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Press Release / American Art
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Press Room

3/24/1999

Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory

Contact: Smithsonian American Art Museum's Public Affairs Office AmericanArtinfo[at]si.edu
American Art's Web site: AmericanArt.si.edu
Recorded information: (202) 633-8998


Media Preview
Tuesday, March 30, 9:00–11:00 a.m.
(202) 357-2247


"Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory," a groundbreaking exhibition that explores images of the New England past, will be on view April 2 through August 22 at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Smithsonian Institution. The exhibition features 173 paintings, sculptures, prints, photographs and illustrated books made from 1865 to 1945 and major works by such artists as Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam, John Singer Sargent, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Maurice Prendergast, George Bellows, Marsden Hartley, Edward Hopper, Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell.

This exhibition groups masterworks and popular culture images from numerous museums and private collections to explore for the first time the ways New England was treated in American art during this important period, and how New England subjects addressed the broader cultural currents in the country. The product of several years' research by Smithsonian American Art Museum senior curator William Truettner and University of Virginia professor Roger Stein, "Picturing Old New England" looks at how New England came to embody timeless American ideals—the "founders' values"—in a period of rapid and disquieting social change.

"The exhibition presents an intriguing opportunity to bring together many American artists' works to reflect on their relationship to an overarching national theme," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. " 'Picturing Old New England' links the best art made about this region to a broad interest in national ideals."

"Picturing Old New England" is arranged thematically in six sections, each built around artists with shared stylistic goals: "Constructing the Rural Past," "Gilded Age Pilgrims," "The Discreet Charm of the Colonial," "Small-Town America," "Perils of the Sea" and "Yankee Modernism." In total the featured works reveal how the idea of a never-changing New England solidified in the public imagination.

The exhibition shows that scenes of a pastoral New England were much loved by artists and their audiences. Eastman Johnson focused on an innocent, rural New England evoking earlier days. In "The Old Stage Coach" (1871), children clamor over a dilapidated wheel-less wreck with "Mayflower" inscribed over its door, now marooned in a verdant field. Other artists like Winslow Homer and George Inness turned to such rugged wilderness areas as the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the rocky coast, creating works that celebrated the region's unspoiled beauty and grandeur.

Simultaneously, New England was born anew as the birthplace of the nation's democratic values. Howard Pyle's dramatic re-creations of scenes from the American Revolution, Augustus Saint-Gaudens's bronze sculpture "The Puritan (Deacon Samuel Chapin)" (1887), and "Concord Minute Man of 1775" (1889), a bronze sculpture by Daniel Chester French, provided a vivid connection to America's historic pursuit of liberty and equality.

In the 1870s a "new" New England emerged that was shaped by cities, factories, and a diverse ethnic population fed by increased immigration. However, in the imagination of Americans undergoing immense political and social change, New England became a touchstone for the past, a spiritual homeland bypassed by progress. Farm and village scenes, family portraiture and historical subjects offered audiences a reassuring look backward and reaffirmation of the founders' values. Printmakers and photographers carried the same themes into the broader currency of popular culture.

Formal portraits of Boston's "Gilded Age Pilgrims" by John Singer Sargent and Frank Benson recalled the colonial portraits by John Singleton Copley that still hung in Beacon Hill drawing rooms. Sargent's "Mrs. William C. Endicott" (1901) presents a figure of patrician elegance, while Benson's "Portrait of Thomas Wentworth Higginson" (1823–1911) is a more sober study of this distinguished minister, reformer, and writer.

By the turn of the twentieth century, American impressionists commonly summered in New England artists' communities, both inland and on the coast. Works like Childe Hassam's "Church at Old Lyme, Connecticut" (1906) and Willard Leroy Metcalf's "Gloucester Harbor" (1895) portrayed the pasts of small New England towns in softly brushed color that distanced them from the early 1900s.

In the early 1920s, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Stuart Davis, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi returned to subjects painted by American artists some eighty years earlier. Marin's "Pertaining to Stonington Harbor, Maine, # 1" (1926) uses a cubist vocabulary to suggest the serene days of pre-industrial seafaring commerce. Davis's views of Gloucester juxtapose modern gas pumps and traditional fishing schooners in the old fishing port.

