A few weekends ago my mom and I took a weekend trip to Cincinnati. We visit there a couple of times each year whenever we feel the need to get away for a bit. It’s an easy drive there and there’s no shortage of wonderful things to see and explore. The impetus for this trip was a couple of exhibits at the Taft Museum of Art. I was looking through my pictures this evening and decided to take you along on a tour of “Winslow Homer to Georgia O’Keeffe: American Paintings from the Phillips Collection.” The exhibit features 54 paintings from 1870-1965 on loan from the Phillips collection, which opened to the public in 1921 as the nation’s first museum of modern art. I expected the exhibit to be arranged chronologically, but was pleasantly surprised to see that it was organized thematically, and did a fabulous job connecting the past to the present and highlighting the exchange of art form between America and Europe.
So let’s get started! The first theme was Romanticism and Realism. In this section, artists whose work closely mirrored those of the European masters was featured. An example is “Lake Albano” by George Inness.
Inness belongs to the Hudson Valley School of painters, and this is my favorite group of artists in American painting. I love landscapes and the way these artists used light and the grandeur of the landscape to paint America as a beautiful unspoilt paradise. While similar to European art that features people in picturesque settings, you can see that the dramatic background highlights the wild, unexplored land of America. Another nod Inness gives to his European training is the presence of classic ruins at the top of the bluff in the upper right.
From there we move into Impressionism. French Impressionism in the 1880s transformed American artists – encouraging them to paint outdoors without preplanned sketches and explore new ways of applying paint to capture the light and shimmering effect that is so characteristic of this period.
“Washington Arch, Spring” by Child Hassam (1893) was the most stellar painting from this set. The lighting and colors on this was just stellar… and of course I loved the prominent trees and the dancing leaves. Another beautiful piece was “My Summer Studio” by John Henry Twachtman (1900)
Although it’s apparently of a summer scene, it looks more autumnal to me. This artist was a resident of Cincinnati but he spent the summers in Massachusetts. You can see the artist’s prominent brushwork to simulate foliage and bushes, and the vibrant colors are brilliantly set off with the dark pools of water.
An offshoot of Romantic and Impressionist culture (in both art and literature) was a departure in viewing nature as a safe, beautiful place. Instead these artists emphasized the powerful, unpredictable, and destructive aspects of nature. In the Forces of Nature section, there was a dynamic painting called “Storm Voices” by Paul Doughterty (1912).
This was one of my favorite pieces in the collection. This desolate scene pulsed with energy and you felt as if you’d get wet if you stood too close. You could almost feel the wild wind whipping your hair and clothes and smell the salt spray as the waves broke across the boulders. I thought if I stared at it long enough I’d get pulled into this world. It reminded me of “The Old Man and the Sea.”
From there we entered a section on “Nature and Abstraction”. Following World War I, American culture struggled to define its modern identity in the aftermath of great crisis, the emergence of modern technology, and the explosion of urban cities. The artists featured in this section sought to simply nature to basic forms to express inner truths and define an art form separate from European counterparts.
“Large Dark Leaves on White” by Georgia O’Keeffe (1925) is an excellent example of this departure from classic realistic landscapes to focus on simple natural forms and color. Contrast of light and shadow provide the dynamics instead of subject matter. This was one of two O’Keeffe’s on display. In utter honesty, I must say I don’t really favor this style – I enjoy the classic landscapes. But she does expertly handle color. There’s a large painting of Jimson weed at my local art museum – although the flowers are white, you can see how she blended myriad grays, purples, and greens to create depth to the white.
Other artists saw increased urbanization as a source of endless inspiration. During this period, America experienced a shift from primarily agrarian to urban. Likewise, artists of the period showed a similar break in their subject matter and style compared to their European counterparts. Instead of grandiose scenes of languid beauty, American artists reveled in the commonplace – the dirty streets, noisy transportation, and hordes of people.
“Six O’Clock, Winter” by John Sloan depicts the crowded chaos of a railway station at commuting time. It’s somehow comforting to know that evening rush hour is not a recent phenomenon. The rustling crowd made me feel claustrophobic, but I was drawn to the use of light in this painting and how he captured the smoky twilight of an inner city.
