From we the people to land of liberty

"Making It In America" at the RISD Museum
By GREG COOK  |  October 16, 2013

1018_RISD_shore_top.jpg 
NOSTALGIA FOR POWER Homer's 'On a Lee Shore.'

The question of what the United States means snakes through “Making It In America” at the RISD Museum (224 Benefit St, Providence, through February 9). The answer begins with people like George Washington in Gilbert Stuart’s circa 1820 portrait. It’s one of the Rhode Island native’s many copies of his famous 1796 dollar bill portrait of the first president — done two decades after the original, and after Washington’s death.

Washington is the humble hero non-king, his craggy face chiseled out of Mount Rushmore. In these early American portraits, people become icons of the Revolutionary generation’s ideals — liberty, democracy, equality, clarity, unpretentious, clean-scrubbed faces.

This attitude is also evident in the late 18th-century furniture that curators Maureen O’Brien and Elizabeth Williams include in this survey of more than 100 American paintings, sculptures, chairs, and vases from the 1700s and 1800s from the museum’s collection. A Windsor armchair from around 1780 to 1800 is plain-spoken in its design of rounded seat and airy curved back rail and spindles. The art resides in its flinty, elegant, unornamented spareness.

But soon the iconography changes. Maybe a turning point is already in 11-year-old Nabby Martin’s 1786 sampler of elegant folks cavorting among flowers and deer near an early Rhode Island statehouse and Brown University hall under the stitched motto “Let virtue be a guide to thee.”

Instead of we the people, the subject becomes the sweet land of liberty, especially the Wild West beginning with western New York in Thomas Cole’s 1847 Genesee Scenery (Mountain Landscape with Waterfall). A man walks a dirt path toward a log cabin next to a field cleared of trees. A woman and man chat on a bridge over a rushing waterfall and what might be a mill powered by the river. A hunter perches with his rifle on a bluff overlooking the gorge. It’s about opening up, taming, and exploiting the wilderness — including Native Americans. (RISD’s collection, like most American museums, is thin on works by women and folks of color, as well as depictions of non-whites.)

Then repeat across continent via Manifest Destiny and all that. Martin Johnson Heade’s 1864 painting depicts a hunter in the lush, humid Brazilian forest; William Bradford’s 1874 painting shows a sailing ship locked in a field of arctic ice and a sunset turning the snowy peaks Martian red.

People are fewer and farther between. In these landscapes, you sense a shift in American aims from equal people to owning stuff. It corresponds to the end of the Civil War, when the US government turned its attention toward corralling the last loose Native Americans and more of the western land became occupied by white settlers.

A nostalgia for the power of unconquered, unspoiled nature comes into works like On a Lee Shore, Winslow Homer’s 1900 painting of a gray ship in the distance being driven by the wind toward rocks. The spinning wheel that once had been an essential of American homemaking is recycled into a circa 1886 frontier-style chair attributed to William Savage with a wheel back.

1  |  2  |   next >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY GREG COOK
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   THE LAST FRONTIER  |  April 02, 2014
    They say that temperatures in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica haven’t been above freezing in millennia.
  •   ASSURED ABSTRACTIONS  |  March 19, 2014
    “The golden age of abstraction is right now,” ARTnews informed me last spring.
  •   COMMON GROUND  |  March 12, 2014
    “I did everything in the world to keep this from happening,” exclaims the assistant to the rich man in Kerry Tribe’s There Will Be ___ _.
  •   LOCAL LUMINARIES  |  March 05, 2014
    Reenacting a childhood photo, portraits of fabulous old ladies, and dollhouse meditations on architecture are among the artworks featured in the “2014 RISCA Fellowship Exhibition.”
  •   TWISTED TOY STORY  |  February 26, 2014
    What is it that makes creepy dolls so freaky cool?

 See all articles by: GREG COOK