40. Dean Berkeley and his Entourage (aka the Bermuda Group)
Painter: John Smibert ,Year: ca.1729-39 – George Berkeley left London in 1729 to found a college in Bermuda; he and his entourage had their portrait made to commemorate their passage. The resulting painting is a conversation piece: Berkeley manages to simultaneously be well integrated in the group and set-off as a visionary. He looks heavenward to receive a message, which transmitted by him through the zigzag carpet pattern to his amanuensis on the viewer’s right. It is like a divine game of telephone; My telephone, m-m-my telephone.
39. Death of General Wolfe
Painter: Benjamin West, Year: 1770 – The death of British General James Wolfe during the Battle of Quebec of the Seven Years War is figured by West as if it is Christ-like. In this neo-Lamentation scene, Wolfe is surrounded during his last moments. The scene is given a uniquely American cast by the figure of the kneeling Native American who is seemingly lost in deep thought. West’s incredible history painting was criticized at the time for rendering the subjects in contemporary dress. Before West’s painting, classical attire was thought to have been the only appropriate way to memorialize the event.
38. Watson and the Shark
Painter: John Singleton Copley, Year: 1778 – Watson and the Shark was inspired by an event that took place in the harbor, Havana, Cuba. In 1749, fourteen-year-old Brook Watson was attacked by a shark while swimming in the harbor. His brave shipmates came to his rescue. Copley masterfully orchestrates all of the elements of the turbulent scene for maximum effect. Could Copley have picked a more dramatic moment to depict?
37. George Washington (Athenaeum)
Painter: Gilbert Stuart, Year: 1796 – Stuart’s painting is the exemplar for Washington’s portrait on the dollar bill. It is thus arguably the most reproduced American painting of all time. Stuart was also concerned with the dollar. Recognizing the appeal of his Athenaeum portrait of Washington, he chose not to finish it; instead, he devoted his time to making as many copies of it as possible. Dollar, dollar bill y’all!
36. The Artist in His Museum
Painter: Charles Wilson Peale, Year: 1822 – From the carefully rendered turkey to the precisely administered cages replete with American fauna, Peale argues that art is the accurate transcription of observable facts. Too bad his upraised arm seems to have no connection to his shoulder.
35. Peaceable Kingdom
Painter: Edward Hicks, Year: ca. 1825-30 – The Quaker preacher, Hicks painted 61 different version of this composition. He believed that his paintings could impart important religious lessons. Under the guidance of Quakers, America is Eden where even the lion and ox peacefully co-exist.
34. View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts (The Oxbow)
Painter: Thomas Cole, Year: 1836 – Movement is the key to understanding this painting. As seen from Mount Holyoke, the Oxbow was formed when the Connecticut River pushed past its banks to create a curved shape. If the painting is read from right to left, its mood is ominous; there is nothing but storms ahead. Read from right to left, optimism reigns; the storm has passed and left sunshine in its wake.
33. Reverend John Atwood and His Family
Painter: Henry F. Darby, Year: 1845 – The hyper-real appearance of the sitters in this painting might be an indication of the pressures of early photography on the practice of painting. Darby was only seventeen when he made this painting of Reverend Atwood and his family. The sitters’ pious appearance – they read five bibles – is juxtaposed against the fashionable furnishings and lush textiles that surround them.
32. The Jolly Flatboatman
Painter: George Caleb Bingham, Year: 1846 – Riverboat men on the Mississippi are the subjects of this painting. The boat holds little cargo suggesting that it is headed back up the Mississippi River. The men are free to engage in leisure activities as the central figure of this triangular composition dances to a tune we cannot hear.
31. Kindred Spirits
Painter: Asher Brown Durand, Year: 1849 – Spirits was Durand’s tribute to his dear and departed friend Thomas Cole. Durand created the perfect composite view of Cole’s favorite sites, Kaaterskill Falls and the Catskill Cove. With his paintbrush Cole points to the great beyond, his final destination, as his friend William Cullen Bryant looks on. This painting was famously purchased from the New York Public Library as a different sort of tribute for the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas.
