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American ABC

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.

William Bartoll, Boy with Dog, circa 1840-1850, oil on canvas, 30 1/4 x 24 1/4 inches, Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan

Thomas Eakins, Elizabeth with a Dog, circa 1871, oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 17 inches, San Diego Museum of Art, California, Museum purchase and a gift from Mr. and Mrs. Edwin S. Larsen

Francis William Edmonds, The New Scholar, 1845, oil on canvas, 27 x 34 inches, Manoogian Collection, Detroit, Michigan

Seymour Guy, Unconscious of Danger, 1865, oil on canvas, 20 x 16 inches, private collection

Winslow Homer, Snap the Whip, 1872, oil on canvas, 12 x 20 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Christian A. Zabriskie, 1950

Winslow Homer, The Watermelon Boys, circa 1876, oil on canvas, 24 1/8 x 38 1/8 inches, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, New York, Gift of Charles Savage Homer, Jr.

Eastman Johnson, Boyhood of Lincoln, 1868, oil on canvas, 46 x 37 inches, The University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Bequest of Henry C. Lewis

Eastman Johnson, Ragamuffin, circa 1869, oil on canvas, 11 1/2 x 6 3/8 inches, private collection

Eastman Johnson, The Party Dress (The Finishing Touch), 1872, oil on composition board, 20 5/8 x 16 11/16 inches, The Wadsworth Athenaeum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut, Bequest of Mrs. Clara Hinton Gould

Cornelia S. Pering, Little Girl with Flowers (Emily Mae), 1871, oil on canvas, 46 1/2 x 37 inches, private collection

Comment

1.

beWare

November 20, 2006, 3:31 PM

Bartoll and Pering, the first and the last image, seem so much less academic. Much more naive and stupid to the point of being the most interesting pictures for me.

Contemporary, trendy kitsch.
Thank god for Modernism!

2.

Elizabeth

November 20, 2006, 3:53 PM

that left monkey ear on the little girl sticks out like a sore thumb

3.

msquoted

November 20, 2006, 6:51 PM

I wish I could see the Eastman Johnson's Ragamuffin in person.

4.

Christy Barber

November 20, 2006, 7:24 PM

With the weather changing, I like to [wear cucumbers on my head]. I found a wonderful little gallery in [Siberia] a few years back and now I keep up with what is new with them and order new art and keep my collection rotating. I encourage you to visit [cuteoverload.com] and see what is new from [supa cute bun fans] today. [Edited. - F.]

5.

Katie

November 21, 2006, 12:11 AM

Did comment # 4 make more sense before or after editing?

6.

Franklin

November 21, 2006, 10:06 AM

I'm not sure. It was an ad linked to a splog. Normally a deleting offense, but I was in a mood...

7.

opie

November 22, 2006, 7:32 AM

I suppose you were aware that there really is a "cuteoverload.com", which lives up to its name.

8.

Franklin

November 22, 2006, 7:34 AM

Oh yes.

9.

jordan

November 24, 2006, 12:22 AM

Often the form of the body is seductive and believable, but then the face looks overworked and seperate from the rest of the painting. Why is it so? I have my own conclusions and views from experience but am curious about views from other various readers of this blog.

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