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Exhibition at New-York Historical Society highlights its superb early American art collection
James Guy Evans (1810–1860), U.S. Ships-of-the-Line and Frigates “Delaware” and “North Carolina,” “Brandywine,” and “Constellation,” 1835-1860. Oil on canvas. New-York Historical Society, Gift of an Anonymous Donor, X.160.

NEW YORK, NY.- Capturing the spirit of the United States through two centuries of artistic expression, From Colony to Nation: 200 Years of American Painting features more than eighty works dating from 1720 to 1918, drawn from the New-York Historical Society’s large holdings of American paintings. On view June 7 through September 8, 2013, the exhibition interweaves art history and American history into a richly textured visual panorama, with subjects ranging from early Colonial portraits to urban Impressionism. The exhibition also highlights the story of the artists, patrons, and collectors whose contributions informed the history of New-York Historical.

Many works in From Colony to Nation are being exhibited for the first time in decades, following conservation of both the paintings and their period frames. Among the exhibition highlights is John Singer Sargent’s portrait Mrs. Jacob Wendell (1888), a recent gift to the New-York Historical Society from The Roger and Susan Hertog Charitable Fund and Jan and Warren Adelson. The first painting by Sargent in New-York Historical’s collection, the work was created during the young expatriate artist’s first professional foray on American soil.

The exhibition is organized into six overarching themes that interweave art history and American history into a richly textured national narrative beginning in the early 18th century and ending in the early 20th. Colonial Painting: Faces, Places & a Bible Story features a number of New-York Historical’s early portraits of the men, women and children who comprised the thriving populations of colonial New York and Philadelphia. Among the treasures on display are seven Beekman family portraits, dating from the 1760s and still in their original frames—a rare instance of an entire suite of portraits of a prominent family represented in a single collection. Also on view is Charles Willson Peale’s monumental The Peale Family (1773-1809), which brings together several generations in the artist’s studio for one of the most ambitious group portraits of the 18th century. The Peale family saga is played out over several decades and generations, coming to a close when the elderly Peale added a memorial portrait of his beloved dog Argus. Another exhibition highlight is the recent acquisition The Finding of Moses (ca. 1720), a rare scripture painting attributed to Gerardus Duyckinck. The Dutch community valued such Biblical narrative paintings for their religious content and as a reflection of their political experience, identifying with the exiled Israelites in their own struggles against the domination of Spain in the Netherlands and the English in New York.

Artists featured in the exhibition are also well-represented in New-York Historical’s portrait collection—The World of the American Artist features a selection of these likenesses, along with depictions of noted art collectors and patrons. Expatriate artist Benjamin West’s London studio was the destination for a first generation of aspiring Colonial painters, including Gilbert Stuart, Charles Willson Peale, and Abraham Delanoy, who painted West in 1766 at the height of the artist’s early fame as a history painter. Portraits of Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole represent a later generation of American masters who focused upon the American landscape. Important collectors and patrons depicted in the exhibition include Luman Reed and Thomas Jefferson Bryan, whose collections formed the early core of New-York Historical’s collection.

The Early Republic: Patriots, Citizens & Democratic Vistas features founding fathers, New York merchants and Pennsylvania farmers, with several joined by their wives to create charming pairs. Iconic portraits of Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Lafayette portray the heroes of the Revolutionary generation. Gilbert Stuart portrays the dashing Schulyers as a newly married couple (1807), and Jacob Eichholtz’s captures the genteel charm of Pennsylvania country gentry in his portraits of Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Eichelberger (ca. 1819). Scenic wonders of the new nation include John Trumbull’s 1808 epic panoramas of Niagara Falls, contrasted with the 1818 record of a lively transportation hub at the New York waterfront captured by visiting Swiss painter J.H. Jenny.

A Second War of American Independence: The War of 1812 observes the bicentennial of the conflict from 1812-1815 with paintings portraying famous naval battles and renowned ships, as well as portraits of President James Madison and First Lady Dolley Madison, commanders and diplomats. By the time James Madison was first elected President in 1808, the nation was inching toward war with England after many years of British interference with American trade and the forcible removal of seamen from American merchant vessels. When the British refused to make concessions on maritime issues in dispute, the United States declared war in June 1812 to secure “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights.” The conflict ended in a draw, but left a considerable legacy for Americans by fostering a national identity and empowering a strong standing army and navy. Many battles were fought at sea and these celebrated naval engagements inspired marine paintings, such as Thomas Birch’s Escape of the U. S. Frigate “Constitution” (1838) and Thomas Buttersworth’s Escape of H.M.S. “Belvidera” from the U.S. Frigate President” (ca. 1815).

Native Scenery & American Narratives portrays American landscapes and coasts as emblems of national identity, as well as contrasting urban scenes that celebrate the hustle and bustle of life in the city. Thomas Cole’s brilliant synthesis of American scenery with old master landscape conventions, visible in two works on view that date from the 1830s, exerted a powerful influence on the next generation of artists. Asher B. Durand’s 1856 plein air Catskill study on view presents a more straightforward depiction of nature that was charged with spiritual meaning. John Frederick Kensett was one of the first major landscape painters to develop a strong interest in coastal terrain, a subject whose popularity grew as seaside tourism developed in the second half of the 19th century. More locally, urban work and leisure were portrayed by two gifted artists who are little-known today—Charles Cole Markham and Edmund D. Hawthorne, whose detailed paintings of the crowded Fulton Market and a fashionable porter house during the Civil War respectively bring mid-19th-century New York City to vivid life.

The final theme, The Gilded Age: Identity, Nostalgia & the Modern City, showcases grand-manner portraits of New Yorkers and vibrant images of turn-of-the-century New York. The vogue for society portraiture during the Gilded Age accompanied the rise of great American fortunes amassed in the second half of the 19th century. Large-scale works are well represented in New-York Historical’s collections, with impressive portraits of prominent New York figures painted by Sargent, Beckwith, Healy, and Pennington. This period of transition was also characterized by nostalgia for the nation’s past, stimulated by the Centennial (1876) and the Columbian Exposition (1893) as well as a rekindling of popular interest in the great age of sail, exemplified in Charlton Chapman’s stirring battle paintings commemorating American victories in the War of 1812. Colin Campbell Cooper and Childe Hassam charted New York’s changing streetscapes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, capturing the architectural intricacies of the city’s older landmarks while documenting the skyscrapers that would transform Gotham into a modern metropolis. Hassam’s Flags on 57th Street, Winter (1918) is a bird’s eye view, painted from the vantage point of the artist’s studio window looking down the snowy street toward the Sixth Avenue El, an elevated train railway.

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