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American Beauty: Painting and Sculpture from The Detroit Institute of Arts 1770-1920

June 19 - October 3, 2004 


The San Diego Museum of Art will be home to more than 90 important masterpieces from one of the finest collections of American art in the world, the Detroit Institute of Arts. On the heels of its successful European tour, the exhibition, American Beauty: Painting and Sculpture from the Detroit Institute of Arts 1770-1920, makes San Diego Museum of Art one of only two U.S. stops, presenting a comprehensive survey of some of the greatest examples of American art. (right: John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1782, oil on canvas, Founders Society Purchase, Dexter M. Ferry, Jr. Fund, Photograph © 1983 The Detroit Institute of Arts)

American Beauty explores the vibrant and diverse history of this nation's visual culture and features some of the best-known works representing all the major American art movements, including the Hudson River School [1] and American Impressionism.[2] Among the many iconic works on display are examples by such greats as Benjamin West, John Singleton Copley, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Frederic Edwin Church, William Merritt Chase, Albert Bierstadt, George Bellows, and Frederic Remington.

"This impressive survey of American art is a culmination of a series of exhibitions at the Museum over the past several years that featured other noteworthy achievements in American painting, including those of Eastman Johnson, the American Impressionists, Frederick Carl Frieseke, George Inness, and artists who were influenced by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The breadth and quality of this fine collection cannot be overstated, and we are privileged to be able to share it with our visitors and community," says Heath Fox, San Diego Museum of Art's acting executive director. (left: Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862, oil on canvas, Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund, Gibbs-Williams Fund, Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., Fund, Merrill Fund, Beatrice W. Rogers Fund, and Richard A. Manoogian Fund, Photograph © 1985 The Detroit Institute of Arts)

The collection of American art at the Detroit Institute of Arts has few equals anywhere in the world. While undergoing extensive construction work of its building, this venerable institution is treating international audiences to highlights of its important holdings by touring American Beauty. Following a successful European tour to the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin; the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the American Museum at Giverny in France, the exhibition is making its final stop at the San Diego Museum of Art before returning home to new gallery spaces in Detroit.

One of the underlying themes of American Beauty is how artists defined what is American. Striving to create a visual national identity, American artists were inspired by both their own experiences living in a developing nation and tutelage from abroad. But while many of these artists alternated between homegrown creativity and international influences, certain characteristics reappear in their art: an adherence to truthful depiction, directness, idealism, and a belief in progress.

The story of American art as told by American Beauty unfolds through several sections beginning with America's first home-made talent, John Singleton Copley, who is represented by five canvases. It then proceeds through the glorious landscapes of Hudson River School artists Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church; important examples of 19th-century genre painting by George Caleb Bingham and Eastman Johnson; American impressionist works by John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, and Mary Cassatt; significant paintings by pioneering artists who defied categorization like Thomas Eakins, George Inness, and Winslow Homer; as well as iconic sculptures by Hiram Powers, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Frederic Remington. It concludes with several outstanding selections of works by the Ashcan artists John Sloan, George Bellows, and Robert Henri. (right: George Caleb Bingham, The Trappers' Return, 1851, oil on canvas, Gift of Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., Photograph © 1985 The Detroit Institute of Arts)

Among the great American paintings in the exhibition is one of three versions John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) produced of his celebrated Watson and the Shark (1777-78). This heroic work was born of Copley's desire to create, while an expatriate living permanently in London, an American history painting. Also in the exhibition, Copley's Head of a Negro is an oil study for the African-American figure standing in the center of Watson and the Shark. Brilliantly executed, this painting is rare in its dignified portrayal of an African-American during this period. Its animated, warm quality suggests that Copley knew this man well.

By the 1830s, landscape painting had become the vehicle for depicting an American identity. Throughout the rest of the century, the depiction of the land took a variety of forms while also serving as a record of a new territory. Often steeped in Transcendentalist, and later Swedenborgian, theosophy, certain pictures documented the belief in a spiritual force that underlies nature. These ideas are evident in works by the 19th-century landscape painters Thomas Cole, Jasper Francis Cropsey, and Worthington Whittredge.

Some artists traveled beyond our borders in search of more exotic scenery, most notably Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) who in 1862 created a spectacular depiction of the South American volcano Cotopaxi. Church made two trips to Ecuador and painted several views of Cotopaxi, an active volcano in the Andes Mountains. The version in American Beauty is his most monumental and one of his most important works.