With their focus on everyday rural life, Norman Rockwell, Maxfield Parrish and Grandma Moses portrayed yet another old New England in the 1930s. Rockwell turned New England and its citizens into archetypes for small-town America. "Freedom of Speech" (1943) idealizes the tradition of the New England town meeting. Parrish's "June Skies (A Perfect Day)" (1940) is emblematic of his views of the countryside, while Grandma Moses' "In the Green Mountains" (1946) issues an invitation to a homespun and simple world. Depression-era photographs, like the anonymous "Strawberry Picker, Falmouth, Massachusetts" (ca. 1930), tell a different story. In the foreground workers bend over endless rows of fruit that reach the horizon, capturing the hardship endured by the regional workforce during this period.

"Picturing Old New England" is the latest exhibition in a series of shows organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum that examine different periods in American art and explore the meaning of artworks in their own time. Other broad thematic examinations of important aspects of American culture have included "Revisiting the White City: American Art at the 1893 World's Fair," a study of the ambitions of America at the turn of the century; "The Art of New Mexico," which explored the continued lure of the West for Americans; and "Thomas Cole: Landscape into History," an exhibition that connected the artist with the social and political issues of his day.

The exhibition is supported by Fidelity Investments through the Fidelity Foundation; Thelma and Melvin Lenkin; Betty and James F. Sams; and the Smithsonian's Special Exhibition Program.


Catalogue

"Picturing Old New England: Image and Memory," is accompanied by a two- hundred-page catalogue published by Yale University Press with a preface by Smithsonian American Art Museum director Elizabeth Broun, an introduction by Dona Brown and Stephen Nissenbaum, and six chapters by Smithsonian American Art Museum senior curator William H. Truettner, Roger B. Stein, Thomas Andrew Denenberg and Bruce Robertson. Biographies written by Denenberg and Judith K. Maxwell of the 115 artists featured in the exhibition are also included. The catalogue, which was generously supported by the Fidelity Fund through Fidelity Investments, will be available in hardcover for $45 and softcover for $32.50 ($36 and $26, respectively, for museum members) in the museum shop.



Free Public Programs


Lectures
Saturday, June 5, at 2 p.m., Lecture Hall
Photographic Inventions of Old New England
Thomas Denenberg, Richard Coopman curator of American decorative arts, Wadsworth Atheneum.


Sunday, June 13, at 2 p.m., Lecture Hall
In Search of New England
Roger Stein, professor emeritus, McIntire Department of Art, University of Virginia.


Sunday, August 15, at 2 p.m., Lecture Hall
Exploring Maine's Artistic Heritage
Stephen May, freelance writer and lecturer.


Gallery Talks

Wednesday, April 14, at 1 p.m., Lobby
Wednesdays at One
"Concord Minute Man of 1775" by Daniel Chester French. George Gurney, Smithsonian American Art Museum curator.

Friday, April 16, at 2 p.m., Lobby
Friday, July 16, at 2 p.m., Lobby
Curator's Gallery Talk. William Truettner, Smithsonian American Art Museum senior curator.


Wednesday, May 5, at 1 p.m., Lobby
Wednesdays at One
"Ellen Peabody Endicott (Mrs. William Crowinshield Endicott)" by John Singer Sargent.
Ellen Miles, curator, department of painting and sculpture, National Portrait Gallery.


Wednesday, July 14, at 1 p.m., Lobby
Wednesdays at One
"Save Freedom of Speech" by Norman Rockwell. Therese Heyman, Smithsonian American Art Museum guest curator.


Poetry Reading

Thursday, May 20, at 6:30 p.m., Exhibition, Third Floor
Washington poets Linda Pasten, Davi Walders, Richard McCann, and E. Ethelbert Miller, among others, will read new poems inspired by works in the exhibition. The reading is part of the museum's ongoing participation in Third Thursday, a joint project with the Downtown BID and other 7th Street Arts District Organizations.


The Smithsonian American Art Museum, the first federal art collection, is located in the Old Patent Office Building at Eighth and G Streets N.W. in Washington D.C., above the Gallery Place Metrorail station. Museum hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily and admission is free. For more information, call (202)357-2700; (202)786-2393 (TTY); (202)633-9126 (Spanish recording).

The Smithsonian American Art Museum gratefully acknowledges Copy General for the partial gift of duplicating services for press materials used by the museum.

Luce Center for American Art