30. Washington Crossing the Delaware
Painter: Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, Year: 1851 – This depiction of George Washington’s perilous Revolutionary War crossing before the Battle of Trenton might be the most famous American painting of all time. It is meant to be seen with Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie playing in the background.
29. The Veteran in a New Field
Painter: Winslow Homer ,Year: 1865 – In an evocation of the Grim Reaper this Civil War veteran, his jacket and canteen discarded in the foreground, reaps golden wheat in a field. The scythe is strapped to the veteran in the way that his gun would have been during wartime. The viewer is denied the opportunity to see the veteran’s face as he cuts down wheat in its prime; it only enhances the somber undertones of the painting.
28. Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
Painter: Albert Bierstadt, Year: 1868 – Albert Bierstadt’s beautifully crafted paintings played to a hot market in the 1860s for spectacular views of the nation’s frontiers. Bierstadt was an immigrant and hardworking entrepreneur who had grown rich pairing his skill as a painter with a talent for self-promotion. He unveiled his canvases as theatrical events, selling tickets and planting news stories—strategies that one critic described as the “vast machinery of advertisement and puffery.” A Bierstadt canvas was elaborately framed, installed in a darkened room, and hidden behind luxurious drapes. At the appointed time, the work was revealed to thunderous applause.
27. Ledger Painting (Abbott Ledger Book)
Painter: Cheyenne Tribe, Year: ca. 1870s – Until the second half of the nineteenth century Plains Indians often recorded their oral traditions in paintings on rocks, cave walls, and tee-pees. Once explorers forged west, ledgers were introduced and a new form, the ledger painting, was born. Artists used watercolor and pencils to capture important events. In this painting, a warrior takes part in a raid.
26. Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother
Painter: James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Year: 1871 – This painting is so much more than a Mr. Bean plot point or an Arrested Development episode title. Alternatively referred to as an American icon or the “American Mona Lisa,” it is an emblem of motherhood and family values. Eschewing any sentimental value, Whistler pawned this painting shortly after creating it, and it eventually ended up in the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.
25. The Gross Clinic
Painter: Thomas Eakins, Year: 1875 – This most “powerful, horrible, and fascinating” painting features a self-portrait of Eakins as the seated figure who scribbles with a writing implement that is as much scalpel as it is pen. It is based on a surgery led by Dr. Gross on the cancerous femur of a young man witnessed by Eakins. The painting was rejected for the art exhibition of the Centennial Exposition of 1876; it was relegated to ornament in the U.S. Army Hospital display.
24. Madam Pierre Gautreau (aka Madame X)
Painter: John Singer Sargent, Year: 1884 – Scandal! When this painting was exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1884, one strap of the subject’s gown had fallen down her shoulder. Viewers were titillated and horrified. Madame X’s mother demanded that the painting be taken down. Sargent refused on the grounds that he had painted her as she was dressed. He later repainted the strap to make it look more secure.
23. The Banjo Lesson
Painter: Henry Ossawa Tanner, Year: 1893 – Tanner’s painting is among the first to show a realistic portrayal of black Americans. In those times blacks were usually shown in what can be politely described as “stereotypical” ways. This great little painting is very sensitive in its portrayal of how knowledge is passed down to younger generations. This makes the banjo a metaphor for the knowledge and wisdom of older people.
22. Stag at Sharkeys
Painter: George Bellows, Year: 1909 – Bellows was a mostly-pro baseball player –turned artist. As a result, he is especially attentive to the boxers/stags who lock horns in the ring. The gritty, dirty vulgarity of the fight is echoed in the audience, especially the figure on the far side of the ring who seems as violent as the event he watches.
21. Portrait of a German Officer
Painter: Marsden Hartley ,Year: 1914 – Hartley’s portrait of a fallen friend, Karl von Freyburg, is awash in symbols and riotous color. The palette is Fauvist, while the splintered view is standard Cubism. The numeral four may be reference to his friend’s regiment, while twenty-four marks the age at which his dear friend was slain. Many scholars have ascribed the portrait’s deeply emotional nature to the fact that Freyburg and Hartley may have been lovers.
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