Pictures of a Young Nation

What’s not to admire about a blockbuster exhibition of American narrative paintings that includes acknowledged masterpieces by the likes of John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, George Bellows and Frederick Remington? This exhibit, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through Jan. 24, 2010 and moving on to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Feb. 28- May 23, 2010), contains 106 genre paintings.

The almost sociological conceit of the show is to find, in this survey of American art focused mainly on everyday life, clues to shifts in American self-understanding about class, domesticity, gender, race and industrial relations. (Landscape is generally missing from the exhibit, so there is none of the Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole or Albert Bierstadt.)

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Various canvases portray courting couples, awkward new immigrants, blacks and whites, separate and together (and, in one canvas, confronting European immigrants who would compete with freed blacks for labor), gun-toting cowboys and politics in small towns. They embody some typical stereotypes, such as the “Yankee,” the “backwoodsman,” the “Negro” and the factory worker. They limn shifting roles for women and working-class immigrants and the tensions between rural and urban America. In a sense, the show exhibits some of the anxieties and utopian hopes for the new land: racial divisions, the pull between individual and community, trends toward urbanization, new roles for women, the presence of the land itself as a vast, often threatening, wilderness; as well as the more universal theme of opportunity.

That's John Coleman, our polymath reviewer (and sociologist and Jesuit priest) reviewing a new exhibition on American genre painting now, as he says above, at the Met and soon to travel to L.A.  Read the rest of his review here on the Online Culture section.

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