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Tracing the course of American art in a time of transition

02/27/2017 09:51AM ● Published by J. Chambless

'Sunday' (1926), by Edward Hopper.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

The massive changes in American art between 1870 and 1950 are the focus of a wide-ranging new exhibition at the Brandywine River Museum of Art, “From Homer to Hopper: Experiment and Ingenuity in American Art,” which opened on Feb. 25.

Drawn from The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., the show moves thematically through a time when American art – initially derided as a pale imitation of the work of the European masters – emerged as a dynamic force and broke free of its Continental roots. The Phillips Collection, which was founded in 1918 by Duncan Phillips, is astonishingly forward-thinking, and must have been a considerable shock to the system.

The show begins with “Romanticism and Realism,” when artists began forging their own directions by tweaking established artistic norms. Thomas Eakins' “Miss Amelia Van Buren” (circa 1891) conveys the model's personality and introspection rather than merely her likeness.

'Washington Arch, Spring' (1890), by Childe Hassam.

 The “Impressionism” section contains the glowing “The High Pasture” by Julian Alden Weir, with its warm, sunny expanse of lawn and foreground shadow, capturing warmth without focusing on any one element of the scene. There is also “The Emerald Pool” (1895) by John Henry Twachtman, which has a flat, semi-abstract style. Childe Hassam's “Washington Arch, Spring” (1890) has a delicate pastel tone and glorious light, but captures both a high-society lady promenading in her finery and the street sweeper who is scooping horse manure in the gutter.

Maurice Prendergast's “Fantasy” (1917) has an upholstery-like texture and a primitive style that must have been much-derided in its day. On the other hand, Winslow Homer's “To the Rescue” (1886) powerfully depicts the force of nature as three wind-whipped figures on a beach are dwarfed by rolling surf.

The show moves into depictions of modern America in works such as “Sunday” (1926) by Edward Hopper, which evokes stillness and something of an ominous mood. That could come from our modern viewpoint, since we know that the Great Depression was just around the corner.

The raw power and expanse of the ocean in “Storm Voices” (1912) by Paul Dougherty engulfs the viewer in the scene, and Rockwell Kent's “The Road Roller” (1909) combines majestic clouds and a thick blanket of snow as a team of horses pulls a huge roller over a hill to make the road navigable.


'Skyscrapers' (1922), by Charles Sheeler.

 The bold, solid shapes and contours of Georgia O'Keeffe's “Large Dark Red Leaves on White” (1925) and the sinuous shapes of “Ranchos Church, No. 11, NM” (1929) are instantly recognizable, but moments like the stylized land and spiral sun in “Red Sun” (1935) by Arthur Dove will come as a surprise. John Sloan's “Clown Making Up” (1910) is a quiet backstage view of a white-faced clown working on his stage makeup by candlelight.

City life is explored by several artists, such as the clean, pure shapes of “Boat and Grain Elevators No. 2” by Ralston Crawford, and the hard-edged, overlapping shapes of “Skyscrapers” (1922) by Charles Sheeler. Edward Hopper's “Approaching a City” (1947) has his trademark cityscape devoid of human presence, and an ominous railroad tunnel that does nothing to invite the viewer. Next to it is John Sloan's “Six O'Clock, Winter” (1912), a perfect depiction of a bustling New York City crowd, a shadowy elevated train track and dots of artificial light against an almost-dark sky.

In the “Memory and Identity” section, you'll find “Hoosick Falls in Winter” (1944) by Grandma Moses, and Horace Pippin's interior scene “Domino Players” (1943). Among the most striking works in this section is John Kane's city view, “Across the Strip” (1929), a richly detailed expanse of brick tenements, then factories, then a hillside dotted with houses in the background.

Moving into abstraction, “Deer in Sunset” (1946), by Karl Knaths, distills the animals into gestures of black paint in a jumble of rich green foliage. The symbolic objects in “August Still Life” by Morris Graves have broken free of their table and rise up in an expressive arc.

“Egg Beater No. 4,” by Stuart Davis, takes its subject completely apart, and in “Maritime” (1931), Karl Knaths distills the essence of a day of sailing into simple lines and shapes, and a blue expanse of deep ocean water.

You'll come away from this exhibition with a deep appreciation of how artists and works you are familiar with dovetail with pieces by artists you may never have heard of. And you'll also be thankful that Duncan Phillips championed these artists during a crucial time of transition for American art.

This exhibition will surprise you, and that's always a good thing.

“From Homer to Hopper” continues at the Brandywine River Museum of Art (Route 1, Chadds Ford) through May 21. Visit www.brandywinemuseum.org, or call 610-388-2700 for more information.

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email jchambless@chestercounty.com.

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