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American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915

October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010

Cosmopolitan and Candid Stories, 1877–1915

By the mid-1870s the taste of American viewers and patrons had changed in response to their expanded opportunities for travel; ready access to prints, photographs, and illustrations in magazines and journals; and exposure to art in newly founded museums. As this audience, principally in the prosperous industrial Northeast, came to value contemporary continental—especially French—art, American painters embraced an unprecedented internationalism, telling new stories and adopting new means by which to recount them. Easier transatlantic travel and communication enabled more artists to study abroad, live in European cities and art colonies, and investigate a wide range of subjects and styles, from academic to Impressionist. They were as likely to paint people enjoying everyday life in Paris or the French countryside as in New York or New England. Their works reveal an appreciation of journalistic, fragmented, oblique narratives and an evasion of the harsh realities of modern existence. Compared to earlier genre scenes, their painted stories are ambiguous and at times elusive. American painters operated in an increasingly professional and complex art world, which enhanced their prospects for displaying and marketing their works on both sides of the Atlantic. Often in competition with foreign rivals, they were attentive to the judgments of a newly serious and credible American art press.

Late-nineteenth-century American artists redefined national identity in an international context and explored modern subjects for their painted stories, favoring journalistic, fragmented, oblique narratives expressed in a variety of styles. Many of them recorded the lives of women as devoted mothers, dedicated household managers, participants in genteel feminine rituals, and resolute keepers of culture. A few told tales about men at work and leisure while celebrating new American heroes. The cowboy emerged as an icon of American masculinity and the shrinking frontier. As tension escalated between fading rural traditions and mounting urbanization and industrialization, artists investigated city environs, portraying new sites for leisure, consumption, and entertainment. Beginning about 1900, the Ashcan artists advocated forthright depictions of life in New York but typically took a cheerful approach to urban hardships. Their sometimes droll images, recorded as if "on the run" or from memory with broad  calligraphic forms, reflect skills that most had cultivated as newspaper illustrators.