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America as captured on canvas: an extraordinary exhibition of one of the foremost private collections ever assembled brings to life a vibrant nation through its captivating people and breathtaking landscapes.

AMERICAN MASTERS from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection" showcases one of the most important private collections of 19th-century, American art. The exhibition of 51 paintings by 26 artists displays works by such talents as George Caleb Bingham, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Eakins, William Stanley Haseltine, Martin Johnson Heade, Fitz Hugh Lane, John Marin, John F. Peto, and William Trost Richards.

"Over the course of his career, John Wilmerding has become one of the most respected and widely known authorities on American art," says Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. "His many books and articles have helped define the scholarly nature of the field as a whole and have also documented the works of key figures.... Through his teaching and lectures, he has introduced literally thousands to the wonders and complexities of our national art."

The exhibition reveals a variety of American art genres: landscapes, marine paintings, portraits, still lifes, and figure paintings, including a group of drawings and watercolors of the scenery of Mount Desert Island, Maine, by artists--among them Haseltine, Lane, Marin, and Richards--who worked there from the 1840s until the early 20th century.

Highlights from the collection include Lane's "Western Shore of Gloucester, Outer Harbor" (c. 1857), a radiant view of sailing vessels on calm water that is particularly notable for its superb state of preservation. Another worth noting is one of Bingham's rare genre pictures,

"Mississippi Boatman" (1850), which depicts a ragged-looking man guarding cargo on the riverside.

In addition, there is Heade's "Sunlight and Shadow: The Newbury Marshes" (c. 1871-75) and "Still Life with Roses, Lilies, and Forget-Me-Nots in a Glass Vase" (1869); Church's "Newport Mountain, Mount Desert" (1851), Peto's "Take Your Choice" (1885), and Eakins' "Portrait of Dr. William Thomson" (1906) as well as the wonderfully executed watercolor "Drifting" (1875).

Following are brief biographies of some of the key artists in the exhibition:

George Caleb Bingham (1811-79) was one of the leading American genre painters of the mid 19th century. Yet, his fame rests on fewer than 20 pictures that describe aspects of life on what was then the nation's frontier, the Mississippi River Valley and his home state of Missouri. His best-known works fall into two categories: activity on the river, including "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" (1845), "The Jolly Flatboatmen" (1846). "Raftmen Playing Cards" (1847), and frontier politics, including "Canvassing for a Vote" (1852), "County Election" (1852), "Stump Speaking" (1854), and "Verdict of the People" (1855).

Bingham was born on a farm near Charlottesville, Va. When he was eight, the family moved to the frontier town of Franklin, Mo., where he grew up. He was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker and also is thought to have studied briefly with an unidentified itinerant portrait painter. Surprisingly, what is not as well recollected is that Bingham was a prolific portraitist; it was, in fact, his chief livelihood. Biographers estimate he painted at least 1.000 over a 45-year span.

In 1838, he studied three months at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He returned to Missouri, but in the fall of 1840, he moved to Washington, D.C., established a studio in a basement room of the U.S. Capitol, and set up to paint portraits of public figures. All the while he was in the East, Bingham had ample opportunity to see works by the better American painters as well as engravings and copies of Renaissance and Baroque masters. He had an astonishing ability to absorb lessons on drawing and composition through such perusal.

From 1856-59, Bingham was in Germany to attend the renowned Dusseldorf Academy. Many critics feel that this experience ultimately was detrimental in that he seemed to lose his native American vision and strong genre style in favor of an affected or overly refined manner; In any case, during and after the Civil War, his renewed interest in politics and public service diminished his productivity as a painter.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was the best-known pupil of Thomas Cole, who recognized the singularity of American wilderness landscape and was the first to invest it with heroic grandeur. Church, like other painters of his generation--John Kensett, Sanford R. Gifford, and Jasper Cropsey--sketched and painted the Catskills and mountains of New England. In his early pictures, he gave to water a reflective, burnished surface, to sunset clouds dramatic color and substance, and painted distant detail so clearly that his picture space seems filled with transparent radiance. By the early 1850s, Church not only was painting views of specific American places with topographical exactitude, he was combining separate elements of meticulously detailed scenery into landscapes of magnificent breadth and depth.

