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Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery Opens
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.

LOUISVILLE, KY.- Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery, a major traveling exhibition drawn from the Gallery’s unparalleled collection of American art, explores the diverse and evolving ways America defined itself from the colonial era to the Gilded Age. The exhibition of more than 230 paintings, prints, photographs, and decorative objects—many rarely before seen outside New Haven—begins its national tour in the fall of 2008 at the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky (through January 4, 2009). The exhibition travels to the Seattle Art Museum (February 26–May 24, 2009) and Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art (October 4, 2009–January 10, 2010), before the objects return to the Yale University Art Gallery in 2011. The exhibition and accompanying publication have been organized by Helen A. Cooper, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, with Robin Jaffee Frank, the Alice and Allan Kaplan Senior Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture; Elisabeth Hodermarsky, the Sutphin Family Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs; and Patricia E. Kane, the Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts, all of the Yale University Art Gallery.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness features many long-revered icons of American art, such as John Trumbull’s original series of eight Revolutionary War scenes, traveling for the first time as a group since the artist presented them to Yale in 1832; Winslow Homer’s Old Mill (The Morning Bell) (1871); and Albert Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail (ca. 1873). Selections from the Gallery’s renowned collection of early American silver, one of the finest in the world, range from the earliest surviving pair of American candlesticks, created by Jeremiah Dummer, America’s first native-born silversmith, to flamboyant silver objects made during the late nineteenth century by Tiffany & Co. In addition, a host of other objects—popular prints, pottery, shoe buckles, and a sewing thimble, for example—provide fascinating insights into the changing fabric of American life. Through the stroke of a paintbrush, the distinctive spout of a teapot, hand-coloring on a print, or carvings on wood, the objects created by these artists and artisans reflect their diverse backgrounds as well as the impact of life in the New World.

Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II Director of the Yale University Art Gallery, states, “As one of the nation’s great repositories of American art, the Gallery keenly feels its obligation to share its treasures with a wider American public. The current renovations to the American collections galleries have provided us with an ideal opportunity to present this national tour—the largest traveling exhibition the Gallery has ever organized. We hope that visitors will come away from Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness with a deeper appreciation not only of the richness and variety of American art, but also of this country’s history and cultural heritage.”

Helen Cooper, organizing curator of the exhibition, says, “Far more than an assemblage of our greatest masterpieces of American art, this exhibition presents these objects in their larger aesthetic and cultural context, telling the story of a country of diverse ethnic and cultural heritages struggling over two hundred years to invent a nation. By combining such objects of daily life as candlesticks or a child’s chair with celebrated paintings and prints, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness presents a vivid portrait of the American experience from the seventeenth-century settlements until the Gilded Age, at the end of the nineteenth century. Our understanding of this remarkable journey has been profoundly influenced by the contributions of a team of distinguished scholars, from a variety of academic disciplines, who have worked with us on every aspect of this exhibition. We are tremendously grateful to them for making the exhibition process such an exciting one.”

Organized chronologically and thematically, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness explores aspects of American 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, in which the country, celebrating its centennial as a sovereign nation, presented itself as a new world leader in culture, commerce, and technology. The exhibition is divided into three major thematic sections—Expressions of Heritage, Citizenship and Democracy, and Cultural and Material Aspirations—each elaborating on concepts expressed in the iconic words quoted in the exhibition title.

The first section, Expressions of Heritage, presents a range of art and objects that testify to the religious and ethnic diversity of early America, home to Native Americans and recent immigrants as well as enslaved and free Africans. The enduring predominance of English religious traditions is reflected in works such as John Smibert’s imposing portrait of The Bermuda Group (Dean Berkeley and His Entourage), begun in 1728 to commemorate the Anglican minister’s attempt to found a college in Bermuda for Protestant missionaries, and artist-minister Edward Hicks’s vision of a Quaker utopia, The Peaceable Kingdom and Penn’s Treaty (1845). The heritage of America’s 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 that connect it to the healing arts of Africa. The diversity of design depicted in these and other objects vividly evokes the changing landscape 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. The centerpiece of this section is John Trumbull’s important series of Revolutionary War scenes, including his depictions of the Battle of Bunker’s Hill (1786) and the signing of the Declaration of Independence (1786–1820). Familiar through countless reproductions in textbooks and schoolrooms, 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 Revere’s Bloody Massacre (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 symbolic images of Liberty. Similarly, the “cult of Washington” resulted not only in numerous portraits but also in an array of household objects, such as silver tablespoons and glass flasks, that bore 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, and Thomas Eakins’s haunting portrait of a battle-scarred Civil War veteran.

The final section of the exhibition, Cultural and Material Aspirations, traces the effects of wealth, ambition, and the land itself on the visual arts. Some of the work here examines the varied ways that earlier Americans—often motivated by a keen sense of competition with their European counterparts—sought to enhance both their physical surroundings and intellectual lives. John Singleton Copley’s 1769 portraits of the wealthy Boston merchant Isaac Smith and his wife, 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 America’s reverence for education as a means of salvation as well as self-improvement.

The exploration and settlement of the American West are reflected in works ranging from Albert Bierstadt’s majestic Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail (ca. 1873) to such objects as a ceramic plate commemorating the opening of the Erie Canal. Advances in manufacturing and technology made objects like the latter available to the middle class in greater variety than ever before. Lambert Hitchcock’s mass-produced chairs, Eli Terry’s wooden clocks, and other goods produced for this market are included in the exhibition.

Varying perspectives on the dramatic social, demographic, and economic changes that characterized life in post-Civil War America are documented in a number of works. Winslow Homer’s Old Mill (The Morning Bell), of 1871, with its lonely young factory girl, captures the uneasiness of a society in transition between its rural past and industrial future, while colorful prints with panoramic views of New York, Chicago, and other thriving cities celebrate the wonders of an increasingly urbanized America.

By the late nineteenth 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 cabinet (1876–82) and a set of butterfly-shaped silver napkin clips (1879), made by Tiffany & Co. for an owner of the Comstock Silver Mine. Charles Courtney Curran’s painting At the Sculpture Exhibition (1895) expresses the pride in cultural sophistication and worldly interests that also characterized America’s Gilded Age.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from the Yale University Art Gallery is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue, copublished by the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale University Press. It contains an introduction by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough; essays by Yale professors Jon Butler, Joanne B. Freeman, Howard R. Lamar, and Jules David Prown; and contributions by more than twenty-five other scholars, including the exhibition organizers.

The exhibition is made possible by generous funding from Happy and Bob Doran, b.a. 1955; Carolyn and Gerald Grinstein, b.a. 1954; Mrs. William S. Kilroy, Sr.; Mrs. Frederick R. Mayer; Nancy and Clive Runnells, b.a. 1948; Ellen and Stephen D. Susman, b.a. 1962, for their special support of the audio tour; the Eugénie Prendergast Fund for American Art, given by Jan and Warren Adelson; and the Friends of American Arts at Yale.

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