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American Paintings at the National Gallery

There is a little two-room exhibit on the East Building mezzanine of the National Gallery of Art here in Washington, called American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection. (Joseph Smith played a concert of America music on May 23, as part of the gallery's famous concert series, which was reviewed on Ionarts on June 6.) The Web feature for this exhibit is particularly extensive, for such a small show, including a narrative description of the show and beautiful images of the paintings and other works (including this nifty zoomable slideshow). What this sort of Internet presentation says to me is, "We know that everyone around the world won't be able to come to Washington to see this exhibit, and we want to make the art available to those people." That is exactly what museums should do. Why don't more of them do it?

Dr. John Wilmerding teaches art history, formerly at Dartmouth and now at Princeton, and was for about a decade curator and then deputy director of the National Gallery. His books and exhibit work have focused on American art, a passion that he indulged as a collector, too. It may seem strange to think that Dr. Wilmerding would have to keep the fire of American art alive, while teaching in the United States and curating at the National Gallery, but according to their press release, "when the National Gallery of Art opened in 1941, its collection included fewer than a dozen historical American paintings." Dr. Wilmerding has been at least partially responsible for righting that outrageous wrong. These 51 works from his own collection, now donated to the museum, signify Dr. Wilmerding putting his money where his mouth always was.

Some of the artists (Andrew Wyeth, John Marin, Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, George Caleb Bingham) represented here have become familiar enough, but there were many names new to me, like Frederic Edwin Church, Alvan Fisher, William Stanley Haseltine, Martin Johnson Heade, Fitz Hugh Lane, Adelheid Dietrich, Thomas Charles Farrer, John Frederick Kensett, George Henry Smillie, and William Trost Richards. (The Web site for the exhibit has a lot of links for information on these lesser painters, as well as links to other works by them in the National Gallery's collection.) Most of the works are rugged landscapes, seascapes, and still lifes of floral arrangements and fruit, probably the sort of work that represented painters' bread and butter, and as such didn't really stand out as I walked through the exhibit. It is all beautiful but not remarkable.

For me, the highlights of the show included Eakins's splendid Portrait of Dr. William Thomson (1906), an oil study for the finished portrait now in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. The Web site describes this muted brown, sketchy painting as "one of the most empathetic portraits" of Eakins's career, and the sense of calm mastery of medical knowledge (the subject was a leading physician in the treatment of eye diseases, and he holds an ophthalmoscope in his hand) that radiates from this image really impressed me. Again, the Web site gives us the following information that rounds out my appreciation of the work:

By the time Eakins asked Thomson to sit for him in 1906, the two men were well acquainted: Eakins had been one of Thomson's patients for more than a decade, and the two had long shared a fascination with optics and the complexities of vision. Dr. Thomson was one of Eakins' few contemporaries who knew that the artist was losing his sight.
It is one of the largest works in the exhibit, so it is given pride of place in the second room.

John Frederick Peto, Take Your Choice, 1885, National Gallery of Art, John Wilmerding CollectionAmong the smaller sketches and watercolors, I was taken with Eastman Johnson's Seated Man (1863), a pair of pencil sketches on paper. The largest image shows a seated African-American man, described on the Web site as follows:
His boots, jacket, and high-buttoned shirt suggest a livery costume. It is possible that the youth (likely a freedman) was employed to assist with military horses, coaches, or wagons. Although drawn with great care, as if intended to serve as a preparatory sketch for a studio painting, no larger work incorporating this figure has been identified. Eastman Johnson was one of America's most acomplished genre painters. His willingness to produce images that touched on the most hotly debated issue of the day—the abolition of slavery—thrust Johnson to the forefront of those willing to address African American subjects on the eve of the Civil War.
The strangest painting, I thought, and also my favorite was John Frederick Peto's Take Your Choice (1885), shown here, a whimsical study of a box of old books:
While the battered volumes reflect human struggle, they also suggest the triumph of creativity. As John Wilmerding has written, "Peto's books stand as embodiments of culture as diverse as the shapes and colors of the volumes themselves. For him books were more than inert things lying around tables or shelves; they were unexpected but accessible incarnations of art."
In my opinion, the most beautiful book is a tattered book, a book that looks like it has been not only read but well thumbed, carried around in a pocket or under an arm, that has visibly lived with people and not just gathered dust on a shelf. Standing in the museum, I briefly gave thought to changing the name of this blog to "Take Your Choice" and using the painting as the head image. For the time being, however, those eyes will continue their vigilant observation at the top of this page. You can take a look, as I did, at the other works of art by John Frederick Peto in the gallery's collection. Even though I am a sucker for well-executed genre painting, Take Your Choice is the best of them.

American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection will be on view to the public until January 30, 2005. This exhibit was also reviewed by Paul Richard, John Wilmerding, Giving His Awe for American Art (Washington Post, May 9).

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