Post #910 • November 20, 2006, 11:35 AM • 9 Comments
Portland, ME — By all reckoning, "American ABC: Childhood in 19th-Century America" should have been a sugary disaster. That it wasn't speaks highly of the Portland Museum of Art, which presented this survey of pictures of and for children in a manner that lifted the lesser objects up without diminishing the handful of masterpieces.
This show obliged me to reconsider my lack of patience for early 19th Century American painting. While naive, sometimes hilariously so, some examples have a screwball charm. The point is to not compare them to Homer and Eakins, but to the Trecento. It's not hard to think of Masolino da Panicale, or even Balthus, while watching William Bartoll and his colleagues re-establish the art of painting in the New World. (The parameters of comparison are crucial for appreciating this period, as it turns out. In the museum's permanent collection, early 19th Century portraiture adorns a room full of fine silver and furniture. There, Gilbert Stuart, an awkward painter with inspired moments, looks like Hals next to some of his contemporaries.)
In fact, it credits the Americans' ambitions that works by Bartoll and Eakins are separated by only two or three decades. American paintings within that time developed from heavy handedness to finesse with surprising speed - technical ability went from that of Masolino to that of Giorgione in the space of a generation or two. A lot of rote genre painters sprung up, but this exhibition makes a case for them as worthy chroniclers and as indispensible, if also somewhat interchangeable, participants in the history of the medium. Works by Seymour Guy, on their own, might not merit prolonged notice, but here can be seen to share a vocabulary with Homer - a version of realism that valued restrained moments of bravura brushwork. The comparison elevates Guy a notch, and relates Homer's painting to the illustration tradition from which he derives.
As for the subject matter, yes, some of the images are sentimental enough to make you grind your teeth. The show doesn't want for homunculi at play or glossy renditions of Native American toddlers. One can skip through them to Guy, Eastman Johnson, and plenty of other ably-handed lesser-knowns. The exhibition also includes some cool ephemera, notably early American reading primers, and leatherbound editions of Twain that are contemporaneous with the author. Thus an exhibition that on the surface threatens to inflict toothrot instead does what it sets out to do: portray the American struggle to establish its own artistic identity and put its life down on the visual record.