Looking at America

Stories of Peoples, Places, and Things

Land Acknowledgement

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is situated in Lenapehoking, homeland of the Lenape diaspora, and historically a gathering and trading place for many diverse Native Peoples, who continue to live and work on this island. We respectfully acknowledge and honor all Indigenous communities—past, present, and future—for their ongoing and fundamental relationships to the region.

2 Continents, 10 centuries, 20,000 Stories

What is historical American art? A daring painting of an expat in Paris, a venerated image of a holy apparition, and a still life that challenges racial stereotypes—these are American. Oil paintings, stained glass, sculpture, silverwork, quilts, porcelain, fiber baskets, mahogany furniture: all American. What ties these works together with the more than 20,000 others in The Met’s American Wing is not only their artistic value but also their ability to shed light on the complex histories of two continents over several centuries.

Time shifts all things: borders, languages, peoples, and identities. For many, it has also shifted our understanding of the artworks created by, for, and about Americans. Even if you’ve visited the American Wing many times, what you see today depends on where—and who—you are now. This Primer reminds all of us how works of art can offer fresh insights into what’s always been there.

Beyond Nationalities

Who’s American? Who decides? Too often those in positions of power have only included others who look, live, love, or worship as they do. But people tend to defy categorization, and American artists are—and always have been—as varied and multifaceted as the places they call home.

Great art poses questions, and the more questions it poses, the better it is.

— Robert Longo, The Artist Project: What Artists See When They Look at Art (2017)

Beyond Borders

From the Plains to Manhattan, the Andes Mountains to the Atlantic waters, the range of physical characteristics that define America is practically unlimited. What we visualize when we talk about America depends on the view from our particular location.

In the beginning, all the World was America.

— John Locke, Second Treatise on Government (1689)
Baltimore Manhattan

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, industry and manufacturing led to the growth of U.S. cities, places where peoples and cultures mix.

Manhattan Queens


The earliest known professional Black American painter, Joshua Johnson was born to an enslaved mother and a White father. He later became part of Baltimore’s large free Black population, with his career fortunes linked to the city’s shifting racial codes.


John Henry Belter, a German immigrant with a shop on Broadway, was famed for his work inspired by European traditions. He achieved extraordinary curved contours and complex carving through an innovative, patented method of fusing layers of wood with steam and pressure.


Heralding a new era in stained glass, this 12-foot-tall window evokes the natural world of a park near the designer Agnes Northrop’s home in Queens. Craftspeople at Tiffany Studios, including many women, employed innovative glass to achieve its painterly effects.


Mary Abastenia St. Leger Eberle brought a sympathetic perspective to her depictions of working-class life on New York’s Lower East Side. Girl Skating portrays a child hurtling forward on just one roller skate, her outstretched arms balancing her body against the wind.

Beyond Mythmaking

Among the most widely recognized works in the American Wing, Emanuel Leutze’s monumental painting of General George Washington leading troops into battle against the British, in 1776, has reached iconic status. Yet its immense power and popularity since it debuted in America in 1851 has little to do with historical authenticity or aesthetic value.


I love the capacity for painting to tell a story.
—Kent Monkman, artist (2019)


Beyond Utility

Every object has a purpose. On one level, a sugar box is a sugar box. On another, it is a symbol of luxury, exploitation, greed, and genocide. When we look at historical American objects—what they were used for, what they were made of, and for whom they were made—we have a chance to more fully understand not only America’s past, but also its present.

America is the idea of what we’re making. It’s not what we are. It’s what we all want it to be.

— John Chu, Ted Radio Hour (2021)

What will you see?

The difference between knowing and understanding can be subtle. Even as we acknowledge that the histories of the Americas are complicated—and unfinished—it can be difficult to absorb what this means in practical, human terms. Art has a unique way of bringing complicated facts to life. It fills in details that have been forgotten, distorted, or obscured. It reveals nuances that have been glossed over. It entangles stories of people, stories of places, and stories of stories themselves.

The works of historical art in The Met’s American Wing offer insights into the multiple histories of two continents over several centuries. The multidimensional truth is there, in all its complex beauty, for those who are willing to look. You can uncover more stories by visiting The Met’s American Wing, where more than 20,000 works of art offer an opportunity to see—and more fully understand—something new.


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A grid of six images of different art objects of paintings

Image and Video Credits


Primer made possible by Barbara A. Wolfe.


Supported by


Logo of Bloomberg Philanthropies Driving Innovation Through Arts and Culture

and the Director's Fund.


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