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Icons of American Art Coming to Birmingham Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
Frederic Edwin Church, Mt. Ktaadn, 1853. Oil on canvas, 36 1/4 x 55 1/4 in. (92.1 x 140.3 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, Stanley B. Resor, B.A. 1901, Fund.

BIRMINGHAM, AL.- An extraordinary exhibition of American art and objects from the colonial era to the Gilded Age titled Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery will be on view at the Birmingham Museum of Art from October 4, 2009 to January 10, 2010. The exhibition includes 230 paintings, drawings, photographs, furniture, silver, early glass, and other works that reflect the diverse heritages of their makers and provide fascinating insights into the changing fabric of American life, circa 1660—1893. The objects are drawn from Yale University Art Gallery's world-renowned collection of American art.

“This exhibition offers an unprecedented opportunity to see treasures that likely will not tour again in our lifetime,” says Graham Boettcher, the William Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. "Visitors will see the most beautiful and significant masterpieces of early American art."

Birmingham is the third and final museum to host the national tour of this exhibition, which opened at the Speed Museum in Louisville, Kentucky, and currently is on view at the Seattle Art Museum, Washington.

The Works
The exhibition includes many icons of American art, such as John Trumbull’s original series of eight Revolutionary War scenes and his Declaration of Independence, featured on the back of the $2 bill. These paintings are traveling for the first time as a group since the artist presented them to Yale in 1832. Also on view are works by Edward Hicks, Albert Bierstadt, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Eadweard Muybridge, and Frederic Remington, among many others.

Selections from the Yale University Art Gallery’s collection of early American silver, one of the finest in the world, include a silver teapot crafted by Paul Revere; the earliest surviving pair of American candlesticks, created by Jeremiah Dummer, America’s first native-born silversmith; and flamboyant 19th-century silver objects by Tiffany & Co. Decorative arts include masterpieces of 18th- and 19th-century furniture, as well as a host of other works that provide fascinating insights into the way Americans lived. By including objects of daily life—such as the only surviving 18th-century gold thimble, early ceramics, and a child’s chair—this exhibition reveals the rich texture of the American experience.

Collectively, these works of art present a vivid portrait of a young republic as it struggled to invent a nation and to define itself geographically, politically, socially, and artistically. Through the stroke of a paintbrush, the symbols found on a pitcher, hand-coloring on a print, or carvings on wood, the objects in the exhibition reflect the diverse religious, cultural, and artistic heritages of their makers, who brought their unique talents and perspective to objects they created in the New World.

“The objects in this exhibition and the concepts they represent inspire pride and new ways of seeing what it means to be an American,” says Gail Andrews, R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art. “We are delighted to offer this remarkable educational experience to the Birmingham community and to the region.”

American History Revealed
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness extends well beyond the art itself, touching many themes in American history. The exhibition explores the creation of a distinctive American visual language that developed over the course of two centuries. It traces the nation’s colonial beginnings, its struggles for democracy and citizenship, and its emergence as an industrial nation. Historic events are depicted in portraits of an emerging nation's key political and military figures; objects and furnishings that demonstrate the aspirations of a new country; and landscape and genre paintings that attempt to capture the majesty of a vast land as well as the responses to rapid social and economic changes.

The exhibition is organized thematically. It explores aspects of national identity from about 1660, when America was still a thriving English colonial enterprise, to 1893, the year of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, when the country presented itself as a new world leader in culture, commerce, and technology.

The Stories Behind the Works
The stories behind the works in Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness are many and memorable. Yale University is the oldest college art museum in the Western Hemisphere and one of the oldest art museums in the U.S. The Gallery was founded in 1832, when John Trumbull struck a deal with Yale. Trumbull would give all of his paintings of the Revolutionary War to Yale in exchange for a lifetime annuity, construction of a gallery to display his paintings in perpetuity, and provision of a final resting place for him and his wife Sarah.

"If Yale ever broke any of the terms of the agreement, ownership in full would revert to Trumbull’s alma mater, Harvard," says Boettcher, who received a B.A and Ph.D. from Yale. "This is an early instance of the famous Harvard-Yale rivalry and the reason why Trumbull’s paintings have never before traveled as a group."

The story of John Trumbull's George Washington at the Battle of Trenton, 1792, is amusing. Trumbull considered this life-size portrait of George Washington to be his finest portrait of the "father" of his country. He originally painted this portrait for the city of Charleston, South Carolina, which refused it, stating that they wanted a portrait of Washington the statesman, not the general. He painted a new version, prominently repositioning the horse’s rump to face the viewer. The painting is still hanging in City Hall in Charleston and is popularly known as "Trumbull’s Revenge."

Another example is Paul Revere's The Boston Massacre, 1770. While we remember Paul Revere for his elegant silverwork and famous "midnight ride," he was a gifted engraver, and his broadside engraving of the Boston Massacre was one of the most influential images from the years leading up to the Revolution.

The Civil War was the first American war to be widely covered in the popular press. Artists like Winslow Homer traveled with the troops and were among this country’s first war correspondents or "embedded reporters." Paintings similar to Homer's In Front of Yorktown (circa 1863-66) were sent to Harper’s Weekly magazine and engraved for publication.

Finally, John Trumbull's instantly recognizable The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776 (1786-1820) is the original, with a later copy hanging in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. Although we think of this painting as representing the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it actually depicts the moment on June 28, 1776, when Thomas Jefferson’s draft was submitted to Congress for approval. Trumbull took the portrait of each founding father from life and, if the person had died, he studied old family portraits. John Dickinson of Pennsylvania is the only person in the painting wearing a hat. Raised a Quaker, he believed that conflicts could be settled without violence, and he abstained from voting on or signing the Declaration, which he believed would lead to war.

Ties to Alabama History and Civil War Era
A number of the 230 works have fascinating ties to the history of Alabama during the Civil War era. Although the focus of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness is much broader than the Civil War period, the exhibition puts this terrible and defining conflict in the context of the larger American story. During the run of the exhibition, the Birmingham Museum of Art will present works from its permanent collection by artists of the Civil War era, including Nicola Marshall, portraitist and designer of the Confederate flag and uniform; and Gilbert Gaul, of whose work the Museum has the largest collection in the U.S.

Birmingham | Frederic Edwin Church | Edward Hicks | Albert Bierstadt | Winslow Homer | Thomas Eakins | Eadweard Muybridge | Frederic Remington |

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