Drawn from Yale Universitys collection of American art Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery
explores the diverse and evolving ways America defined itself from the colonial era to the Gilded Age. On view at the Seattle Art Museum
from February 26-May 25, 2009 -- the only time many of the works have ever traveled to the West Coast -- this major exhibition offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn American History through iconic objects from what is considered to be one of the finest collections of American art ever assembled.
Many of the 230 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, furniture, silver and ceramics presented in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness have never left New Haven, Connecticut. They are only permitted to travel for a brief period while Yales American collections galleries are being renovated. Included in the exhibition are many long-revered icons of American art, such as John Trumbulls original series of eight Revolutionary War scenes -- including The Declaration of Independence -- traveling for the first time as a group since the artist presented them to Yale in 1832; Winslow Homers Old Mill (1871); Albert Bierstadts Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail (ca. 1873); Thomas Eakinss John Biglin in a Single Scull (1874); and many more.
Also on view are selections from Yales world-renowned collection of early American silver, including the oldest surviving pair of American candlesticks, created by Jeremiah Dummer, the first American-born silversmith; a silver teapot crafted by Paul Revere; and flamboyant late-19th century Tiffany & Co silver pieces. A host of objects, from a nearly eight-foot , late-colonial Philadelphia High Chest, to popular prints, pottery, shoe buckles and a sewing thimble, provide fascinating insights into the changing fabric of American life. Details on these unique items reflect the artists and artisans diverse backgrounds, as well as the impact of life in the New World.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness "presents objects in their larger aesthetic and cultural context, telling the story of a country of diverse ethnic and cultural heritages struggling over 200 years to invent a nation," explains Helen Cooper, the exhibitions organizing curator and the Yale University Art Gallerys curator of American paintings and sculpture. "By combining such objects of daily life as candlesticks or a childs chair with celebrated paintings and prints, [the exhibition] presents a vivid portrait of the American experience from the 17th-century settlements until the Gilded Age, at the end of the 19th century."
Coopers curatorial team included Robin Jaffee Frank, senior associate curator of American paintings and sculpture; Elisabeth Hodermarsky, associate curator of prints, drawings and photographs; and Patricia E. Kane, curator of American decorative arts; all of Yale University Art Gallery. In Seattle, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is curated by the Seattle Art Museums Patricia Junker, the Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, and Julie Emerson, the Ruth J. Nutt Curator of Decorative Arts.
Divided chronologically into three major thematic sections, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness explores aspects of national identity from about 1660, when America was still a thriving English colonial enterprise, to 1893, when the 100-year-old sovereign nation presented itself as a new world leader in culture, commerce and technology at the Worlds Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The first section, EXPRESSIONS OF HERITAGE, presents a range of art and objects that testify to the religious and ethnic diversity of early America. The enduring predominance of English religious traditions is reflected in works such as John Smiberts imposing portrait The Bermuda Group (Dean Berkeley and His Entourage), begun in 1728 to honor the ministers attempt to found a college in Bermuda for Protestant missionaries, and artist-minister Edward Hickss vision of a Quaker utopia, The Peaceable Kingdom and Penns Treaty (1845). The heritage of Americas other cultural communities is preserved in objects ranging from a silver beaker engraved with moralizing allegories in the Dutch tradition, to a chest made by a craftsman in Spanish New Mexico, to a cane with carvings connecting it to Africas healing arts. The diversity of design in these and other objects vividly evokes the changing makeup of the American population as waves of immigrants settled in the colonies.
CITIZENSHIP AND DEMOCRACY brings together objects that reflect American pride in its struggles for freedom and equality -- both on and off the battlefield. This sections centerpiece is Trumbulls important series of Revolutionary War scenes, including his depictions of The Battle of Bunkers Hill (1786) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1786-1820). Now routinely reproduced in textbooks and educational prints, these images were intended more to convey moral lessons about character, courage and sacrifice than to provide accurate views of historical events. Popular prints, such as Paul Reveres hand-colored The Bloody Massacre Perpetuated in King-Street (1770), reached a large audience and played a powerful role in galvanizing the revolutionary sentiments of America.
The pride and patriotic fervor that swept America after the Revolution also expressed itself in furniture and other decorative arts festooned with patriotic symbolism, such as eagles, the liberty cap, representations of significant Revolutionary War victories, neoclassical allegories of Liberty, Peace and Virtue, and more. Similarly, the "cult of [George] Washington" led to numerous painted portraits as well as an array of household objects, such as silver tablespoons and glass flasks, bearing his likeness. Other objects, however, bear witness to sectional conflict and the plight of Americans denied the benefits of freedom and equality. The exhibition includes, for example, a small silver jug presented by African Americans to an abolitionist minister, Thomas Eakinss haunting portrait of a battle-scarred Civil War veteran (probably 1885), and four of William H. Townsends sensitive Sketches of the Amistad Captives from 1840, just one year after the divisive imprisonment of the ships kidnapped West African passengers.
The exhibitions final section, CULTURAL AND MATERIAL ASPIRATIONS, traces the effects of wealth, ambition and the land itself on the visual arts. Some of the works examine the varied ways that earlier Americans -- often in competition with their European counterparts -- sought to enhance both their physical surroundings and intellectual lives. John Singleton Copleys 1769 portraits of the wealthy Boston merchant Mr. Isaac Smith and his wife, Mrs. Isaac Smith (Elizabeth Storer), for example, with their elegant attire and high-style Chippendale furniture, eloquently convey colonial notions of prosperity and "the good life," while a 1771 portrait by Samuel King of the clergyman-scholar Ezra Stiles, proudly surrounded by lofty tomes on theology, philosophy and history, documents early Americas reverence for education as a means of salvation and self-improvement. Opulent furniture and decorative arts, such as a luxurious "Grecian" couch of 1820-30 that invites its user to recline indulgently amidst the objects flamboyant design elements, signal, according to catalogue contributor Ethan Lasser, a contrasting American attitude, in which comfort and luxury, rather than public service and intellectual accomplishment, became the primary signifiers of success.
The exploration and settlement of the American West are reflected in works ranging from Albert Bierstadts majestic Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail (ca. 1873) to such objects as an earthenware blue plate commemorating the Erie Canals opening (1825-46). Advances in manufacturing and technology made such objects available to the middle class in increasingly variety. Examples including Lambert Hitchcocks mass-produced chairs and Eli Terrys wooden clocks are on view.
Varying perspectives on the dramatic social, demographic and economic changes in post-Civil War America are documented in works such as Winslow Homers 1871 Old Mill (The Morning Bell), which, depicting a young factory girl, captures the uneasiness of a society in transition between its rural past and industrial future. Colorful prints with panoramic views of New York, Boston, Chicago and other thriving cities celebrate an increasingly urbanized America.
By the late 19th century, enormous fortunes had been amassed by a privileged few, whose taste for opulence and extravagant display ushered in the so-called Gilded Age. Decorative arts from this luxury-loving era include an elaborate ebonized and gilded Parlor Cabinet (1876-82) and a set of butterfly-shaped silver Napkin Clips (1879), made by Tiffany & Co. for one of the Comstock Silver Mines owners. Charles Courtney Currans painting At the Sculpture Exhibition (1895) expresses the pride in cultural sophistication and worldly interests that also characterized Americas Gilded Age.