Art and the American Evolution: The Arts of the Americas Wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Art is an attempt at realization, of expression. Historically it has been used to inform of the past or immortalize the present. These days, it can be linked to perceptions of experiential and social values. A people, a nation, a culture can be traced through its art. For a relatively young nation such as the United States, the collected art tells of the early predominance of classical European ideals, the beginnings of a national identity after the Civil War, and the melting-pot existentialism that came to dominate a media-obsessed 20th century.

With that in mind, the Arts of the Americas wing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) opened November 2010, is something of a misnomer. Nearly all of its collection is comprised of works from the United States, with a large portion concerning New England artists. Given the location of the museum and its history as one of the oldest in the country, this is hardly surprising. The MFA does have a varied collection of Native American art, but its focus is discriminately upon the years of the emerging American nation. A better name perhaps would be in-line with “Art and the American Evolution“; from the bottom up, the wing gives visitors a well-drawn survey of the development of American art, culture and identity.

Revolution-era America comprises most of the Museum’s collection (again, this is Boston, the hub of the colonial barnstormers) and takes up a whole floor of the wing. The importance of this period closely resembles middle-school history lessons. Here we see a series of portraits of important personalities alongside artisan crafts such as silverware, weapons, place settings and furniture. The period-decorated rooms appear very formal; one would think twice about sitting on the furniture even if it were not over 200 years old. The regality of these arrangements bears a stiff-upper lip that, despite the colonists’ claims of sovereignty, is unmistakingly British.

Paul Revere (1770), John Singleton Copley

The portraits of Samuel Adams, Paul Revere and George Washington by John Singleton Copley will likely be familiar to even the youngest student of American history, as such notables paintings are readily found in most US history books. There’s a certain interest in seeing these paintings up close, in person, especially when coupled with some of the subject’s personal artifacts—some of the smithing work done by Revere, for instance. The set up helps flesh out these myths as real people. Copley was innovative in the use of personal objects in his portraits—a technique that has since become commonplace—but seeing the actual objects possessed by these individuals has a gravitas.

While these big names get the attention in the main galleries, examining a painting of Joseph Green or Nicholas Boylston—a wealthy Boston merchant, in case you didn’t know—provides insight lesser-known entities. According to Museum literature, Copley was on the forefront in documenting citizens of the lower classes, which is great except for the fact that most of these portraits are of the upper and merchant classes. Seeing so many similar portraits of white-men-in-powdered-wigs and ladies-in-lace, the lesson becomes repetitive. To an American audience, it seems too familiar. It’s a nice collection of Copley’s work, but this isn’t the Copley museum.

As a survey, it appears not much was going on in American art at the time, and what was produced is stylistically derivative of British work. Indeed, Copley noted in letter to a friend that “in this Country [America] as You rightly observe there is no examples of Art, except what is to [be] met with in a few prints indifferently executed, from which it is not possible to learn much.” Copley was later “formally” trained in Britain. Several of the sketches and mockups for the more prominent works show the influence of British portrait painters. The concerns for anatomy and interest in classical themes is typical of the period, and Copley—his considerable talent as a painter not withstanding—even borrowed some poses and clothing pieces from his British contemporaries (the aforementioned picture of Boylston has him dressed in Eastern garb, though it is likely the merchant never journeyed out of the Massachusetts colony). America was, despite trying to break away from the British politically, still highly indebted culturally.

The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), John Singer Sargent

As the United States began to expand, so did the influences on its art. French, German and Asian influences start to spring up throughout the galleries of 19th century artwork. The portraits of this era often feature the subjects bearing clothes and accessories of Japanese and Chinese influence. In the MFA, the main gallery on this floor resembles a Beaux Arts salon, displaying Neoclassical and Romantic artworks from Americans who studied abroad. Foremost of these is a gallery dedicated to the work of John Singer Sargeant. The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit is the centerpiece, offset by a variety of watercolors, landscapes and mural mock-ups concerning New England and European subjects. Sargeant’s preparatory drawings for the Museum’s own rotunda murals detail the attention paid to Beaux Arts classicism during the period.

A series of landscapes in an adjoining salon is largely focused on European destinations composed by artists abroad. In contrast, the American landscape works consist entirely of compositions depicting Niagara Falls. This offers a suggestion that to a large extent that America had little to offer its landscape painters—which is, of course, as 20th century artists would reveal, false. It is more likely that the European landscapes and villages offered the romanticism and whimsy that was in vogue at the time—Europe continuing to be the center of Western artistic ideals. The preoccupation with romantic fantasies and gothic revivalism is on display in the selection of furniture, silverware and period rooms—all of European influence. Impressionist pieces, such as those by Mary Cassat (who largely worked in France as part of that country’s inner-circle of outsiders) seek to capture the sensations of the artists featured in the Musee D’orsay.

Not Just Portraits Anymore

While many of these works are undoubtedly masterpieces, their origin is also distinctly European. It ‘s only when the subject matter turns toward the everyday aspects of American life that a sense of national, cultural identity begins to emerge. The work of Winslow Homer (Fog Warning, Boys in a Pasture) and Thomas Eakins (Starting Out After Rail, The Dean’s Roll Call) captures details of American life through the Civil War era. It is the understanding of vernacular life in which American artists began to shed their preoccupation with Greek and Roman ideals, with European trends, and began searching for principles of truth, beauty and nature at home.

