–what Van Wyck Brooks called almost a century ago a “usable past.” There is something absurd but also moving about John Gadsby Chapman’s 1841 invention of what George Washington might have looked like as a teenager. But I think an important part of the show is its pictures’ exemplification of how to go about the business of reading a work of art.

Learning how to read art in the middle third of the nineteenth century cannot have been an easy matter. As the many paintings of American interiors make clear, art work is foreign if not alien. In the entire show, only one work (Worthington Whittredge’s “The Window,” 1863) depicts an American interior that has a painting on its wall. This is one of those places where a little more emphasis on the exhibition’s earlier incarnation—which focused on the development of American taste—might have assisted in the show’s refocus on telling tales and understanding them.

The tabletop bronzes of John Rogers try to tell their stories by speaking directly to us, with explanatory labels carved right into their bases: “’Why Don’t You Speak for Yourself, John?’” (1885). But mostly the audience for these works of art would have had to learn to read or recognize or construct the story for themselves. They would have been helped by some of the rules of “genre” paintings (an odd label if there ever was one). Like illustrations, the pictures have their own sparse but tangible clues. They are uncluttered—its remarkable how little high Victorian or Biedermeier these spaces contain—but rich in domestic iconography. Why a bellows? Why a pottery parrot? Why a single egg? (And who can ever figure out the precise iconography of all those dogs?) The narratives are economical and abbreviated, with people arranged like tableaux, displayed in a fashion almost as linear as an Egyptian frieze. There is strikingly little subordination; all the figures seem equally detailed and therefore equally important. This is a place where some very old fashioned ways of telling stories can remind us of very contemporary ways of telling stories, enabling figures at the edges to compete for prominence and attention with the figures at the center (see, for example, John Whetten Ehninger’s “Peter Stuyvesant and the Cobbler,” 1850). Perhaps this is part of the paintings’ democratic consciousness that stubbornly proposes to value each individual. The two Civil War battle scenes are instructive in this regard. Victor Nehlig’s “An Episode of the War” (1862) individualizes every soldier in the crowd, turning the war death of Lt. Hidden into a virtual assassination. Gilbert Gaul’s significantly later “Charging the Battery” (1882) announces its modernity by subordinating the individuality of the streaming column of faceless men into the effects of light and dark and shadow.

George H. Yewell (1830–1923), Doing Nothing, 1852, oil on canvas.
The New-York Historical Society, Gift of the Reverend George S. Webster, 1933.8

 

I do not think that it is just our modern taste that draws us to those paintings that can be hard to contextualize fully, let alone read. George Henry Yewell’s “Doing Nothing” (1852) is one of the most remarkable portraits in the show. A young boy with torn clothing and an older boy’s face looks straight out at us, not exactly pathetic and not exactly accusatory, somewhere between lounging and ill at ease. Though he is plainly idle—and might possibly have a rendezvous sooner or later with The Tombs, the prison the label tells us looms behind him—all other industry has been suspended as well, with no one else visible on the streets or sidewalks. The collage of torn posters behind him might help make his situation more readable, but it’s also interesting that he seems to be resting on a construction site, surrounded by stones that might be ready to be put to new use. Where will the underemployed find rest in a city so potentially restless? As America moves to portray its urban face, it does not seem quite sure what it’s seeing.

Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), Negro Life at the South, 1859, oil on linen.
The New-York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, S-225

 

Eastman Johnson’s “Negro Life at the South” (1859), perhaps the show’s best-known painting and one of its masterpieces, is also an urban scene. In the same year that it was painted, it somehow acquired the name “The Old Kentucky Home,” as if the central house, run down but filled with energy from the multigenerational population of unencumbered and unsupervised African Americans who live or gather there, was part of plantation life. (Whose romanticization of slave life was at the root of that?) There is another house visible next door which is plainly urban; the label tells us that the site has now been identified as part of a set of row houses in Washington, D.C. It is not the least interesting thing about the painting that it could ever have been seen as rural. In the run-down house, a chicken sits on a mossy, overgrown overhang and a cat eases itself back in through an open—and broken—window. The central figure is a statuesque, mournful black banjo player. Some of the people in the yard are listening to him, but it is not clear that he is faring much better at holding people’s undivided attention than was the old man reading the Bible in Johnson’s “Sunday Morning.” A couple is courting, resting from their chores and a child is dancing. Other children are distracted by the figure of a furtive young white woman making her way into the backyard, presumably from the house next door which is in far better repair but does not teem with life. There is certainly a story going on here, but it is hard to tell just what it is, especially once the bogus title is eliminated. The story is surely, among other things, about race: the woman slipping into the yard and her dress are pale white, and some of the African Americans are clearly of mixed race. She is possibly intruding or possibly going to a rendezvous; she might be a regular visitor or she might have been drawn in for the first time by the music and the sounds of life. She might find herself welcome and she might not. But the painting thrives on its enigmatic and unresolvable nature. It is telling an urban story, and that story seems to be that all these people, like their houses, are connected. Somehow.

 

Comments are closed.