Thursday, June 16, 2011

American Museum of Art

In addition to the National Gallery, the Smithsonian has a separate museum for the works of American Artists. The American Museum of Art is housed in one of the four oldest buildings in Washington, DC and was originally the Patent Office. There have since been additions forming a rectangle around a central courtyard which houses the National Portrait Gallery as well, with paintings of all the former Presidents in a separate hall. Many of the paintings in this building were by artists that have familiar names to all of us, such as Norman Rockwell or Thomas Moran. And some of the paintings were familiar as well.. .. .. I am sure all of you remember the famous painting of "George Washington Crossing The Delaware"? Many of the artists were born in America, but actually lived in England or France. Mary Cassatt is a good example, and so is James McNeill Whistler. He is remembered for the painting "Whistler's Mother" but the painting we saw is titled "Valparaiso Harbor" and is done in thinned washes of color. Looking at this painting, it is easy to see how he got involved in a slander lawsuit in London with an art critic over the amount of time he spent on a painting and the amount of money he wanted for it. He ended up winning the lawsuit by claiming it was the experience that he put into the painting that counted not the amount of hours it took to do it. He believed in tonal harmony and simple design, later influencing John Singer Sargent whom he met in Italy. Sargent is another example of an American who was born in Italy and died in England. However he made his name doing portraits of American Society.... such as the painting we saw today "Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler" (right)..... oops, sorry it is hard to see the whole painting, there is a tourist taking photos in the way. A detail of this painting explains why everyone wanted Sargent to do their portrait. He was very good with faces and chose settings that would enhance and explain their character. This young lady was 26 years old and had raised her 6 siblings after her mother died. Sargent posed her sitting between two portraits of strong women but twisted her hands together to indicate her strength and the tension she was under. Her face reflects her determination but also her beauty. One artist that everyone knows is Winslow Homer and the painting of his here in the museum is "High Cliff, Coast of Maine". This is where we are going later in the summer and hopefully we will see some scenes just like this. Another artist which should have a familiar name is George Inness who was a landscape artist influenced by the Hudson River School of Artists and also the old masters. His painting is called "September Afternoon" and breaks many of the rules of composition that we have been trying to learn. First of all, we have been told not to put the horizon line in the center of the painting, and he did. Second, we were told not to put something bright right on the edge of the painting as your eye tends to go out of the painting and not return... but he did that too. And yet.... it works. And finally, Edward Hopper, who was influenced by Robert Henri and other members of the Ashcan School of Art. He is known for his interiors and other buildings but he was also a landscape artist and considered himself a realist. This painting is called Ryder's House.

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