Echoing the chronological arrangement of the catalogue, the exhibition begins with portraits by Henrietta Johnston (ca. 1674–1729), the first professional woman artist in the United States and also one of the country's first pastelists, and ends with works by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), who is best remembered for paintings in which subtle tonal effects are explored.
Considered the country's most talented eighteenth-century artist, John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) left America in 1774 to take the grand tour through Italy and France before settling permanently in London, where he studied with Sir Joshua Reynolds. Well known as a portraitist, in England Copley became a successful history painter. The 1785–86 Study for "The Siege of Gibraltar": Three Figures documents both his methods—the chalk drawing is squared and inscribed with notations for transfer to canvas—and the evolution of a monumental painting for which he sketched, altered, and edited groupings of figures over a period of eight years.
Founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painters, Thomas Cole (1801–1848) was as imaginative and vigorous a draftsman as he was a painter. In The Fountain, he visualized a poem of the same title by his friend William Cullen Bryant, lamenting the loss of the natural landscape and the disappearance of Native Americans from the eastern woodlands. In the deep forest interior Cole depicts here, tree trunks in the foreground bend aside to reveal the rocky mouth of the fountain of the title and the mortally wounded brave—in Bryant's words, "slaking his death-thirst"—whose pose echoes its form.
In 1866, watercolor finally arrived in America as a high art in its own right with the foundation of the American Water Color Society, and the landscape painter William Trost Richards (1833–1905) emerged as one of the Society's most highly regarded exhibitors. As such, his watercolors also became the first American drawings acquired by the Metropolitan, in 1880. His Rocky Coast of 1877 is a striking orchestration of heaving surf, stark geology, and tempestuous sky at Nahant, Massachusetts. With its large size, rich gouache technique, and fibrous brown paper support approximating an oil painting on canvas, it declares the artist's ambition to raise the profile of the watercolor medium in America.
Whistler's highly finished watercolor Lady in Gray (ca. 1883)—as refined a work as any of his canvases—depicts a proud yet fetchingly attired woman in a surprisingly small format (11 1/4 x 5 inches). The subject—whose identity remains unknown—emerges from a dark background in a dark dress, dramatically recalling the work of the Spanish master Velázquez.
Other artists whose works are on view include: the history painters Benjamin West (1738–1820), John Trumbull (1756–1843), Mather Brown (1761–1831), and John Vanderlyn (1775–1852); the prolific portrait painter Thomas Sully (1783–1872); the founder of the National Academy of Design, inventor, and daguerreotypist Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872); the landscapists Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) and John Frederick Kensett (1816–1872); the explorer-artist Karl Bodmer (1809–1893); and the history painter and muralist Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816–1868).