In April, 1853, Church set forth on an adventurous trip through Colombia (then called New Granada) and Ecuador. Church's first finished South American pictures, shown to great acclaim in 1855, transformed his career; for the next decade, he devoted a great part of his attention to those subjects, producing a celebrated series that became the basis of his ensuing international fame. Nevertheless, his tastes and curiosity kept him ranging to other topics. From 1854-56, in addition to retracing familiar paths, he followed new ones, visiting Nova Scotia, traveling widely in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and going several times to take sketches of Niagara Falls.

From the 1870s until his death, he was afflicted with painful rheumatism of the right arm, which interrupted or prevented work on major pictures. However, Church still managed to produce a few large retrospective canvases in his later years. His final artistic legacy was a multitude of breathtaking small oil sketches, mostly of Olana or of the area around Millinocket Lake in Maine, where he bought a camp in 1880.

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), working independently of typical European styles, was one of the most important Realists of the 19th century. Born in Philadelphia, he took up drawing at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts from 1861-66. His study of anatomy at Jefferson Medical College led to a lifelong interest in scientific and medical realism in his painting. Eakins spent three years in Paris (1866-69), where he attended L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was influenced strongly by 17th-century masters, particularly the Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn and the Spanish painters Josepe de Ribera and Diego Valazquez. He returned to his native city in 1870 and lived there the rest of his life.

He showed his understanding of anatomy in paintings of sailing, rowing, and hunting, where he illustrated the muscles of the human body in motion. He painted several large, powerful, and controversial hospital scenes, most notably "The Gross Clinic" (1875), which combined sharp realism with heart-pounding concentration." Although one of his most famous paintings, this work (showing a surgeon's bloodspattered hand) was rejected as "unsightly" when exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition. It eventually was sold to a medical school for a paltry $200. Years later, the embittered artist wrote that "My honors are misunderstanding, persecution, and neglect, enhanced because unsought."

As director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Eakins introduced a new-age curriculum, including the thorough study of anatomy and dissection as well as scientific perspective, which revolutionized the teaching of art in America. His determination of following his beliefs in the study of the nude subject scandalized the school's authorities, forcing him to resign in 1886.

During the latter part of his career, Eakins' scientific interests were overshadowed by his new love for personality, and, in his art, he concentrated principally on portraiture-mainly of friends, scientists, musicians, mists, and clergymen. Typical of his full-length portraits is "The Pathetic Song" (1881), with a standing figure of a singer in a silk gown silhouetted against a dimly lighted music room.

Although none of his paintings brought him financial or popular success, Eakins had a large influence--as a painter and teacher--on the movement of American naturalism. 'Eakins' problem may have been that--for his time he was just too good at painting realistically.

William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900), after studying abroad in the late 1850s, returned to the U.S. to concentrate his efforts on painting the American landscape. Traveling to the coast of Rhode Island and the north shore of Massachusetts, Haseltine executed a series of vivid landscapes that celebrate the bold rock formations of those particular locales.

His depictions of specific rock formations and particular light conditions frequently prompted viewers' enthusiastic recognition of a favored spot. Further, his contemporaries were able to find some of the most important movements of the age reflected in these works--the belief that art's purpose was best expressed through the accurate depiction of nature and the recognition of geology as a science with the authority to rival scriptural accounts of the early creation. Both recognizability and the resonance of his art grew from Haseltine's choice of elemental subjects observed closely and re-created faithfully. In his best American paintings, pared down visions of rock, sea, and sky, and land formations speak with geological truthfulness; the waves break convincingly; and a palpable atmosphere suffuses the whole.

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904) delights the viewer with his facile leaps on canvas from the portrayal of an exotic hummingbird in the Brazilian jungle to a flat landscape of misty marshes on the New England coast. It is claimed that he executed the most varied body of work of any American artist of the 19th century. He mastered the handling of portraiture, allegory, genre, landscape, and still life bringing to the most successful of these artistic explorations a delicate touch, powerful sense of light as the artist's major alchemy, and painterly innovations often too subtle for critics to grasp.

By age 23, Heade already had been across the Atlantic to Italy, France, and England. He established a studio in Manhattan and exhibited at the National Academy of Design. His earliest painting, "Portrait of a Young Lady" (1839), is a stylized, boldly drawn piece in which it is clear that considerations of light, composition, and design were more important to the artist than a skillful likeness of the pretty girl who sat for him. From New York, he moved to Trenton, N.J., where he began a pattern of submitting his work for exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, National Academy of Design, American Art-Union, and other art centers. He never stayed long in any one spot, however, moving at a dizzying pace across a good part of the U.S., to Europe again, and several times to South America.

