By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Storytelling helps us think about who we are, where we come from, what we value and why. The art is as ancient as the impulse to gather around a fire at night. While today it is more likely to be an HDTV screen than a glowing hearth, the experience remains crucial to 21st-century humans, who lavish multimillion-dollar paychecks on Hollywood’s leading lights.
But before there were movies, there were paintings. American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915, an exhibition that finishes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Jan. 24 and moves to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art next month, illustrates how American painters tackled the challenge of using a still, silent image to frame a tale. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, portraiture drove the American art market, but a few accomplished individuals managed to weave a narrative around a sitter. John Singleton Copley’s 1768 portrait of Paul Revere shows the Boston silversmith contemplating his own handiwork. Instead of formal finery, Revere wears a loose shirt accessorized with the tools of his trade, but the painting is nonetheless a prettified version of reality; he sits at a desk that is too polished to pass as a workbench, and his white shirt is pristine.
Copley unwittingly created something that modern Americans would embrace as an updated type of history painting. For the European art academy, history painting meant canvases with biblical, historical or literary content; these were the highest form of art, meant to bring about moral or spiritual uplift. An emblematic American example of this type is Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), which is in the Met but is not part of the current show. The vast canvas is American at its core despite having been executed in Düsseldorf, Germany. Leutze, a German-American artist, recruited Americans to pose for the scene because he found the locals “either too small or too closely set in their limbs” to serve as convincing models.
The strength of Leutze’s masterpiece endures, but it has come to share the stage with contemporaneous paintings of common folk living their lives, which a 19th-century collector would not have placed in the same class. Raising the experiences of everyday people to historic heights fits the taste of today, however. The Revere portrait was painted almost a decade before its subject warned his countrymen that the British were coming, but it depicts Revere as Americans like to think of him, and how Americans like to think of themselves—unpretentious, thoughtful, hard-working and destined to do great things. This last is hinted at by the silver teapot in Revere’s hand, which today brings to mind the Boston Tea Party.
Genre painting, a particular form of pictorial storytelling that originated in Holland, gained traction after the election of Andrew Jackson to the presidency in 1828. The expanding frontier allowed greater numbers of people (white men, that is) to buy and own land, which made them eligible to vote, and they overwhelmingly cast their ballots for Jackson. The new sense of populism opened the door to artists who painted images that told stories of everyday American life, and among the most successful were William Sidney Mount, George Caleb Bingham, Richard Caton Woodville, Eastman Johnson and Lilly Martin Spencer. While none painted narrative scenes exclusively, such paintings are among their greatest works. “The best American genre paintings have layers of meaning. The more you study them, the more they resonate with cultural and artistic importance,” says Eric Widing, head of Christie’s American art department. “They’re visual essays on what it was to be an American in the 19th century.”
Scarce to begin with—narrative works generally comprised only about a third of these artists’ output—the best American paintings in this realm have long since been snapped up. Andrew Schoelkopf, a partner in the New York gallery Menconi & Schoelkopf, says of major canvases by Bingham and Mount that “it’s very challenging to know what one might be worth on the open market,” but adds that “if asked to appraise a significant Mount or Bingham, I’d look at a value in the $20 million to $50 million range.”
The last major Mount canvas to change hands was The Power of Music, which the Cleveland Museum of Art purchased in 1991 for a reputed sum of $7 million. A version of Bingham’s Jolly Flatboatmen sold at Sotheby’s in 1978 for just under $1 million. Lesser works by Mount and Bingham occasionally appear: The Ramblers, a 13- by 17-inch canvas showing two children in a river landscape that Mount painted in 1847, sold for $2.2 million at Sotheby’s in May 2008, and Bingham’s Landscape: Rural Scenery (1845) fetched $493,000 in the same sale.
Johnson’s works tend to command six-figure prices. The Old Mount Vernon, an oil on board from 1857 that depicts slaves at the home once owned by George Washington, sold for $662,500 at Christie’s New York in May 2009. Christie’s also holds the auction record for Johnson, set in May 2005 when The Little Soldier (1864) garnered $856,000. Spencer’s record was set by The Young Wife: First Stew (1864), a long-lost canvas that was located by a picker in 2001. The restored painting sold at Barridoff Galleries, a Maine auction house, for $75,000 in July 2002.
Woodville died of a morphine overdose in 1856 at the age of 31, before he could build an extensive body of work, so he virtually never shows up at auction. Dara Mitchell, executive vice president and director of the American paintings department at Sotheby’s New York, says his 1848 masterpiece War News From Mexico was “a very popular picture when it was painted. It’s been popular since the 1850s, when it was made into a print,” and speculates that if it came to auction, it might be worth $7–10 million.