The most interesting, and perhaps “American” pieces within this era, and perhaps the collection itself, are shuttled under the guise of folk art. A small offshoot of the main wing includes late 19th century carousel pieces, knick-knacks, lawn art and early 20th century poster art. On display are the artifacts reality show pawn-brokers search, refurbish and re-sell for thousands of dollars. A shady looking figure in a $2 suit may seem like a kitschy eyesore in front of your neighbor’s house, but it highlights an artistic inspiration not based in European, Beaux-Arts demagogies. It’s one that is undeniably local; vernacular and honest to the times it was created.

One sees a culture attempting to come to terms with the nature of existence, its role in a global society, and the fury of ideas that propel contemporaneity to an uncertain future.

A series of paintings by local New England artists during this time, untrained in the schools of Copley and Sargeant, undoubtedly inspired the Americana thematics of Hopper or Rockwell. This early work, however, forgoes social commentary for a childlike honesty in the almost crude depictions of picnics and lighthouses. One could say American roots work helped develop the contemporary American style, or at least with the suggestion that not all art was to be based off European fashions; that America, to emerge as a nation had to develop its own culture based from its own soil.

The repetition of works by Copley and Sargeant establishes the MFA as the foremost place to experience a particular selection of American art of the 18th and 19th centuries. But with such a small collection of work by other artists, one is left feeling that American art at this time was primarily based on imitations of Neo-Classical, Romantic and early-Impressionistic stylings, coupled with whatever was popular in Britain at the time (mostly landscapes and regal portraits). The work on display forgoes contemporary artists influenced by the works of Native Americans. Its Euro-centric perspective ignores what would be a full circle understanding of American artistic evolution.

It’s not until the contemporary era, around World War I, that America, both as a nation and cultural force, began to take shape. The uppermost floor of the museum takes into account both Modern and Contemporary artforms. The concept of an American cultural identity emerging out of the World Wars deals largely with abstract forms. A series of Georgia O’Keefe’s entitled Shell and Old Shingle demonstrates the artist’s process of working from realism toward abstraction. Charles Sheeler’s On A Shaker’s Theme and Red Against White examine the abstraction of repetitive elements in vernacular architecture. Works by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Adolph Gottlieb took the abstract further, attempting studies in process, material and hard-lined geometries.

Brooklyn Bridge (1941), Joseph Stella

The Jazz Age of the 1920s and ‘30s is evoked in a gallery featuring Edward Hopper’s Drug Store, Joseph Stella’s dramatic Brooklyn Bridge and Arthur Dove’s George Gershwin—I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise. These work combined the Gestalt-like influences of German functionalism and geometries with the streamlined playfulness of what became known as Art Deco to evoke quintessential moments of American society. The streamlined functionalism continued in architecture and industrial design. The museum features furniture and set-pieces designed by Donald Deskey, Viktor Schreckengost, and Paul Frank—objects that would later be associated with the Modern.

The work displayed in these galleries shows how Americans used abstraction as a method to explore multiple medias with-in and between artworks. As the century continued, America and its people began to accept their culture as the melting pot it had become. For the first time since the beginning, since the ground floor, the gallery features art from artists beyond the country’s borders. Biomorphic and geometric multi-media abstractions produced in North and South America during the ’40s and ’50s bear influence on a nearby display of innovative objects by Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Russel Wright, and other industrial designers and painters.

Nanny and Rose (1986), Scott Prior

As Modernism gave way to Post-Modernism, and as America became confident in its role as a cultural and world power, so abstraction eventually led to a new vigor for realism. Unlike their predecessors in the colonial and pre-civil war era, the American realists of the later 20th centuries sought not invoke a classical styling. Rather these New-Realists choose to build upon the influx of photographic and filmic media that has become a part of most American lives. Alice Neel used crude, blunt brushstrokes in paintings such as Linda Nochlin and Daisy in order to dispel myths of flattery and instead capture harsh realities of truth. Larry Rivers’ Bedroom and Birdie and Joseph mixed media, bringing elements of drawing into painting as he attempted to understand the nature of the human body. Scott Prior’s Nanny and Rose pays such attention to detail that one could easily mistake it for a photograph. Paintings by Horace Pippin, Rockwell Kent, John Sloan, John Stuart Curry, Grant Wood, and Walter Simon document urban and rural life, often with a social statement influenced by the changing of times and a perceived national identity.

In the Art of the America’s Wing, the MFA’s selection of art shows the cultural evolution of US art and ideals, from burgeoning British colony to international powerhouse. It can be, at times limiting, its selection of particular paintings and artists providing a narrow insight into a particular element of American society and ignoring the broad spectrum of life during the period. However, it’s this set-up, the narrow band of ideas that began to spread out in the 20th century, which mirrors the American evolution, and in ways, the American mindset. Examining the most recent pieces of art on the third floor, one sees a culture attempting to come to terms with the nature of existence, its role in a global society, and the fury of ideas that propel contemporaneity to an uncertain future.