Art has been central to Vassar since its inception. As the first school to include a museum in its original plan, Vassar’s art collections have charted American history for hundreds of years. The “American Stories” exhibition is a revitalization and expansion of Vassar’s American art collection. The exhibition attempts to aestheticize American history from 1800 to 1950 as a narrative, albeit an incomplete one. This visual anthropological exhibition also includes some of the Loeb’s unseen collection of American paintings.
The exhibition was curated by James Mundy, the Anne Hendricks Bass Director of the Art Center. It features defining narrative paintings, portraits and landscapes by American artists from the Hudson River School and John Singleton Copley among others. Interestingly, the exhibition includes four pieces by C.K. Chatterton, the second professor of painting at Vassar College.
Consisting of 59 works, “American Stories” is thematically and physically partitioned off into three sections. Multimedia assistant at the Loeb Delphine Douglas ’18 described, “The exhibit is called ‘American Stories’ and it’s split up into three rooms/sections: People, Places and Moments.”
She continued, “The Loeb has a massive collection and a lot of really nice works don’t get displayed often because there’s so much. A lot of the exhibit isn’t usually on view, so it’s exciting to see it up. One of the Loeb’s strengths is its collection of Hudson River School paintings, and this exhibit features some more of those and the exhibit complements the Hudson River School collection that’s always on display.”
In the first third of the 19th century, American artists supported themselves by producing pieces, such as portraits, as they worked neither under a system of royal patronage nor with an academy or the Church. As a result, many works from this time period were portraits, hence the title ‘People.’
Time ran its course, and portraits alluded to literary references. For instance, Samuel Isham’s “Song of the Lark” depicts a single lovely young woman romantically posed half-length in profile looking upward, where there is no apparent lark, though it may be imagined by audience members. During the early 20th century, the Great Depression incepted the school of Social Realism, which influenced artists, including Milton Bellin, who painted a rather grotesquely obscure self-portrait.
In terms of places, landscapes were the pinnacle of subject matter in the realm of American art. The Hudson River School is a paradigmatic group of artists, including Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, who defined Romantic Art primarily during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Last but not least, the section entitled “Moments” in the exhibition highlights the visceral and the less obvious. Social Realist Bellin’s “Two Women” is a prime example of such a moment. Two women nonchalantly stroll by a legless pencil vendor–a jarring social critique of the inflictions brought about by the Depression during the 1930s.
FLLAC Student Advisory Committee representative Nick Barone ’19 [Nick Barone is also a Miscellany News columnist] expressed his enthusiasm for the Bellin and, by and large, American art: “I think the exhibition is important because it’s highlighting a number of artists throughout American history, especially those that were lesser known or might’ve been otherwise overlooked. The Hudson River School has always deeply interested me and I’m excited to see how the painters selected reconcile what constitutes ‘American’ art when borrowing from or being influenced by different artistic movements and traditions.”
For Barone, the social implications of the art are equally as interesting and important. He continued, “I also always think it’s significant that showcased art carries a social message, so I’m looking forward to seeing works by Milton Bellin in particular. Also, I think it’s important to note that Native American/immigrant/Black art isn’t a part of something entitled ‘American Stories.’”
Though the exhibition attempts to create a narrative of American art, Barone reminds us that this narrative is simply incomplete. Nevertheless, the Loeb can only exhibit so much art at a time, but the attempt to narrate and paint a story is in itself a manifestation of creativity and artistry that the Loeb ceaselessly brings to the Vassar Community.
FLLAC docent Isa Pengsagun ’19 enthusiastically elaborated on the fascinating experiential nature of the exhibition, “‘American Lives’ is an interesting exhibition that showcases some of Vassar’s unseen collection. Some of the pieces on show in the exhibition are cool specifically because you can compare them to the permanent collection. For example, there’s a portrait of Matthew Vassar that can be contrasted to the one that greets us at the entrance of the museum.”
The collection is also an opportunity to see less popular historical paintings. Pengsagun continued, “There are also a lot of Hudson River school paintings that show the talent of some lesser-known names. The fact that the exhibit has pieces that range from the 1800s to the 1900s means that you can see a progression and change in style of American art as well. Besides that, the exhibition is great just because there are so many beautiful and interesting paintings!”