In 1850, when Robert S. Duncanson was painting landscapes on the hallways of what is now the Taft Museum of Art, art itself had a somewhat different place in popular culture than it has today. Duncanson’s landscapes are idealized scenes of nature and, as such, are considered uplifting. Art in general was expected to exercise a good influence, often through its storytelling capabilities, as exemplified in the exhibition Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art, on exhibit at the Taft now.
Organized by the New-York Historical Society from its own excellent collection, the exhibition’s inaugural presentation at the society in 2011 — under the moniker Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy — suggested that these paintings and sculptures encouraged New Yorkers to develop taste in art and form cultural ideals. These works, dating from the colonial period through the Civil War, had a somewhat different role in Cincinnati, says Tamera Muente, Taft’s installing curator. Here, where the works would have been seen as prints and reproductions and occasional traveling displays, they would have been embraced for their storytelling abilities. This installation expands on that theme.
A story hits hard from the very first painting at the entrance to the exhibition: “The Last of the Race” by Tompkins Harrison Matteson (1847). A group of Native Americans, the father tall and striking in a red cloak, surrounded by his stricken-looking family — including a dog — appears at the western edge of the continent with only sea and sunset beyond. The label notes that the concept of Manifest Destiny had been formed only two years before the date of the painting.
The exhibition is organized into six sections, each with its own theme.
“European Inspiration and American Ambition” contains the earliest works, strongly derivative of European painting by those lucky enough to go abroad to study it. There are two large canvases by Benjamin West, who left Pennsylvania for Italy and wound up in London, where he spent his working life (1763-1820). West was a friend to those in high places and to young Americans who learned to paint from him. He must have had a diplomatic nature, as King George III was his patron despite West’s own sympathy to the American cause. Two of his large, commanding interpretations of classical stories (“The Aeneid,” “The Iliad”) dominate the first gallery, only rivaled by one of the most luxuriant nudes in 19th century American art, John Vanderlyn’s “Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos.” This is an unfinished second version of the original painting, which is on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
The next gallery gets down to the serious business of “Inventing American History,” the country having not been in existence all that long. George Washington is close to deified, the Pilgrim/Puritan story is told in both painting and sculpture and the wrenching tragedy of the Civil War is shown.
Another section shows “Literature as a Visual Experience,” with several interpretations of Shakespeare, among others, including a Santa Claus pretty distant from today’s version of the genial saint. The next two galleries are probably the most revealing of the interests and concerns of 19th century viewers of these works; one deals with “Scenes of Everyday Life” and the other, “Picturing the Outsider.” If the painting is weakest in the “Everyday Life” section, what these works tell us is perhaps the most interesting part of the exhibition. We can get a real sense of how people lived in this now long-gone time. The “Outsider” is also revealing, given that in some ways we were a nation of outsiders. Picked out here for special attention are those set aside by race (Native American or African), lack of fortune or political ideas. The latter includes “John Brown’s Blessing” by Thomas Satterwhite Noble (1867): Local art historians know Noble as head of the Art Academy of Cincinnati for several decades. The exhibition winds up with a section called “Life of the Spirit,” an important element in that church-driven age.
Sculptures — all portraying people, usually in bronze and more often than not by John Rogers — give an additional window to this world of another time. Subject matter takes top billing in Telling Tales. The quality of the art varies although some very able practitioners are included, Asher B. Durand and Eastman Johnson among them. But the fun of it, the reason for going, is to get a feeling for what life was like, in some cases, almost two centuries ago.
TELLING TALES: STORIES AND LEGENDS IN 19th CENTURY AMERICAN ART is on display at the Taft Museum of Art through Jan. 12, 2014. More information: taftmuseum.org.