America the Fanciful

John Haber
in New York City

American Stories: American Realism

Americans are born storytellers. So what if the stories never quite add up?

Such is the message of "American Stories," a sweeping survey of American realism. Ranging from the eve of revolution to the early twentieth century, it describes American painting as placid or heroic on the surface, but filled with morals. As Joan Didion put it, "We tell ourselves stories in order to live." Here Didion's existential need becomes a moral imperative. What looks like a celebration of ordinary life hides stories about how Americans should live. George Caleb Bingham's Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1845)

Two American anxieties

Just when museums are cutting back, the Metropolitan Museum of Art puts on a blockbuster. Naturally that, too, celebrates America. The huge curatorial team starts with H. Barbara Weinberg and Carrie Rebora Barratt of the Met. They can safely turn to familiar east-coast museums for a history of American art. This city alone has the Met, the Whitney, and the New-York Historical Society. One can indeed see it all as a way of sharing the museum's holdings while renovation of the Met's American wing continues. Just weeks ago, I was hunting down some of the same paintings in the wing's period rooms and public storage racks.

They tell a familiar history as well. Where some blockbusters offer revelations, this one places a textbook on the walls. The show includes all the big names, from British-style period painting through American Impressionism and Realism. While it singles out Lily Martin Spencer for several works, it does not try to discover lost women, black, and folk artists. One can enjoy the academic gloss of John Singleton Copley and Charles Willson Peale, just when Benjamin Franklin was sitting for Joseph Siffred Duplessis in Paris, before moving on to the muted colors and calm sunlight of William Sidney Mount and George Caleb Bingham. One can warm to the sparkling brightness and freer brush of Winslow Homer before taking in the sophistication of James McNeil Whistler and John Singer Sargent or, with George Bellows, the modern city at night.

Less-familiar names will seem truly stilted to most museum-goers, like the stories they tell. And that, for better or worse, is the point. The Met invites one to take pleasure in parables—and what these say about a young country. Two small rooms tell their own stories. One is for artist self-portraits, the other for paintings of men out on the water. The rest divides chronologically into "Inventing American Stories," "Stories for the Public," "Stories of War and Reconciliation," and "Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories." In other words, lots of stories.

The four period divisions insist on it, by simply adding "stories" to a platitude. The first all but quotes Garry Wills on the Declaration of Independence, as Inventing America. The very first room, for the seascapes, interprets them as parables of a nation at risk. The risk is obvious in Copley's Watson and the Shark, with its hero overboard—the moment before he will lose his leg to the shark. It is only a little less obvious with Homer's The Gulf Stream. A muscular black man raises his head commandingly from a raft encircled by sharks, but he cannot spot the ship that might rescue him at upper left or the tornado bearing in from the upper right.

Could the connection of blackness to impending doom foretell the Civil War? It does not take much to see all these paintings as about two anxieties. One is anxiety of merit—of how self-reliant Americans must make wise choices, like not getting stranded in the Gulf Stream. The other is the anxiety of racial divisions, which really has torn America apart through the present. The two anxieties are often at odds with one another, too. Homer paints the black man sympathetically, as proud but ultimately helpless, to the point that not even courage and wisdom could keep black Americans from an undeserved fate.

The divisions within America lead to divisions within a painting. In the room with seascapes, Bingham has Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. Beneath its quite glow and the craft's slow, drifting pace, the Met sees a moral. Bingham's image progresses from a bear cub chained at left, through a smiling boy, to a gnarly old trader at right. Could it stand for progress from blackness and savagery to civilization? In The Power of Music, where a black has laid down his axe, could William Sydney Mount depict him as lazy and easily turned from his labor?

Individualism and community

Before you get too too upset, I should say that a history of American racism would have merits of its own. It would be yet another kind of storytelling, and it would have the virtue of being true. A northerner like pretty much everyone in the show, Mount opposed the Civil War, which he blamed on abolitionists. Bingham initially described the boy on the boat as a half-breed, and elsewhere blacks do more than their share of banjo picking. Painters glorified the West, but they did their best to ignore Native Americans. In an obvious exception, Charles Deas's The Death Struggle, the Native American on a black horse threatens the white trapper within an inch of his life.

Nor is race the only history underlying these American stories. The show is full of the first kind of anxiety, the anxiety of a moral fable. Will Francis William Edmonds's heroine succumb to The New Bonnet? Will another of his women choose The City Beau or the Country Beau—a sophisticate's guile or homespun virtue? As late as the Ashcan school, with Thomas Anshutz's ironworkers or George Bellows and his boxers, will inner-city dwellers allow their lives to brutalize them? If so, who in America will dare to relieve them of their choices?