Finally, at the age of 64, Heade settled down. He married, bought a house in St. Augustine. Fla., and stayed put. Through his luminous brushwork, he captured a certain brooding tranquility in nature, finding inspiration for his atmospheric landscapes in the marshes and palm-tree-lined shores of his newly-adopted state.

Fitz Hugh Lane (1804-65) was an American Luminist painter whose work now sells for over $3,850,000. He was the first American of prominence to paint maritime subjects exclusively. Before Lane, no major U.S. artist bad specialized in maritime painting because most benefited more by being versatile Renaissance men and supporting themselves by doing portraits, landscapes, and whatever the patron wanted.

Lane was born in Gloucester, Mass., son of a sailmaker and, at age 16, became responsible for the welfare of his family when his father died. He tried shoemaking but failed, and decided to take up art. He was trained as a lithographer in Boston, and the sharp outlines of his ships testifies to this early training. His painting mode, called Luminism by certain historians, is characterized by its crisp clarity and even, bright light.

John Marin (1870-1953) was born in Rutherford, N.J., and raised in Weehawken, a town farther south facing the Hudson. He attended the Stevens Institute of Technology for a year, then drifted from job to job, finally making a six-year stab trying to gain stature in the field of architecture. He was 29 when he finally undertook art training. Two years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and five years in Paris confirmed Marin in his desire to become a painter but appeared to have no direct influence on the course of his style.

Ultimately, he went to Paris and met Edward Steichen, who introduced Marin's work to his friend, fellow photographer Alfred Stieglitz, when he returned to New York. From 1909 on, Stieglitz exhibited Marin's work regularly and became the artist's patron, friend, and sympathetic dealer. His work was shown in the much-chronicled Armory Show of 1913 and, before the next decade was out, he was ranked among the greats by Henry McBride, one of the leading American art critics of the time.

Marin maintained that a work of art was fine most tantalizing sort of thing to create and that it should be viewed with an "eye of many lookings." He fused his own "lookings" into one powerful image when he approached the bare canvas on his easel. Buildings, boats, streets, rocks, sky, mountains, and the very air jumped inside a prism at the intensity of his gaze and came out in a syncopated tilt. The energy, bustle, and play of forces which Marin felt everywhere around him seemed to him to require a new technique and he set out to develop it. Everything that Marin painted is recognizable, but everything is submerged in fluid patterns and designs. Certain forms are clarified, others blurred, while planes and lines are used as symbols for things more felt than seen.

John F. Peto (1854-1907) was born in Philadelphia--son of a dealer in picture frames--and specialized in still life. In 1877, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and exhibited at the Academy and the St. Louis Exposition (1881). After his marriage in 1887, he built a new home at the coastal resort of Island Heights, N.J., and became a professional cornet player. He sold paintings to shopkeepers and summer visitors to the town, but never exhibited anywhere beyond the local drugstore. His work virtually was unknown until rediscovered by the critic Alfred Frankenstein in 1947.

Peto was a friend of William Harnett, and his still lifes are superficially similar to Harnett's representations of a patron's notice-board or desktop. However, the brushwork is softer and more fluid, light more diffuse, and selected objects tend to be worn or broken. Depicting old letters, fading photographs, and torn business cards pinned to a splintering shelf with the paint curling off the wall behind them, Peto's paintings treat the discarded junk of modern life with a hauntingly elegiac quality.

William Trost Richards (1833-1905) was one of the foremost proponents of the American Pre-Raphaelite movement. Meticulously faithful factual rendering was deemed essential and, throughout his life. Richards practiced this tenet. His views of New Hampshire's White Mountains are almost photographically identifiable, yet he imbues them with a delicacy and atmospheric quality that makes them extraordinarily beautiful.

Richards was known to have used photography as an aid. Though he was proficient with oils, many of his most appealing works are executed in watercolor.

"American Masters from Bingham to Eakins" is on view at the National Gallery of Art through Jan. 30, 2005.
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Title Annotation:Museums Today; "American Masters from Bingham to Eakins: The John Wilmerding Collection" at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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