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Ten Masterworks from the Whitney Museum of American Art on view at the Joslyn Art Museum
Robert Henri (American, 1865–1929), Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, 1916, oil on canvas, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Gift of Flora Whitney Miller, 86.70.3

OMAHA, NEB.- Ten Masterworks from the Whitney Museum of American Art focuses on masterpieces by early twentieth-century artists who challenged the boundaries of American art. Representing the finest works in the Whitney’s collection, these ten paintings trace the emergence of modernism and abstraction during the first five decades of the twentieth century, describing a range of narratives from urban society to the pastoral landscape, portraiture, and still life.

This exhibition was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, NY). It opened at Joslyn Art Museum on January 26 and continues through May 12.

Ten Masterworks begins with a 1916 portrait of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor and patron of the arts, and namesake of the Whitney Museum. Painted by Robert Henri, who was raised in Cozad, Nebraska, she reclines on a couch, her elegant pose countered by an attentive gaze that commands attention.

William J. Glackens, John Sloan, Maurice Prendergast, Reginald Marsh, and Thomas Hart Benton captured the vibrant dynamics of American social life. Glackens and Sloan were working for the Philadelphia Press when they were persuaded by Henri — then an instructor at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts — to abandon illustration and become artists, helping to establish a new realism based on careful observation and celebration of the daily lives of ordinary Americans. Benton’s scene, Poker Night, based on the play A Streetcar Named Desire, captures the tumultuous actions of Tennessee William’s script, its subjects ready to burst from the canvas.

Meanwhile, Max Weber and Patrick Henry Bruce pushed the boundaries of abstraction in American art. After spending three years in Paris, Weber returned to New York in 1908 and profoundly influenced his fellow artists with the formal language of Paul Cézanne and European Modernism. Gerald Murphy, a glamorous socialite who himself moved to Paris in 1921, created a small but remarkable body of still life paintings that rendered common American products in a flat, legible style that recalled advertising illustrations.

Perhaps the most iconic artist in the exhibition is Georgia O’Keeffe, whose 1926 Abstraction is subtle and haunting in its carefully modulated monochrome palette. Influenced by the formal clarity of photography and her belief in selecting and reducing forms to emphasize their essential character, her painting is at once familiar and mysterious.

Entering a new century with youthful confidence, rising prosperity, and new sophistication on the international stage, these ten artists answered the challenge of the European avant-garde with a fresh artistic vision that reflected the aspirations and struggles of a growing nation.

Ten Masterworks is complemented by selections from Joslyn’s own notable holdings of American modernism, including Robert Henri’s portrait Consuelo in Black (1924) — a recent addition to the permanent collection — as well as John Sloan’s Sunset, West Twenty-third Street (1906), John Steuart Curry’s Manhunt (1931), and Thomas Hart Benton’s The Hailstorm (1940). Other artists on view in Gallery 10 in Joslyn’s Memorial Building include Maurice Prendergast and Walt Kuhn, who helped shape the early course of modernism in America, as well as the Regionalist master Grant Wood, who championed the rural landscape.

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