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The American Spirit: Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran


A major exhibition of America's most important artists of the 19th century will open at the Grand Rapids Art Museum October 17, 2003 and continue through January 4, 2004. The American Spirit: Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran is organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum in cooperation with Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. Ninety masterworks from this renowned collection of oil sketches, watercolors, and drawings will present a panoramic view of the American continent in an era of discovery and expansion when the American character was forged and immortalized by its greatest artists. By special arrangement, Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip, 1872, a work considered the most famous painting in American art is the centerpiece of the exhibition. The exhibition will be presented exclusively in Grand Rapids. (right: Thomas Moran (American, 1837-1926), Yosemite, South Dome, 1873, watercolor, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

From his teacher Thomas Cole, Frederic Church (1826-1900) acquired a mystical feeling for nature. Church became the first American painter to represent a Pan-American vision of landscape. His paintings of the Niagara frontier and the rugged coast of Newfoundland expressed his reverence for the power of a vast untouched land. In 1853 and again in 1857, he traveled to South America where he produced oil sketches that he translated into large-scale landscape paintings. The America of Frederic Church included the whole American continent, imbued with a triumphant spirit of adventure. Church portrayed a giant vision of America, even in his most delicate sketches and drawings.

Winslow Homer (1836-1910) has been called the greatest American artist. A straightforward and direct observer of the American scene, he was a Civil War correspondent, a self-trained artist and printmaker. His concise portrayals of soldiers at the front won him widespread recognition through publication in Harper's Weekly. After the war, he turned his attention to American life on the farm and the seacoast. The honesty of people who made their living from the land and sea affected Homer and infused his work with a powerful naturalism. Snap the Whip captures the optimism and vitality of young boys playing outside a country schoolhouse. It summarizes the spirit of America at moment of renewed nationalism following the Civil War. The LifeLine describes a rescue at sea and The Herring Net depicts the valiant work of fishermen. These images tell a story of American heroes by involving the viewer in the real experience of the moment. Homer lived his art. He was an outdoorsman and a loner whose intimacy with his subject matter gives his work an unprecedented power.

Thomas Moran (1837-1926) played a significant role in documenting and promoting the exploration of the American West. From an early career as an illustrator and watercolorist, he became celebrated for his remarkable views of the West's most spectacular wilderness areas. Born in England, Moran immigrated to America at the age of seven. His family settled in Philadelphia where he studied art. His first trip into the wilderness was to Pictured Rocks on Lake Superior, Michigan, in the summer of 1860. The following year he traveled to England to study the work of J.M.W. Turner, but it was the year 1870 that profoundly changed his life and his art. He traveled to Yellowstone on assignment for Scribner's Monthly magazine. He returned there the following year, and from 1872-1892 he made seven more trips out West to paint the Grand Canyon, Colorado River, Rocky Mountains, Grand Tetons, and Green River, Wyoming. The beauty of his watercolors inspired Congress to create the National Park system that would forever protect the nature and spirit of the American West.

In 1917, Thomas Moran gave eighty-three drawings and watercolors to the founders of the Cooper Union Museum, now Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum. That same year Louis P. Church donated over 2000 oil sketches and drawings by his brother Frederic Church. A Winslow Homer collection of 300 drawings and oil paintings was given to the museum by Charles Savage Homer, Jr., the artist's brother. Works selected by the Grand Rapids Art Museum for this exhibition form a rare and exceptional group of American masterworks from a premier historical collection of American Art. Located on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the Cooper-Hewitt Museum is a turn-of-the-century mansion built by Andrew Carnegie. As the Smithsonian Institution's National Design Museum, Cooper-Hewitt's collections form part of our national heritage.

A centerpiece of the exhibition The American Spirit: Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, Thomas Moran, the rarely lent painting Winslow Homer's Snap the Whip, dating to 1872, depicts schoolboys playing at recess in front of a country school house. The Grand Rapids Ballet Company will bring the painting to life on stage in American Portrait, set to the music of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring. This piece is part of the Company's DeVos Performance Hall season opener, An American Program, October 24-26. The GRAM exhibition runs from October 17, 2003 through January 4, 2004.

