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Exhibitions/ American Stories

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915

October 12, 2009–January 24, 2010

Exhibition Overview

Between the American Revolution and World War I, a group of British colonies became states, the frontier pushed westward to span the continent, a rural and agricultural society became urban and industrial, and the United States—reunified after the Civil War under an increasingly powerful federal government—emerged as a leading participant in world affairs. Throughout this complicated, transformative period, artists recorded American life as it changed around them. Many of the nation's most celebrated painters—John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, William Sidney Mount, George Caleb Bingham, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, William Merritt Chase, John Sloan, and George Bellows—along with their lesser-known colleagues captured the temperament of their respective eras, defining the character of Americans as individuals, citizens, and members of ever-widening communities.

American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765–1915 presents tales artists told about their times and examines how their accounts reflect shifting professional standards, opportunities for study, foreign prototypes, venues for display, and viewers' expectations. Excluding images based on history, myth, or literature, the exhibition emphasizes instead those derived from artists' firsthand observation, documentation, and interaction with clients. These paintings are analogous to original—not adapted—screenplays. Recurring themes such as childhood, marriage, family, and community; the notion of citizenship; attitudes toward race; the frontier as reality and myth; and the process and meaning of making art illuminate the evolution of American artists' approach to narrative.

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The exhibition is made possible by Alamo Rent A Car, The Marguerite and Frank A. Cosgrove Jr. Fund, The Peter Jay Sharp Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, and the Oceanic Heritage Foundation.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The catalogue is made possible by The William Cullen Bryant Fellows of the American Wing.

Education programs are made possible by The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts.

Desiring only bespoke portraits for private display, most colonial art patrons treated painters as mere tradesmen. Their attitude prompted the artist John Singleton Copley to complain (ca. 1767): "Was it not for preserving the resembla[n]ce of perticular persons, painting would not be known in the plac[e]. The people generally regard [painting] no more than any other usefull trade." Many early American artists did indeed focus on individuals, specific locales, and relationships, yet the most clever among them responded to broader narrative agendas, telling stories within the bounds of portraiture. On rare occasions, artists such as John Greenwood experimented with multifigural works, yet these had little impact on the market. Portraiture dominated artistic enterprise into the post-Revolutionary era, but patrons gradually learned to read paintings as more than mere likenesses. Affected by shifts in population, social strata, artistic practices, and clientele, portraitists began to reveal their sitters' desired social positions and to delight them with more elaborate compositions. Gradually, innovative painters such as John Lewis Krimmel, who knew European art firsthand, were able to encourage appreciation for a new sort of pictorial storytelling that found receptive patrons at public exhibitions.

Beginning about 1830, largely in response to the development of public exhibition spaces in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, many American artists were able to turn away from portraiture, which depended on private commissions, and to adopt new modes of pictorial storytelling. They primarily created genre paintings—scenes of lower- and middle-class characters involved in daily activities. Their works are clearly delineated, humorous, didactic, or moralizing and designed to appeal to a wide audience, like the Dutch Old Master paintings and prints or the more recent French and English versions that inspired them. William Sidney Mount and his contemporaries favored depictions of courtship, family, and community life in rural settings associated with fundamental national values. Their works reinforced popular notions of American identity while competing with the landscape scenes of the Hudson River School for attention and patronage. Reproductions of paintings and illustrated publications, ranging from cheap newspapers and almanacs to luxurious gift books, proliferated, making all sorts of images more widely available. Middle-class patrons’ increasing cultural literacy and wealth enabled them to appreciate and acquire these newly accessible and comprehensible visual resources.

By the 1850s, on the eve of the Civil War, painters of American stories expanded their interests beyond the individual and the family to focus on broader issues, especially territorial expansion and politics. The stage-set compositions of the previous decade, derived from European prototypes, gave way to outdoor scenes that capture, literally, a wider view of American life. As population and wealth increased, there emerged an energetic, diversified art market that encompassed auction houses, lotteries, and fly-by-night dealers who set up shop in the cities. Artistic competition escalated exponentially, and the profession opened to include women painters such as Lilly Martin Spencer, who cast a critical eye on domestic life from an insider’s perspective. Responding to pressure to invent novel subjects that would distinguish their works at exhibition and attract purchasers, many American artists took on complex and often difficult topics, including the relationships between blacks and whites, men and women, and immigrants and native workers, but always enlisted euphemism or understatement to tell their stories. A few painters explored themes from the rugged wilderness, which appealed to urban viewers seeking vicarious frontier or backwoods adventures.

The unique and overwhelming circumstances of the Civil War and the years of Reconstruction challenged American artists. The confluence of charged political and economic events as well as profound social change created such turmoil that many artists chose to examine only small, reassuring slices of the human experience in subtle, open-ended narratives. Seeking to assuage the sorrow of the war and to heal the nation's fractured spirit, painters turned away from military and political content. Even Winslow Homer, who visited the Union lines, preferred to recount the war's everyday aspects, not its bloody battles. Artists depicted women grappling with the new roles and responsibilities left to them after the loss of so many man in combat. Expressing a longing for prewar innocence and the commemorative atmosphere associated with the nation's Centennial, many painters portrayed children. As the agrarian basis of American life yielded to urbanization and industrialization, artists who lived, studied, worked, and exhibited their paintings in cities looked to the countryside for subject matter. Painters of this era were likely to show rural locales, including seaside resorts, as temporary or nostalgic retreats from urban existence rather than sustainable habitats.

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.