American Painting and Sculpture to 1945

    What is American about American art? Visitors will find more than one answer to that question in the Indianapolis Museum of Art Noyes Suite of American Art Galleries, which houses nearly 200 works of art created before 1945.

    The collection is located on the first floor of the Krannert Pavilion and is divided into several areas focusing on stylistic movements from colonial portraiture to modernism. Visitors can view works from Early American, Indiana and Turn of the Century artists, as well as American Impressionists, Urban Realists, and American Modernists.

    During a tour of the American collection, visitors will find a portrait of George Washington (1788) representing his military victory at Princeton, New Jersey, during the Revolutionary War. Visitors are encouraged to sit in front of a large stained glass window from the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany titled Angel of the Resurrection (1904) which was commissioned by the widow of President Benjamin Harrison. Georgia O’Keeffe and Edward Hopper are well represented within the collection with multiple canvases on display including O’Keeffe’s large floral painting Jimson Weed (1936) which hung in the Elizabeth Arden Salon in New York City. Jacob Lawrence’s Untitled (The Birth) (1938) and Horace Pippin’s The Blue Tiger (1933) are some of the important artists the visitor will see in the museum’s African American collection.

    American Scene painting, also known as Regionalism, is a style devoted to the realistic depiction of the varied aspects of American life. Artists like Thomas Hart Benton favored subjects that showed life in the rural Midwest. Midwestern Regionalists concentrated on the heartland’s moral values and the people’s devotion to hard work and their community lifestyle. Other artists took their subject matter from the streets of New York like Isabel Bishop and Reginald Marsh or New York’s upper class society, a favorite subject of Guy Pène Du Bois. Edward Hopper reflected on the character of the American people and painted images suggesting isolation and alienation. A group of American Scene painters known as Social Realists focused on the hardships of everyday life and the social problems facing Americans. Many African American artists participated in the American Scene and Social realist movements by recording the every day life of Black Americans in Harlem, the South and other urban areas across the United States.

    American modernists of the early twentieth century represented a wide range of personal visions influenced by avante-garde painting in Europe. The earliest group of American modernists was the Stieglitz Group. American photographer, Alfred Stieglitz supported some of the most progressive developments in early twentieth century art. Beginning as early as 1905, he exhibited both European and American Modernism in his art galleries and helped launch the careers of Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove and John Marin, who became the core members of the Stieglitz Group. The event that proved to be a catalyst for the growth of American Modernism was the Armory Show of 1913 held in New York. The exhibition exposed a large American audience to abstract art. For the first time, visitors to this show saw the fragmented style of Cubism and the charged colors and distorted forms of Fauvism and Expressionism. Under the influence of these new styles, American artists began creating their own abstract compositions. What tied modernist artists together was a desire to break away from the conventions of representational art, along with the rules of perspective, color, and composition in order to work out their own visions freed from the necessity of replicating physical appearances.

    The first American school of landscape painting developed in the mid-nineteenth century. It became known as the Hudson River School, because many of the artists painted in the Hudson Valley in upstate New York and the surrounding New England region. The Hudson River area provided artists with an unsettled wilderness that was uniquely American. Their scenes were romantic views of the landscape, including pastoral settings where humans and nature coexisted peacefully. Many of these views promoted the idea that nature was a healing place and a way that people could communicate with God, while other scenes showed the negative impact of development and technology on the American wilderness. Some painters traveled beyond the Hudson River Valley to explore the West and exotic areas such as Alaska and South America. A group of Hudson River School artists used a style that would become known as Luminism, which depicts meticulously detailed and clearly organized, tranquil land and seascapes with a strong emphasis on light. Portraiture was the most popular type of painting in America from colonial times well into the nineteenth century. Affluent sitters posed in their finest clothes against landscape backdrops or in well-appointed interiors to document their status in the New World. A market emerged for images of the young nation’s leaders, and George Washington became a popular subject for the portrait artist. Portraiture served a documentary purpose for early Americans that is filled by the camera today. Miniatures, tiny watercolor on ivory portraits, were popular through the mid-nineteenth century and could be worn around the neck or easily carried and served a similar purpose as photographs we now carry in our wallets.

    Indiana art reached the national spotlight when the Hoosier Group artists were named the earliest regional exponents of the impressionist style. This group of artists consisted of T. C. Steele, often cited as its leading member, J. Ottis Adams, William Forsyth, Richard Gruelle and Otto Stark. Gruelle was primarily a self-taught artist, while Adams, Forsyth and Steele studied abroad at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. Stark chose to continue his art training in Paris, but they all returned to their native state to paint the Indiana landscape. The Hoosier Group depicted the beauty of a land that was often thought of as lacking in splendor and majesty and were celebrated for their ability to capture their scenes on canvas with a clear, fresh approach and a fidelity to the subject. The Hoosier Group artists put Indiana on the map of important art communities and made the citizens of the state and the country recognize the special magnificence of the Indiana landscape.

    The focal point of the Rotunda area of the American gallery is the Tiffany Window, a stained glass window by Louis Comfort Tiffany commissioned by Benjamin Harrison’s widow to honor her late husband. The Rotunda also contains a work by Theodor Groll entitled Washington Street, Indianapolis at Dusk which shows what life was like in the city in 1883. The other three paintings are large works of art that complement the space.

    Several types of art became prominent in the nineteenth century, including genre and still life painting. The term “genre” refers to depictions of scenes from everyday life. This type of painting emerged in America when the prospering new country gave rise to a public eager for pictures of people at work and play. Depictions of the Civil War and its aftermath and paintings of childhood and domestic scenes were often sentimental views. Winslow Homer’s images of sailing, hunting and other pastimes rely more on realism than sentimentality and create a sense that the scene is the result of direct observation. The depiction of common inanimate objects, such as flowers, fruit, books, musical instruments and tableware is called “still life.” This subject became popular in the nineteenth century and continues to flourish as a viable topic for American artists. Still life paintings can be straightforward representations or they may contain hidden moral messages and references to the transience of life. In the late nineteenth century a style of still life painting developed known as trompe l’oeil. Artists who painted in this manner created images that made the viewer think the objects were real. With meticulous clarity trompe l’oeil artists depicted paper money, photographs, writing implements, books and other objects that seem to extend beyond the canvas into the viewer’s space. In the 1880s a method of painting emerged called Tonalism, which consisted of muted colors and loose brush strokes that suggested fading light, misty weather and a quiet, meditative atmosphere. Many nineteenth century artists studied abroad in the academies of Europe and some of these painters chose to remain there when their education was completed. These artists are known as expatriates. Among the most famous of this group are John Singer Sargent and James Abbott McNeil Whistler.

    The Ashcan School was the most important group of urban realists. They are known for their scenes of daily life in the poor urban areas of New York. These artists were part of a group known as The Eight, who exhibited together only once in 1908. Their style and subject matter opposed the conservative American art establishment of the early 20th century. The Eight included Robert Henri, John Sloan, George Luks, Everitt Shinn, William Glackens, Arthur B. Davies, Ernest Lawson and Maurice Prendergast. Henri, Sloan, Luks, Shinn and Glackens were dubbed the Ashcan School because of their gritty urban scenes that sometimes included ashcans. Their style consisted of a dark, subdued pallet with rapid, loose, thickly applied brushwork. This group rebelled against the celebration of beauty and affluence favored by the Impressionsts. The three other members of The Eight displayed a variety of styles from the pointillist technique of Prendergast, to the romantic symbolist art of Davies and the subdued impressionist style with an urban focus favored by Lawson.