Toward the end of the century, portraits by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) came to epitomize the cosmopolitan world of the Belle Epoch. American Beauty is graced by a fine example, his painting of Madame Paul Poirson of 1885. Born to American parents in Florence, Italy, Sargent was one of the most sought-after portrait painters of European and American high society by the end of the 19th century. He captured his wealthy clients' likenesses and social positions, the sumptuousness of the era, and the impression of a fleeting moment.  (left: John Singer Sargent, Madame Paul Poirson, 1885, oil on canvas, Founders Society Purchase with funds from Mr. and Mrs. Richard A. Manoogian, the Beatrice Rogers Fund, Gibbs-Williams Fund and Ralph Harman Booth Bequest Fund, Photograph © 1984 The Detroit Institute of Arts)

The world changed dramatically in the opening decades of the 20th century. America was the wealthiest and most modern country in the world, and New York City symbolized America's financial and technological superiority. Its new subway, skyscrapers, entertainments, and elegant department stores made for a bustling urban scene. At the same time, immigration had swelled the ranks of the city's poor to unprecedented levels, and the Lower East Side became notorious for poverty, filth, and overcrowding.

A group of artists called "The Eight" or the "Ashcan School"[3] captured this grittiness, diversity, and vitality of the city. Their radicalism lay in their subjects, not their styles. Robert Henri, the spokesman for the group, contended that the working classes were the most suitable subjects for art. Other members of the group included in American Beauty are George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, and John Sloan.

John Sloan (1871-1951) came to New York in 1904 from Philadelphia after working as an artist-reporter. This profession instilled in Sloan an immediacy of observation, an appetite for contemporary facts, and an attraction to everyday things as evidenced in his McSorley's Bar of 1912. This iconic work by Sloan attests to his conviction that the real artist finds beauty in common things.

Another painter fully engaged with modern American life at the turn of the century was George Bellows (1882-1925), represented in the exhibition by his superb A Day in June of 1913. Although he never became an official member of The Eight, Bellows's choice of subjects -- dockworkers, street scenes, and prizefights -- and his early training with Henri linked his work to theirs. A Day in June signals a departure from his depictions of the tougher side of New York City life, depicting instead elegantly dressed figures enjoying a late afternoon outing in Central Park. (right: John Sloan, McSorley's Bar, 1912, oil on canvas, Founders Society Purchase, General Membership Fund, Photograph © 1987 The Detroit Institute of Arts)

The comprehensive overview of America's artistic development over a 150-year period presented in American Beauty demonstrates how painters and sculptors combined the lessons they learned from their European counterparts with such homegrown traits as an adherence to truthful depiction, directness, idealism, and a belief in progress to help define this nation's sense of aesthetic beauty.[4]


Exhibition Highlights:

Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley -- one of the most acclaimed works by one of the greatest artists of the Colonial period, its exotic subject matter is represented as a Baroque drama.
Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church -- this large-scale masterpiece is the quintessential 19th-century vision of nature's sublime and terrifying power.
The Trapper's Return by George Caleb Bingham -- the most celebrated genre painter of the pre-Civil War era captures a vanishing way of life on America's frontier rivers in a timeless fashion.
Madame Paul Poirson by John Singer Sargent -- one of three works in the exhibition by the famous American Impressionist, this dazzling full-length portrait demonstrates why Sargent would become one of the most sought after portraitists in both Europe and America.
McSorley's Bar by John Sloan -- produced at the height of Sloan's association with the Ashcan School, this candid observation of male companionship attests to Sloan's conviction that the real artist finds beauty in ordinary things.

These few works represent a mere sampling of the more than 90 outstanding examples of American painting and sculpture featured in American Beauty, an exhibition that tells the story of how America's greatest artists developed a uniquely American style and definition of beauty over a 150-year time span.

This exhibition is organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts. 



American Beauty is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 96-page catalogue featuring essays by the exhibition's curator Graham W.J. Beal, who is also the current director, president, and CEO of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The softcover book includes full-color illustrations of each work in the exhibition and is available for purchase in the San Diego Museum of Art's Museum Store. 



1. The Hudson River School is considered the earliest school of American art.

2. American Impressionism, an essay by David R. Brigham; also see more articles and essays on American Impressionism.

3. Ashcan Artists -- (The Eight).

4. For further information on the artists named in this article please see the Distinguished Artists Series.

RLM readers may also enjoy this earlier article: American Beauty: Painting and Sculpture from The Detroit Institute of Arts 1770-1920 (10/1/03)

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rev. 5/28/04

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