Welcome to the blog that accompanies “American Stories: Paintings from Everyday Life, 1765–1915,” the special exhibition now on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The show’s outstanding selection of more than one hundred American narrative paintings—assembled by curators H. Barbara Weinberg and Carrie Rebora Barratt—includes works that depict ordinary people engaged in life’s tasks and pleasures. Because the exhibition is arranged chronologically, this blog will address some of the persistent themes—such as courtship, country and city life, and even consumer culture—that have captivated American artists across time. I will also discuss some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of planning the exhibition and will respond to your comments and questions.
I hope you’ll find, as we have, that the paintings in the exhibition inspire multiple interpretations. Props, mood, atmosphere, expressions, and the relationships between figures can all be read in a variety of ways, allowing each viewer to draw his or her own conclusions about the plots, attitudes of the characters, and eventual outcomes of the stories told by the paintings. Consider, for instance, the flexibility of the narrative in Francis William Edmonds’s The City and Country Beaux:
Francis William Edmonds (American, 1806–1863). The City and Country Beaux, ca. 1838–40. Oil on canvas; 20 1/8 x 24 1/4 in. (51.1 x 61.6 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts (1955.915). © Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. See the exhibition feature to learn more about this work of art.
The basic premise of the story is simple: two men—one a country bumpkin, the other a city slicker—vie for the affections of a young woman who stands between them. Beyond this starting point, all narrative clarity evaporates. It’s possible to infer that the woman would like the slouching, rural fellow at the left to leave, as her outstretched hand gestures toward him and the open door. Her faint smile is perhaps directed at the elegantly attired urban sophisticate on the right, but his smarmy expression and haughty demeanor also render him less than appealing. Which, if either, of the two beaux will the woman choose? Does her grin indicate preference or is it a sign of bemusement at both of the woefully clueless men who’ve descended upon her home?
Apart from the surface narrative, the painting tells a number of other nineteenth-century American stories, including that of art patrons’ growing interest in scenes of everyday life and of the cultural tensions that developed as cities displaced traditional, rural communities. The tales told by Edmonds and the other artists represented in the exhibition offer a wealth of angles to consider. However, it’s important to remember that each viewer lends a new perspective that enriches our understanding of the paintings. With this in mind, I welcome you to contribute your thoughts, observations, and questions on the topics discussed here. Stories about our artists’ tales are still being written, so join in the discussion.