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A Look Back at American Stories


George Caleb Bingham (American, 1811–1879).The Jolly Flatboatmen, 1846. Oil on canvas; 38 1/8 x 48 1/2 in. (96.8 x 123.2 cm). Manoogian Collection.

Over the past four months, I have been writing posts and responding to comments on a blog dedicated to the special exhibition American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915. The exhibition closed last Sunday, but both the blog and a special feature will remain online for those who'd like to revisit the more than one hundred iconic paintings that were included in galleries.

As visitors to the exhibition know, the paintings on view offered narratives about ordinary people and everyday events, yet still provoked questions that were far from mundane. Each work contains a surface narrative—about courtship or family life or life on the frontier, for example. By considering the works within a larger historical framework, the exhibition's curators, H. Barbara Weinberg and Carrie Rebora Barratt, found that the paintings also had stories to tell about Americans' changing social, political, and economic realities. Even the paintings that touch on epic themes invite personal interpretations. In some cases, despite the passage of a century or more, the everyday experiences that were chronicled seem to reflect our own.

In developing ideas for posts, I often found myself turning to the works that grabbed me on a personal level, or that pertained to current events. In "Electing to Laugh," which I wrote in honor of Election Day, I considered George Caleb Bingham's County Election and the fun it pokes at both politicians and the electorate. (Indeed, many of Bingham's comedic themes about politics still seem relevant today.) Thanksgiving, too, offered a chance to reflect on paintings that feature food and dining from across the exhibition's chronology. A post about depictions of sports and games was motivated in part by the conclusion of the 2009 World Series, but also by my own interest in the subject. (As a member of the Museum's softball team, I happen to be drawn to images of athletic competition.) In terms of art history, I have a particular interest in works on paper, which led me to explore how several featured paintings were also translated into prints. The experience of blogging about the exhibition emphasized for me that the works on view offered seemingly infinite points of entry for our visitors, leading them in a host of different and sometimes surprising directions.

Another exciting angle that I was able to explore in the blog was the exhibition's connections to the Museum at large. By visiting other galleries, linking to the Collection Database, and even taking a walk in the Museum's own backyard—Central Park—I gained additional insights into the paintings on view. In "Robert Frank and American Stories," I wrote about my experience of visiting two exhibitions in one day. Looking In: Robert Frank's The Americans, which closed on January 3, was devoted to Frank's photographic glimpses of everyday American life in the mid-twentieth century. Visiting the show on the same day as American Stories allowed me to detect the different aims and modes of storytelling present in both the paintings and the photographs. In a different post, "A Passion for Fashion," I was able to draw on the Museum's extensive Costume Institute collection, much of which is available online, to show examples of bonnet types that were included in two of the paintings on view. (I never realized how many layers of meaning could be ascribed to women's headwear!) And for one of the earliest posts, called "All in the Details," I stepped outside the Museum into Central Park and was able to locate the vantage point from which William Merritt Chase painted The Lake for Miniature Yachts—an interesting, if unusual, research mission that helped to make the scene all the more tangible for me, and I hope for our visitors as well.

It was a pleasure for me to bring the conversation about these paintings—which invite interpretation on so many levels—from the galleries to the blog. I learned a lot in the process, and I hope our readers did, too, especially about the active research that takes place at the Museum. For those of you who are able, I invite and encourage you to visit the exhibition at its next venue, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where it will be on view from February 28 to May 23, 2010.

Katie Steiner is a research assistant in the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture.

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