From here, we moved into “The City” section. Modern, burgeoning cities became a hallmark of American life and a symbol of national identity. As skyscrapers and bridges decorated the skylines, they advertised the advance technology and engineering of the nation and provided a rich subject matter for new artists. This section was the greatest surprise of the exhibit. I absolutely loved every painting featured. I went back several times to view them and I was utterly fascinated by the mid-century feel and way the artists played with lines and shapes to capture the energy of modern cities.
This was the only section where I photographed every single painting. It’s hard to have a favorite, but if hard-pressed, I would pick “Power” by Edward Bruce (1933). I spent longer with this painting than anything else in the exhibit. The Brooklyn skyline is soft in purple/grays as if just emerging from the fog into the light of dawn. The bridge anchors the edges of the city and grounds the scene. And above, shafts of golden sunlight give the city an almost spiritual feel, as if this might be the artist’s concept of heaven. It’s a peaceful scene – like the city is suspended in time – but the boats underneath the bridge let you know that energy soon will be throbbing through the city.
Concurrent with the sudden growth in cities and urban cities were the throngs of immigrants making America their new home. Along with thousands of European immigrants, African-Americans moved to from the rural south to the north looking for jobs in factories during the early decades of the twentieth century. These migrations reshaped America’s racial and ethnic culture and provided a fertile field for artists seeking to capture the human spirit and presence in this changing world.
“Across the Strip” by John Kane (1929) depicts an immigrant district in Pittsburgh. It was a rundown area with crumbling brick facades, broken windows, and smoky pollution choked in by tall skyscrapers and factories. Families lived in crowded conditions and worked long hours at the factories, often in unsafe conditions. Although incredibly diverse in terms of their background and countries of origin, these immigrants were united in their desire to find jobs, better housing, and better opportunities than were available in the homes they left behind. They forged the backbone of America’s cities and gave depth and strength to the nation’s identity. This section on Memory and Identity was a poignant reminder of the tension between our past and our hopes for the future.
As America was enriched by the new cultures, traditions, and people who came to call America home, so also was American art transformed by new art forms that immigrating artist’s brought with them. One of these new forms featured in the exhibit was Cubism. With origins in Europe, American artists enthusiastically embraced this new way of depicting the world and it formed the foundation of American modern art.
It’s kind of at this point that I start to fall off the “artistic bandwagon”. I have not cultivated much of an appreciation for art that doesn’t really look like anything. I find it hard to relate to and it’s disorienting actually. But this piece, “Rue Brea” by John D. Graham (1928) was whimsical and still retained enough grounds in reality for me to like it. It is strongly influenced by cubism, with basic geometric shapes and blocks of color standing in for a street of buildings. Actually parts of the painting are textured with various materials mixed into the paint to give the illusion of stucco or brick. Also common in cubism, is a mix of what I call “finished painting” with “raw sketching” that kind of looks like the artist forgot to fill in parts of the scene. This kind of reminded me of an amusement park – like something from Disneyland.
From there the exhibit moved into abstract expressionism. I thought about sharing a painting from this section, but frankly, they were all massive ink spatters on canvas and it kind of felt like a downer after seeing such magnificent artwork. Perhaps at one point I’ll have a better appreciation of modern art movements, but for now I enjoy the work of the masters who relied on real places, forms, nature, and cultural tensions to inform their work. I appreciated this exhibit for both the realistic nature of American painting as well as the optimistic hope that our dreams and experiences could always be better. And this is still the heart and vision of the great artists of today as well as our heritage from those who forged the path.
Blessings to you,
“Washington Arch, Spring” by Child Hassam (1893) is interesting. Resembles Paris’ Arc de Triomphe, and I wondered if the trees had been there at one time … Is there an arch in Washington D.C. ? Going to investigate that!
I love any water reflections and am a sucker for Folk Art (sometimes I call it Naive), I love the quirkiness and liberties taken with the style.
Georgia O’Keeffe is always a favorite and the others I hadn’t really heard of. But, of course, I’m not a frequent museum go-er either!
Looks like a great exhibit, Sarah. Thanks for sharing all the details and your thoughts on it. I’ve long heard that Cleveland and Chicago have some of the best American art.