The high prices are justified by even the briefest glance at these storytelling paintings. Bingham, from Missouri, gained fame for river scenes such as The Jolly Flatboatmen, which depicts a group savoring a leisurely moment in the course of their work on the water. He invested Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, an 1845 canvas, with a narrative that reads from left to right: the black animal (which looks like a cat but could be a bear cub) tethered to the bow of the canoe symbolizes the wild, the grizzled paddling trader at the stern represents civilization and the trader’s smiling half-Native American son reclines at the center, balancing the two. Saint Louis Art Museum curator Andrew Walker deems The County Election, an 1852 painting of a throng of men on voting day, “Bingham’s Sistine ceiling, in a way. Was it aesthetically his most successful composition? Arguably. Was it his most ambitious? Absolutely.”
The Saint Louis Art Museum owns 18 Bingham oil paintings, including both versions of The County Election, the earlier of which it loaned to American Stories. In addition to being a technical achievement—the composition contains more than 30 figures and stays lively and coherent throughout—it portrayed one of the artist’s fondest pursuits. Bingham was active in Missouri politics and suffered a bitter defeat in 1846 as the Whig candidate for a two-year term in the state legislature. He won by three votes, but his Democratic opponent petitioned the Democratically controlled legislature to intervene, and they ruled against Bingham. Wounded, he wrote to a friend, “As soon as I get through with this affair, and its consequences, I intend to strip off my clothes and bury them, scour my body all over with sand and water, put on a clean suit and keep out of the mire of politics forever.” By 1848 he had recovered sufficiently to run again, and he beat the incumbent.
Bingham’s rebound was so complete that he considered an election a fitting subject for a painting with a national theme, as opposed to a regional one, as with his river pictures. “He’s able to show a dense conglomeration in the painting, like they do in great history paintings,” says Walker. “You could almost say he takes the conventions of history painting, the highest form of artistic expression in the hierarchy of art at that time, and brings them to this subject. He’s elevating the everyday.” Today, The County Election doubles as a history lesson, reminding Americans of things consigned to the past: The man in red who votes in the open (secret ballots would not take hold nationwide until 1891), the grinning supporter who proffers his cup (the political rallies and polls of our great-great grandparents were lubricated with booze) and the black man who refills it. Bingham literally marginalizes this man, the only adult in the painting who is not eligible to vote. “He is as far away from the podium, the seat of power, as anybody in the picture, even the children,” Walker says. “I think there’s something very calculated about that.”
It could well have been calculated, but in general, the placement and significance of black figures in American 19th-century paintings is open to a multitude of interpretations that can contradict each other starkly. A 21st-century viewer of The County Election can see a comment on the disenfranchisement of African Americans and perhaps a condemnation of slavery, but it might not be what the artist intended. He, like the rest of his professional colleagues, came of age in a time before art history became a profession and before the search for subtexts became part of the experience of enjoying a work of art. Bruce Robertson, a professor of art history at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a consulting curator in the department of American art at LACMA, says he suspects Bingham “did it unconsciously” when he positioned the black man at the edge of the painting, but added, “What the artist intended is only ever half the story. Whether Bingham was making a comment, the painting certainly makes the comment.”
In contrast, Robertson is sure that Woodville deliberately marginalized the minorities he depicts in War News From Mexico. The Mexican War was fought in the service of Manifest Destiny, the idea that the U.S. should expand its reach across the continent, spreading civilization as it went. American troops secured Texas and gained lands that later became the states of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah. The white men gathered around the newspaper are learning of an American triumph and just beginning to absorb its implications. Woodville gathers them under the covered porch of the dilapidated American Hotel, but positions the white porch posts as barriers that exclude the black laborer and his child as well as the elderly woman at the right. “He graphically suggests the way in which these people are simply spectators in a process that is now political,” Robertson says.
While not pushed to the fringes as blatantly as the woman in Woodville’s canvas, Spencer suffered the frustrations of being a female artist during the mid-19th century. She aspired to commissions for history paintings but found that patrons were more interested in buying scenes of mothers and children from her. As the sole breadwinner of a family that numbered 13 children (seven survived), she bowed to market pressures but still sometimes created memorable works that connect with modern audiences. Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ’Lasses (1856) features a woman standing before a table laden with fruit that she is turning into preserves. Holding a spoon dripping with gooey liquid, she grins playfully, ready to make good on the threat of the title. “She’s not dressed to work,” says H. Barbara Weinberg, the Alice Pratt Brown curator of American paintings and sculpture at the Met. “She’s all dressed up, beautifully dressed. She seems like a woman who employs a cook, who wants to appear capable of doing domestic chores even though she doesn’t have to.”
Surprising as it might seem, Spencer’s spirited image of a self-possessed, unchaperoned woman did not provoke any notable criticism. Nor did Mount’s 1847 painting The Power of Music, a meditation on music’s ability to bring people together, which portrayed a black man as a human being instead of a caricature and made him the star of the painting. Yet it was well received in its time—even by advocates of slavery, who saw a happy slave or even a lazy one stealing time from work. The man leans against a barn to hear a white fiddler who plays for two friends. The raised barn floor literally places the white men on a higher level, but Mount shows them in shadow and to the side, and one of them unknowingly mirrors the pose of the central figure standing out of his line of sight. Robertson, who in a previous post at the Cleveland Museum of Art arranged its purchase of The Power of Music, says, “I think what’s happening here is Mount knows all these people as people.” He notes that the artist’s nephew, brother-in-law and one of the brother-in-law’s employees posed for the group, and Robin Mills, a local landowner and elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, modeled for the listener. “I can’t think of another painting from this period that puts the black man first,” he says.
