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American Painting at The Met
I went to the “American Painting” exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum or Art on Sunday. It is superlative experience that every American would benefit from seeing. There are 100 paintings on display from 44 institutions. The theme of the exhibition is narrative painting—paintings that tell a story overtly or subtly. The first picture, Watson and the Shark, is a great John Singleton Copley painting of a man overboard in shark infested waters. Since Watson lived, one understands the curatorial reason behind its placement at the entrance of the galleries—as a tip to our own present and future.
Of course, the incredibly rich art historical experience is the prime attraction of the exhibit. However, after our first tour, we went back and reexamined the pictures for decoration and ideas that can be sampled, as they say in music, or reinterpreted in my own work. Since I was trained as an art historian, in addition to studying architecture at the University of Oregon School of Architecture and Allied Arts, there is a duality in how I look at paintings. I also developed my eye further in the graduate program I attended at Winterthur, where we learned to use paintings as “primary documents,” or in other words, original objects that can be literally interpreted because their content has not changed with time (unlike written history which is edited and often authored after the fact.) Paintings offer a direct glimpse into the time and place where the work of art was made.
I offer these ancient and modern insights into old time decoration.
The Artist in his Museum, Charles Wilson Peale, 1822
This is one of my favorite American paintings. The perfect combination of red curtains and dinosaur bones.
Not at Home (An Interior of the Artist’s House), Eastman Johnson, 1873
A painting that well illustrates how some late 19th rooms had cohesive decoration–not the hapless jumble of the stereotype. The band of blue decoration in the frieze is really beautiful and would be striking to replicate.
Politics in an Oyster House, Richard Caton Woodville, 1848
The details of the table and the curtains are particularly handsome.
Kiss Me and You’ll Kiss the ‘Lasses, Lilly Martin Spencer, 1856
Note the surprising flower pattern on what appears to be a kitchen floor.
The Breakfast, William McGregor Paxton, 1911
A record of a fashionable room from the period. I like the low slung architecture and the Asian antiques.
The Open Air Breakfast, William Merritt Chase, 1887
There is really no story in this painting, one of my other favorite pictures in the show. It is the view of a backyard of a townhouse on a summer day, with a seeming random set of events taking place. There are clues to a narrative, but the story of what is happening is not revealed and this makes the picture particularly captivating. Furthermore, there is much to inspire the decorator here.
I encourage you to see this exhibit and then take a second look. All the paintings in the show can be seen at metmuseum.org.
Top image: Chinese Restaurant, John Sloan, 1909; the low ceilinged red room with Chinese tables captures my imagination of what a cozy old fashioned restaurant might be.