At the same time, if stories lurk beneath the surfaces, so, too, do dreams lurk beneath the stories. Does the fur trader stand for civilization? That cannot explain his nasty scowl, the boy's open smile, the black bear cub's resemblance to a friendly house cat, and the morning shimmer that unites them all. The woman with a bonnet may choose consumer goods, but she comes off as sensible, her father as a miser, the city beau as courteous, and the country beau as a lazy buffoon. The Power of Music shows its black worker excluded by a wall, but sharing a universal language with the whites inside. Homer's tornado could be threatening the ship of state on the horizon, while only the black adrift sees it all.

Of course, deconstructing stories is what critics do, and of course people love to complain about theory. One could question the whole idea of American stories in the first place. Genre scenes always told stories, like a Dutch interior. Pure landscapes are a relatively recent invention. Besides, could Americans really not paint a seascape without telling stories? The show excludes other genres—including landscape, portraits, myth, and history painting.

The show also cobbles together some incomplete stories. Not everyone on a boat looks terribly like a young nation at risk. Thomas Eakins makes a rower's mastery of the Schuylkill a test of art's command of space, and if Homer alludes to a coming Civil War, he painted in 1899. Watson, of Copley's Watson and the Shark, was a British merchant with a mean reputation. Copley rescues his patron's virtue by showing the young man as worthy of deliverance. Even then, however, he feminizes the hero, naked and with flowing tresses like a water nymph, while placing his hopes in another's spear and another's bravery.

For all that, the stories are real, and so is what lies beneath. In fact, one returns to a painting's surface in looking beneath—and that, too, is an American story, like the light on the horizon. The tension between parable and subtext goes with tensions within the American ideal. They include the tension between democracy and exclusion. They include the tension between individualism and community, moral certainty and hope, Calvinist pessimism and American optimism. They include, too, the tension between the land as a welcoming gift and as a scary challenge.

Enlightenment to gathering twilight

Mostly, optimism and community win out, and their changing face makes a short history of America. They start with an Enlightenment face. Peale paints The Exhumation of the Mastodon as a block party. He invites anyone to his private museum, with the artist raising the curtain. A dizzying perspective attests to his ascendancy over natural history. Samuel F. B. Morse tours the Louvre, for both a love scene and proof that the American artist has mastered European culture.

Enlightenment values enter even hard work and vice versa. For Elijah Boardman, a well-dressed fabrics merchant displays his accounts with the binding of fine volumes. For Copley, Paul Revere's pensive pose—thumb and forefinger wrapped around his chin, tools on the shiny wooden tabletop—suggests less a silversmith's craft than the clean results of science. For John Nagle, a wealthy engineer hangs a proof of Pythagoras's theorem from his forge. With independence, though, a native American aristocracy largely vanishes from art. In its place come democratic vistas.

Americans gather for the Fourth of July, with John Lewis Krimmel's disorganized but not unruly mob. They argue politics—at the risk, Richard Caton Woodville seems to think, of boring sensible people and neglecting to bring an umbrella. Black and white alike, they latch onto the latest paper for Mexican War news and, with David Gilmour Blythe, crowd the post office for more. For Bingham, they follow The Country Election with a fervency that makes today's democracy seem starved by comparison. Faced with wild beasts, they come to each other's rescue with a shotgun. Faced with "the savages," even nature lends a hand—in the form of a helpful tree branch.

War tensions seem curiously subdued, even as race consciousness grows. With Homer, soldiers in exotic Crimean War uniforms take a break pitching horseshoes. The first battle scenes come only later, with Frederic Remington's sentiment. The west has the warmth and ease of sunlight, as with Bingham's Jolly Flatboatmen. Children before the twentieth century are of course young adults, but again with real optimism about the future. With Allen Smith, Jr., a boy at his toys is The Young Mechanic, while for Seymour Joseph Guy a girl rehearses parenting by reading Goldilocks to her siblings. She, too, is a storyteller.

This art is conservative, despite its liberal view of independent blacks and women. Without the Hudson River School, the first hint of Romanticism is Lily Martin Spencer's ruined Gothic castle. Oddly enough, divisions of race, class, and gender intensify in the late nineteenth century, with a darkening art and a greater realism. Eastman Johnson's tenement scene in the South displays a new conviction about taking sides, along with his deep colors tones and stippled highlighting. With the approach of modern art, painters can even refuse to take sides. For William Merritt Chase, Homer's horseshoes in wartime has become a child's game of ring toss.

Bellows or Mary Cassatt can be in your face, and others invite one into New York City—including, thanks to Frank Waller, into the original Metropolitan Museum on Fourteenth Street. Still, painters pretty much leave the seamy side to Europe, as with Sargent's Venetian back alley or Whistler's prostitutes in a London park. For perhaps the darkest subtext of all, one can look again to Homer, with his Veteran in a New Field. The Met notes the subject's Civil War experience, his scythe, and gathering twilight as intimations of death. Or should soft light and hard labor point instead to acceptance of a nation's shared fate?

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"American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life: 1765–1915" ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 24, 2010.


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