Coming of Age American Art, 1850s to 1950s

Coming of Age: American Art, 1850s to 1950s, is a show about the development of American painting over the century. Using the extensive collection of American Art at the Addison Gallery, this exhibition demonstrates how artists created the American identity in art in a similar way to American writers’ distinguishing our written language from that of the British. Landscape is the vital and central image source for this development. The conventions of landscape painting were derived from Europe, but artists needed to find a way to depict the wild nature of the American continent. In 1861, the Civil War started in America over slavery and states’ rights—it would unfold to be the worst war in our history. The country was tearing itself apart, and the paintings of the period reflect the damage inflicted upon America. There are two paintings in the exhibition called the Coming Storm, one by Inness and one by Bierstadt. Their dramatic interpretation of the landscape tradition, the storm, seems to echo the war. Some of the paintings of this period have a sort of longing quality, even nostalgia. At the turn of the century, Arthur B. Davies painted Mountain Beloved of Spring, a mountain rendered as if in a trance—the image is blurry, lending the beauty of the landscape a dream-like quality. Davies finished his artistic career in Italy, and his work seems to be looking longingly at 18th century Europe, before America asserted itself as a world power. From the 1850s to 1950s, America was trying to break away from Europe, to establish its own identity, but the paintings of the period occasionally draw inspiration from Europe. The origins of American painting are rooted in Europe, but over the century, as society was rapidly changing, America formed a distinctive, individual style of painting. There is a typified character that recurs in various post-war paintings from the end of the 19th century to the turn of the century. This American character is lonely—a private, interior figure. Winslow Homer depicted a lone figure walking along the windswept dunes of The West Wind, searching the stormy landscape for something lost. In Eight Bells, two lonely sailors are preoccupied with navigation. Though these characters are usually engaged in mundane tasks, as in Homer’s works, they seem to be absorbed in thought: private, contemplative and philosophical. In the painting Reverie, by Thomas Wilmer Dewing, a private female figure stands in a solitary room without doors or windows. The same type of figure sits at the piano in Thomas Eakins’s Elizabeth at the Piano. There is also a lonely quality in the Hopper painting, Manhattan Bridge Loop. The painting has an emptiness in the bare steel and cement of the cityscape and a raking light over the faces of the buildings. That same quality of light appears in The Conversation by Eastman Johnson, a picture of two cranberry pickers resting at the end of their workday. But as the body of our country began to heal itself, the style of painting began to change. The subject was no longer a private figure in a vast landscape. It was the subject, the artist who became that vastness itself. Painting styles evolved toward the abstract. Jackson Pollock, whose piece Phosphorescence appears in the Addison show, once said, “I don’t paint nature, I am nature.”