A unique exhibition of more than 140 works of American painting and sculpture is on view at Minneapolis Institute of Arts
from February 22 through May 3, 2009. Celebrating American art of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Noble Dreams & Simple Pleasures: American Masterworks from Minnesota Collections spans thematic groupings such as Folk Art, Early Minnesota, Hudson River School, American Impressionism, Tonalism, Minnesota Painters, and art at the threshold of Modernism. Artists featured in the show include Winslow Homer, George Inness, John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Theodore Robinson, John Francis Murphy, Marsden Hartley, and Edward Stiechen. Also included are numerous works by Minnesota painters such as Alexis Fournier, Nicholas Brewer, and Herbjørn Gausta. The exhibition notably examines the art of collecting itself, which has always flourished in Minnesota.
Noble Dreams & Simple Pleasures reveals the taste and quiet modesty of the thirty-one collectors who loaned to the exhibition, while also making intriguing points about the American art movements in the late nineteenth through early twentieth century. For instance the little-known movement of Tonalism was held in much higher regard than American Impressionism at this time. And the roots of modernism were just getting a foothold.
Noble Dreams & Simple Pleasures launches with the theme of Folk Art in the first half of the nineteenth century. Among the self-taught itinerant artists who plied their skills throughout New England were masters such as Ammi Phillips (1788 - 1865), whose Portrait of Catharina van Keuren (ca.1824), with its direct graphic simplicity, has an appeal that still speaks across the years.
The idealized landscape of the nineteenth century that celebrated the abundance and visual splendor of the United States was a key expression of a young nations noble dreams. One of the prolific painters associated with the Hudson River School landscape tradition was George Inness (1825 - 1894), and his Landscape with Sheep (1858) is an elegant celebration of peace and plenty through the vehicle of the pastoral landscape.
Although some artists are easily categorized in retrospect, there are others whose originality and personal vision set their work apart and above standard classifications. One such artist is Winslow Homer (1836 - 1910), whose mysterious and masterful painting, Summer Night Dancing by Moonlight (1890) marked a new phase of his career in which he merged the artistic genres of landscape, seascape, and figures with special light effects.
During the second half of the nineteenth century many Americans sought formal training in the art academies of Düsseldorf, Munich, Paris, Rome, and London. Several are represented in the exhibition alongside their contemporaries who abandoned the formality of the academies and chose instead to learn the tenets of Impressionism from Claude Monet in Giverny. One of the most accomplished of this group was the American Impressionist Theodore Robinson (1852 - 96), who is represented by three works in the exhibition, including Normandy Farm (ca.1891). Its broken brushwork captures the fleeting effect of wind rustling the branches of a flowering brush.
The exhibition reveals the subtle beauty of American Tonalism, a movement probably unfamiliar to most. Spanning the 1880s into the 1910s, Tonalism was hailed as a truly American art devoid of the French influences so apparent in the work of the American Impressionists. Atmospheric light effects were the key conveyors of the poetry that the Tonalists sought to extract from nature, albeit usually from the confines of their studios. These hallmarks play to stunning effect in Afternoon Light (1887) by John Francis Murphy (1853 - 1921).
In the first decade of the twentieth century a variety of aesthetic styles co-existed. Impressionism was still struggling for a foothold as Tonalism was playing itself out. Meanwhile the young turks of a new generation were rushing headlong towards modernism. Val dAosta: Stepping Stones (ca. 1907) reveals John Singer Sargent (1865 - 1925) in the twilight of his career as the master of optical veracity accomplished with an economy of means. In direct contrast, An Evening Mountainscape (1909), with its thick pigment and expressionist palette, made clear that Marsden Hartley (1877 - 1943) and his generation were changing the game of art in the new American century.
This exhibition was organized by Sue Canterbury, associate curator of Paintings at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.