William Ayres is the chief curator at the Long Island Museum in Mount’s home town of Stony Brook, N.Y., which owns 175 oil paintings by Mount and currently hosts Under the Canopy of Heaven: Works by William Sidney Mount, an exhibition that ends in June. He suspects that the artist, who was credited with painting nuanced depictions of African Americans, might not have been as racially sensitive as he appears. He could simply have been responding to his audience’s demands. Ayres cites a group of four portraits of musicians that Mount painted for the European market between 1849 and 1856. The first depicted a white man, but the other three picture black men. “Europe was interested in exoticism,” he says. “This was when Orientalism was popular, and there was interest in different races.”
Moreover, the respectfulness of Mount’s portrayals might owe more to his regard for Dutch art. The Long Island Museum owns three of the four musician pictures, and one of them, The Banjo Player (1856), has moved countless banjo enthusiasts to see it in person because the pictured instrument is an identifiable, very expensive model. “He has painted it string for string. He painted from life,” Ayres says, implying that Mount rendered the black musician as accurately as he rendered that banjo, and for the same reason. Capturing his humanity was a byproduct of the process, not its goal.
Johnson’s Negro Life at the South also delighted a wide range of viewers, but it was a riskier picture, painted at a riskier time. Mount produced The Power of Music 14 years before the tensions surrounding slavery exploded into the Civil War; Negro Life at the South debuted in 1859. “Very, very few other artists were depicting African Americans,” Robertson says. “If you weren’t caricaturing them at this point, you were taken as a sympathizer. You had taken your position, and artists who took a political position cut off the other half of the market. What’s so extraordinary is it’s reviewed positively by both ends of the spectrum—as a scene of happy plantation life, and as a scene of people smiling through their pain.”
Johnson probably was familiar with The Power of Music through prints of the work, and his painting is a reversal of Mount’s in key ways. The focus is on the black figures, and they are depicted sensitively, but he departs from Mount—whose lone black man enjoys a white fiddler’s music out of sight of his white audience—by using the reactions of residents who witness the white woman’s arrival at the slave quarters to indicate that she is not entirely welcome. “In this African American family, he shows all the tropes you have in white families in genre paintings—the courting couple, the proud dad, the mother and baby, children playing,” says Robertson. “I read it from left to right, the rhythm of the happy family tropes, until you come to a screeching halt on the far right.”
Robertson also has an intriguing interpretation of the painting. He suspects that Johnson might have intended the viewer to infer that the white woman was related to one or more of the slaves. “That, to me, is the revelation of the painting,” he says. “Unlike Mount, who says we’re separate but equal, Johnson goes one step further and says we’re all brothers and sisters. Whether we like it or not, we’re all one family.”
Narrative paintings changed in tenor and tone in the wake of the Civil War, a calamity that claimed the lives of 2 percent of America’s population and devastated the survivors. While older narrative conventions endured—Thomas Le Clear’s Young America (1863) uses children to embody and communicate the grown-up challenges that the war posed to Northerners—storytelling became quieter and more psychologically charged. Winslow Homer evoked the hurry-up-and-wait agony of life on the front lines in Pitching Quoits, an 1865 painting of a group of Union soldiers, clad in fashionable Zouave-style uniforms and killing time while awaiting the call to battle. New technologies also had an effect. Ships that relied on engines over sails made crossing the Atlantic swifter, opening Europe to John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase and other aspiring American artists. Mary Cassatt’s 1881 work A Woman and a Girl Driving subtly and firmly commented on the state of women. An elegantly dressed woman confidently grips the whip and the reins of a horse-driven carriage. She and a small blonde girl seated next to her face forward, while a top-hatted male passenger occupies the rear-facing seat.
By 1915 movies had begun to displace paintings as a storytelling medium, but the finest American narrative canvases are as rewarding as a great film. “The best of these paintings become so surprising,” says Robinson. “But that’s the difference between good and great works of art. A great work of art unfolds its meanings through time.”
Alexander Gallery, New York 212.472.1636 alexandergallery.com
Christie’s New York 212.636.2000 christies.com
Menconi & Schoelkopf, New York 212.879.8815 msfineart.com
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 212.535.7710 metmuseum.org
The Long Island Museum, Stony Brook, N.Y. 631.751.0066 longislandmuseum.org
Los Angeles County Museum of Art 323.857.6000 lacma.org
Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Mo. 314.721.0072 slam.org
Sotheby’s New York 212.606.7000 sothebys.com
American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Through Jan. 24
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Feb. 28–May 23
Under the Canopy of Heaven: Works by William Sidney Mount
The Long Island Museum, Stony Brook, N.Y.
Through June 2010