Monday, September 25, 2017

Met Museum: Gilded Age Drawings

Tucked away in the Met Museum's American Wing is an excellent show of drawings from the Gilded Age, a period that stretched roughly from the close of the Civil War to the 1890's when the country entered the Progressive Age and the United States took its place among the world powers.  One cannot help experiencing a sense of nostalgia in viewing these works from a supposedly simpler time in our nation's history.

It should be noted at the outset that many of the works on view are generic landscapes and studies that, while decorative, are of little artistic interest.  There are, however, enough works by major nineteenth century artists to more than compensate for these.

No artist is so well represented at this exhibit as Thomas Eakins who could well be considered the father of American Realism.  Several of his most important works are on display.  First and foremost is the iconic 1877 The Dancing Lesson, the only work from the exhibit to be featured on the museum's website.  The watercolor depicts three figures - a seated banjo player, a child first learning to dance, and a third male figure who stands watching the child.  Significantly, all three are Afro-Americans whose depiction in artworks, other than as racial stereotypes, even in the late nineteenth century was still extremely controversial.  Other watercolors by Eakins include The Pathetic Song (1881), John Biglin in a Single Scull (1873), and Young Girl Meditating, also known as Fifty Years Ago (1877).  By far the most interesting piece, however, is the monochromatic rendering in India ink of Eakins's most famous painting, The Gross Clinic (1875).  The huge (8' x 6.5') oil on canvas was rejected by Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition because it showed in photorealistic detail an actual surgical operation in progress.  The content was deemed unseemly and the painting consigned to, or more properly hidden in, an army hospital where none but the staff could view it.  Eakins, understandably upset, wanted to ensure that his work was not lost altogether and so made the drawing for purposes of accurate reproduction in print form.

Other major artists shown at the exhibit include James McNeill Whistler (Lady in Gray, watercolor and gouache, 1883), Winslow Homer (Inside the Bar, watercolor, 1883 and Boys in a Dory, watercolor and gouache with graphite underdrawing, 1873), and Louis Comfort Tiffany (Louise Tiffany Reading, pastel, 1888).  There are also on view two pieces by John Singer Sargent (In the Generalife, watercolor with wax crayon, 1912, and Two Soldiers at Arras, watercolor, 1917) even though both are twentieth century works executed long after the close of the Gilded Age.

For me, the most interesting part of the exhibit consisted of works by lesser known American artists.  Snow Scene (c. 1890-1900), a watercolor by Bruce Crane was a strikingly modern looking piece while The Green Cushion (c. 1895), a watercolor with gouache and graphite by Irving Ramsey Wiles, was in its languor the very epitome of the Gilded Age aesthetic.  One startling anachronism was New York from a Seaplane (1919), a pastel by Everett L. Warner.  By far the most intriguing works shown, though, were two watercolors with gouache by John La Farge - Nocturne (1885) and Strange Thing Little Kiosai saw in the River (1897).  The artist, a native of New York City and graduate of Fordham University, was not only a painter, but also a writer and a worker in stained glass.  A journey to Japan in 1886 in the company of Henry Adams had a lasting influence on his art that can clearly be seen in the above two works.  Nocturne is low key study of a flower seen at night that is shrouded in mystery.  Strange Thing is an even more explicit acknowledgement of the Japanese connection.  It is based on an episode in the life of the Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyōsai who as a child found a head floating in the river, painted it, and then returned it to the river for "reburial."  La Farge's watercolor is a dream-like vision of the disembodied head floating in the river.  It's easily the best thing to be seen at the Met's current show.

The exhibit continues through December 10, 2017.

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