Monday, October 5, 2009

Contribute to the Story

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:

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.

Katie Steiner

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Comments (7)

  1. Dore Hammond Says:

    Loved the show. Amazing paintings and wonderful insights into American life. One question though, as much as I thought Sargent’s Venice and Paris scenes were beautiful I was wondering why they were in a show about America. But no matter, I was still delighted with the whole show.

  2. Katie Steiner Says:

    Good question, Dore, about why the exhibition includes paintings by John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, Theodore Robinson, and others that depict European, rather than strictly American locales. The paintings to which you refer are found in the fourth chronological section of the exhibition, called Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories, 1877–1915. In the second half of the nineteenth century, easier and faster modes of transportation and the nation’s increasingly international outlook led to a growth in European travel by affluent Americans. Artists also flocked to Europe, and to Paris in particular, which at the time was the world’s artistic capital. Because many “American stories” took place abroad in this era, we’ve included works in the show that reflect this history. For more information, visit Thanks again for your question!

  3. Bev Benson Says:

    The preview of this show makes we want to see what you would have chosen 1915 to present.

  4. francisco Says:

    I find the gesture in her hand welcoming. as in please come in. or as in – so please you came…
    and the body leanguaje of the guy on the chair. is like looking down at the other as in I’m better then you…. ther is a tension between the two

  5. Michael R. Grauer Says:

    While I appreciate the drama of Remington’s “Fight for the Waterhole,” this is hardly a scene of everyday life for a cowboy. Cowboy fights with Indians were rare, indeed, in the West. Cowboy life was full of drudgery. Better to use Remington’s “Fall of the Cowboy” or one of his bronco busting scenes in the context of this exhibition.

  6. Gary Says:

    Although I loved the exhibit, I was troubled by some of the commentary. For example, in one of the Remington paintings–the one of 5 soldiers defending a watering hole against native Americans, it states that some have interpreted this painting to Remington’s xenophobia against immigration!! I find these kinds of subjective comments totally unnessary, if not insulting to Remington and European-Americans. There is another painting that depicts an election in the 1850’s. It states that there is the noticable absence of blacks and women. During that period, blacks were still slaves and women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920, so of course it would be an all-white, male situation. There was no need to state the obvious. I don’t need to have someone with their own political agenda constantly remind me: “white man bad, everyone else, good.” If I want that, I will watch a Spike Lee movie.

  7. Wayne Dickson Says:

    Re the comment and response referring to Cassatt, Sargent, etc., defining boundaries and applying labels is always tricky. In graduate school, I studied W.H. Auden in surveys of both English (not British, sic) and American lit. Same with Eliot and James. What defines a “Roman” artist? For example, does a Greek slave qualify if he were working for a Roman citizen who lived in North Africa and had visited Rome just once? Probably dealt with in the catalog.

    But I was interested in a dog that didn’t bark in the email or here, at least not that I noticed: the term “genre.” I’m a retired Humanities professor and definitely not current on scholarship. But is the silence significant? I’ll do some checking.

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