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Princeton University Art Museum explores the formation and evolution of an American business aesthetic
Meeting in the Great Hall, 1966. New York Chamber of Commerce Building, James Barnes Baker, architect, 1902. Photo: New York Chamber of Commerce Archives, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

PRINCETON, NJ.- The portrait collection of the New York Chamber of Commerce, assembled over a two-hundred-year period beginning in 1772, captured with aesthetic and symbolic power the giants of American business to become one of the most significant examples of institutional portraiture in the nation's history. Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture, held exclusively at the Princeton University Art Museum from March 9 through June 30, 2013, gathers fifty of the best portraits from the now dispersed collection in a dense, Salon-style installation evoking its original majestic setting in the Great Hall of the Chamber’s ornate Wall Street headquarters. Featuring images of business titans (J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt), military and political leaders (George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant), and great Americans such as Samuel F.B. Morse, the exhibition recreates the most impressive corporate display of portraits in American history while demonstrating the varied and fascinating uses to which portraiture has been put in the service of institutions.

Picturing Power draws attention to a fundamental predicament of American art: namely, how to portray power in a democracy, where the fundamental ideals of equality conflict with the inherently aggrandizing act of commissioning, posing for, and collecting portraits. “Americans’ shifting and ambivalent relationship to commerce situates these portraits at the intersection of enduring and critical contests in American life—between self-interest and the greater good, between equality and the social hierarchies that wealth engenders,” said Karl Kusserow, curator of American art at the Princeton University Art Museum.

As a result of its unusually long history, the Chamber of Commerce portrait collection has produced a singularly rich legacy of uses and meanings. The exhibition offers a rich and stimulating analysis of how the wealthy and powerful leaders of American commerce employed portraiture to fashion an identity that promoted their corporate, civic, and ideological agendas—while reflecting their evolving concerns and those of the wider culture they inhabited.

Picturing Power departs from standard art-historical approaches in considering, for the first time, not only the straightforward growth of a large and important collection, but also the ways that its function and meaning changed over time, as the institution it served and the world around it also changed. Arranged in six parts throughout the Museum’s Sterling Morton Gallery—the Museum’s central gallery and itself a public gathering place, akin to the Chamber’s Great Hall—the installation creates a narrative that charts the evolution of the Chamber from a young and struggling institution to a major civic (and ultimately national) force, as well as its subsequent decline and the portraits’ final revitalization, in a new setting, as iconic sources of power and prestige.

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