New-York Historical Society

Worthington Whittredge, A Window, House on Hudson River, 1863, New York Historical Society, New York CityThe venerable New-York Historical Society is celebrating its post-renovation reopening with “Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy,” a stimulating exhibition focused on the cultural priorities that shaped the core collection. Major painters—Benjamin West, Thomas Cole, Eastman Johnson—figure in the fifty-five works on display, but some now lesser-known artists make a considerable impression. The expected American genres—landscapes, folksy anecdotal scenes—are represented, but so are grand manner, historical and literary subjects. The 232-page, fully illustrated catalogue, with essays by co-curators Barbara Gallati and Linda Ferber, along with Ella Foshay, offers in-depth, scholarly commentary (New-York Historical Society and D. Giles Limited, London).

The New-York Historical Society is home to a fine collection of Hudson RiverSchoolpaintings, including Thomas Cole’s five-part epic The Course of Empire, commissioned by the important patron Luman Reed (the subject of Ella Foshay’s catalogue essay). “Making American Taste” features one of Cole’s more European-looking paintings, Landscape, later known as Moonlight (c. 1833–34), complete with Romantic castle, under the rubric Traditions Retained and Transformed. While the fresh response to an edenic American wilderness is, correctly, described as a crucial component of the Hudson River School mission, there was also a sense of continuity between the old and new worlds. Samuel F.B. Morse’s Landscape Composition: Helicon and Aganippe (Allegorical Landscape of New York University), from 1836, alludes to classical myth and Thomas Cole’s compositional formula.

The curators have divided the show into six sections, sometimes providing an intriguing new context for a familiar work. Asher B. Durand’s lovely American pastoral Sunday Morning (1839) appears in a section titled The Life of the Spirit, and it has  a genuine feeling of simple faith that is missing from the fancy-dress piety of nearby pictures such as George Whiting Flagg’s The Nun (c. 1836) and William Edward West’s The Confessional (c.1845–50). Among the surprises in this group, Daniel Huntington’s Mother and Child (1849) stands out. The setting, with arches elegantly framing the ruins of some ancient palace and a cloud-streaked sky, is hardly stereotypically American. The young mother seated in the foreground, cradling her infant, is too bare to be a conventional Madonna. It’s a touching, formally striking composition, a reminder that American artists had a world of subjects at their disposal.

Still, American history preoccupied nineteenth-century artists as they constructed a national visual narrative. Scenes like George Henry Broughton’s Pilgrims Going to Church (1867), a handsome frieze of crisp figures against the snow, seem to have seeped into our collective consciousness. Durand’s Peter Stuyvesant and the Trumpeter (1835) provides a colorful image of old New York’s peg-legged major character. The incidents of everyday life were popular subjects: anecdotal genre scenes appealed to the contemporary taste for storytelling and American democratic principles. William Sidney Mount is perhaps the best-known exponent of this idiom. Farmers Bargaining, later know as Bargaining for a Horse (1835) demonstrates why: Mount arranges his two human protagonists and the small brown horse with stoic simplicity, using the large, dark interior of the barn to anchor the composition, on the right, and filling the background with a handsome landscape. Issues of class and ethnicity are considered in the exhibition and catalogue; one of the thematic sections is titled Picturing the Outsider. But the curators widen their perspective without resorting to radical revisionism. 

The exhibition rediscovers some neglected artists well worth another look and finds fresh contexts for familiar stars. Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ bronze The Puritan (1899) is an iconic bit of Americana, as interpreted by a cosmopolitan sculptor. In The Window, later known as A Window, House on Hudson River (1863), the landscapist Worthington Whittredge creates a mysterious interior that would not have been out of place in the Metropolitan Museum’s recent exhibition “Rooms with a View.” We look across a vast, shadowy floor toward the tall luminous window, softly veiled in sheer curtains. A mother and baby, tiny figures, sit in a window-seat, gazing out at the river and hills beyond. George H. Yewell’s Doing Nothing (1852), in contrast, has an urban punch that an Ashcan School painter, a few decades later, would have been proud to match. The shoeshine boy, seated on a curb, dominates the composition, assuming a pseudo-epic scale because he is sharply silhouetted against the sky and poster-covered wall. “Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy” is on view November 11, 2011–August 19, 2012, at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, New York, New York 10024. Telephone (212) 873-3400. On the web at www.nyhistory.org

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2011, Volume 28, Number 4