SUNDAY FEATURE: Westward Ho: Exploring America’s Artistic Frontier

Watson-the-Shark2It’s not hard in this day and age to be disillusioned with the idea of America. Documentaries like Food, Inc., Religulous, and Sicko present ample evidence that we have veered a great distance from the America envisioned by our forefathers. Whether they be social, political, religious, or economic, my generation rarely sees beyond the fissures in our disintegrating national culture, and the art world is no exception. As an Art History major with a focus on 18th Century British and French art, I’m not likely to grab the car keys and rush myself to an American art exhibition. I was playing for team Euro-snob.  But after my visit to LACMA’s newest exhibit, American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915, I’m writing this article with my tail between my legs.

The exhibition’s 75 paintings universally express what it means to be an American, and how artists played a critical role in characterizing the American identity and experience. Wandering from room to room in LACMA’s American Stories, the viewer will observe the progression of American history through art, from the tense and politically charged pre-revolutionary era through the brink of World War I. The exhibit showcases art from a broad range of subject matter, including immigration, exploring new frontiers, industrialization, and family life, all subjects that were popular for American artists seeking to capture the sweeping changes that distinguished the fabric of our nation.

Some of the most revealing early American artists dared to dig beneath the young country’s façade and hint at the darker side of a culture tainted by slavery and violence. John Singleton Copley’sWatson & The Shark” (1778), recounting a young British merchant’s brush with death, is among the more dramatic, attention-grabbing works in the exhibition. The expert depiction of heightening tension, accelerating winds, and a mounting sense of disaster are reminiscent of history paintings of the Great Masters. Beyond the theatrical re-telling of Watson’s spectacular rescue from a shark attack, the painting symbolizes a small community, struggling through crisis to save one of its own. This sense of survival, possible only by the unity of the people, resonates throughout the cannon of American art and history.

Paintings of everyday life and familiar scenes of leisure bring intimacy to the exhibit’s portraits of early America. William McGregor Paxton’sThe Breakfast” (1911) uses a subject matter that appears frivolous to set a mood of loneliness and frustration. Paxton’s sense of humor is tempered by a strong adherence to academic technique that gives his painting a serious and significant tone. A wealthy woman sulks as her husband, unaware of her isolation, reads the morning paper—a symbol of his engagement with the outside world juxtaposed by the conflicting situation of his female companion. She is shielded from the outside world, not only by the drawn blinds and curtains of her breakfast nook, but by the impenetrable domestic sphere that society forced her to inhabit.

While I looked upon “The Breakfast,” two women behind me snickered as one of them did an impression of the aloof husband, “Oh honey. Why are you so upset? Don’t I give you everything you want with your maids and beautiful home?” I couldn’t help but snicker along with them. It was an experience we all could identify with in some way or another, whether it is because we are women, or American, or simply empathetic for a person who sometimes feels seen, but never heard.

Indeed, it was impossible to wander through American Stories without comparing the paintings to my own personal experience of being an American. Familiar scenes that transcend the confines of time, including John Lewis Krimmel’sFourth of July in Centre Square” (1812) and Lilly Martin Spencer’sYoung Husband: First Marketing” (1854), warm the heart with their familiar portrayals of urban daily life. Francis William Edmonds’sThe New Bonnet” (1858) and William Glacken’sThe Shoppers” (1907-08), make one chuckle at the predictable scene of the American woman’s affinity for shopping, while alluding to the rapid growth of mass world consumerism. It is through these strikingly recognizable narratives, most of which are presented with references to slavery, pre-suffragette sexism, and mass consumption, that we are able to further understand our controversial history and absorb the significance of the courageous and distinctive genre of American art.

So whether you’re sporting a “Freedom Isn’t Free” bumper-sticker on the back of your Ford pick-up or reading this article on your iPhone while in line for your cappuccino at Intelligentsia, this exhibition will unquestionably change and expand the way you think about our national art. It is with the highest esteem that I admit that American Stories did me proud.

-By Brittany Krasner

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915 is on view at LACMA through May 23rd.  For more information on tickets and viewing hours, visit www.lacma.org.

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