Museum Director Celeste Adams stated, "Snap the Whip is an icon by one of our greatest painters. It is well known to every student of American art and culture and expresses so many ideas about American values. We are delighted to be able to bring the picture to Grand Rapids. It's our Mona Lisa!"

Painted shortly after the Civil War, Snap the Whip captures the spirit of a reunited nation through the energy and optimism of its children playing in the midday sun on an open field. Winslow Homer had worked as a Civil War correspondent for Harper's Weekly and spent several years observing the daily lives of soldiers at the front. In the late 1870s, Homer turned his attention to new subjects with a series of paintings celebrating the virtues of country life. The American rural education system and its popular icon, the little red school house, was a recognized national symbol of American life.

Exhibited at the 1878 Paris Exhibition, Snap the Whip called attention to a reformed American education system inspired by the 18th century French educator Jean Jacques Rousseau, who believed that education should awaken children to the goodness of the natural world. The barefoot children of Winslow Homer's masterpiece are liberated and playful in contrast to traditional pre-war schools characterized by order and discipline. Young men who were teachers had enlisted as soldiers, gone to war and perished on the battlefield. In the post-Civil War era, women dominated the American common school system. Educated in normal schools, they took up posts as teachers throughout the country and introduced a new era of professionalism and creativity to classroom learning. Snap the Whip describes the energy and freedom that embodied the aspirations of modern American education.

GRAM's new Education Curator Megan Burness Yin commented, "As we plan for a new museum with expanded education programs and a new learning center, Homer's masterpiece captures the creative challenge of education. We will use this great painting and the rest of The American Spirit exhibition to engage students in new ways and to encourage them to think critically not only about what they see in the museum, but also about what they encounter in the world around them."

GRAM for Kids, the museum's interactive gallery for young people will present a new exhibition this fall on the theme Seeing in Believing. This concept will frame the museum's education initiative leading to the new art museum at Monroe Center opening to the public in 2006.

Leelanau: Michigan's Eden

Also beginning in October, an exhibition of paintings by noted contemporary landscape artist Ben Whitehouse will be on display at the Grand Rapids Art Museum October 17, 2003 - January 4, 2004. Whitehouse explores Michigan's Leelanau peninsula in a series of paintings that express both the natural beauty of the area and the shared experience of time and place.

"If you see a painting of mine of the Narrows, for example, and feel drawn to the experience, as if you remember being there yourself although you possibly have not, I will feel the painting has done its job," Whitehouse stated.

Ben Whitehouse received his MFA from the University of Chicago in 1991. He was artist-in-residence in 1993 and 1994 at Oxbow, the West Michigan Summer School of the Art Institute of Chicago located in Saugatack, MI. In 1998, he was visiting artist at Cawdor Estate in Scotland and in 1999 at Northwestern University. A solo exhibition of his work was presented at the Cultural Center of Chicago in 1998.

In his series Leelanau: Michigan's Eden, Whitehouse uses water as the medium through which he navigated his way around the Leelanau experience. He focused on finding the subtler, more intimate moments of the area as opposed to the grand scenes that are more commonly seen and captured.

"I am interested in making paintings that deal in some way with the monumental." Whitehouse stated, "The landscape obviously is immense and if painting is to mirror natural phenomena, as mine aspires to do, scale cannot be ignored. But the monumental is more than a question of size - it is a quality of experience that ironically has something to do with intimacy. I have found over the years that it is in the seemingly smaller subject that the more interesting monumental possibility resides."

Whitehouse has received international critical acclaim with his works being featured in American Art Quarterly, New Art Examiner, ArtForum and The Chicago Sun-Times. He is noted for his plein-air style of painting that echoes the British landscape tradition, but with a modern twist.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Grand Rapids Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2003 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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