A narrow perspective at the Amon Carter

MODERN ART’s revolt against the materialism and sentimentality of the Victorian era makes it difficult to sympathetically view “An American Perspective” at the Amon Carter Museum.

The perspective is that of Jo Ann and Julian Ganz Jr., two California collectors who, during the last 10 years, have gathered what curators and historians have called the most important private collection of 19th-century American art. The show was thunderously denounced by New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer when it opened last fall at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

“One does not have to be a profligate bohemian to find the atmosphere of over-upholstered respectability in this exhibition more than a little stultifying,” Kramer wrote.

Rather than write specifically about the individual works, Kramer questioned whether the Ganzes’ collection represents the same uncritical chauvinism that was heightened by the national bicentennial. Kramer points out that Americans have swung widely in their attitudes toward their own art, and because we are so intensely interested in ourselves, we may never be able to judge our own artistic achievement fairly.

If we judge our artistic achievements by European standards, American art falls short in all counts except landscapes. Our greatest natural resource has also been our greatest artistic resource, and American painters such as Church, Bierstadt and Cole exploited it ably.

The Ganzes own a fine painting by Albert Bierstadt and a very good South American landscape by Frederick Church, but the Ganzes’ tastes lean toward the smaller and the more serene. Their best discovery is several small landscapes painted by Sanford Robinson Gifford in the 1850s and 1860s. They have the freshness and spontaneity of early Corot landscapes. The best of these may be the painting selected for the catalog cover, The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine, painted in 1864-65. In it we see the artist in the foreground, perched high on rocks with his gear around him and spread out below him. The vast purple and green forest extends to the sea, which is hazy with distance. The viewer who admires these pictures will want to go upstairs to the Amon Carter’s permanent collection and look at its Gifford, an almost abstract desert study in Wyoming.

The Ganz and Carter collections overlap so frequently that the museum’s curators were tempted to try integrating the two collections. It is interesting, for example, to compare the Ganzes’ charcoal drawing, Twilight on Newbury Marsh, with the Carter’s oil painting, Marshfield Meadows, Massachusetts. The Carter’s recently acquired Martin Johnson Heade painting, Two Hummingbirds Above a White Orchid, compares interestingly with a similar Ganz acquisition. To my eye, the Ganz version is superior in composition, but as an Amon Carter curator jokingly observed, “Ours has one more hummingbird.” Another notable overlap between the two exhibits is that the museum and the Ganzes both own versions of Eastman Johnson’s Bo Peep, a genre painting of a child playfully covering his mother’s eyes with a handkerchief. Perhaps the Carter’s version, with its whiter light and more fully articulated furniture, is better.

Comparisons such as these are often informative and can help shape our critical awareness. The real question – and it is the question that Kramer poses – is whether this collection includes “transcendent” art; and the answer, with qualifications, is no.

Art that reaches across its original time and place, that speaks a universal language that all can understand, is transcendent. Sometimes an age can find a way to turn aside its gaze and find only what it wants in art, as Victorian England turned away from the frank homosexuality of the Greek classics and insisted that only manly friendship was represented there.

Almost all art requires that we engage a set of beliefs and sensibilities not our own, and it would be unreasonable to think we have to hold the values in a work of art in order to recognize its merit.

Nevertheless, some degree of sympathy has to be established for a work to take hold, and I have a great deal of difficulty with the Ganzes’ sentimental genre pictures of children and women. The genre paintings depict women as helpless, dreamy creatures, the embodiment of such abstractions as liberty and motherhood. The Ganzes’ sculpture, in particular, embodies the Victorian high-minded-ness that permitted Hiram Powers to sculpt and widely exhibit the nude female figure. Female nudity is subdued by the allegory and narrative of the male sculptor, who picks a theme that will sell. Powers’ The Greek Slave, a widely exhibited and reproduced full-length white marble nude of a woman, was defended by the artist and by sympathetic clergymen as a “lesson in faith and morality,” according to a catalog essay. The Ganzes own a bust version that portrays a young Christian woman captured by Turks and sold into slavery in Constantinople.

“Hiram Powers,” according to the catalog essay, “described The Greek Slave as possessing ’what trust there could still be in a Divine Providence.. .with utter despair for the present mingled with somewhat of scorn for all around her. She is too deeply concerned to be aware of her nakedness. It is not her person, but her spirit, that stands exposed, and she bears it all as Christians only can.’ ” In a sense, Powers created an awareness of nudity rather than a nude; it is as though the subject of the work is an idea rather than a body. Do we have to like that idea in order to like the work of art? Does one have to be a Catholic in order to like Dante’s Divine Comedy?

But the difference is that the Italy of Dante is far removed from our time. Despite all that has happened in the 140 years since The Greek Slave was sculpted, we still live with the remnants of Victorian morality and duplicity. Its loud and forceful representatives seek to censor school libraries. Works of art that depict the nude have been removed from recent exhibitions in Dallas city offices. It would be wrong to think that these are trivial attitudes held by a small number of people.

Nor is it hard to hear the voice of the Moral Majority in the narrative of Ruth Gleaning, a sculpture by Randolph Rogers of a woman kneeling, one breast exposed, gathering a sheaf of wheat. The catalog essayist, Linda Ayres, singles out the naturalistic detail of the sculpture, and explains the Biblical source of the sculpture: “It is important to note that Rogers chose to depict the most dramatic moment in the story – when Ruth meets her future husband, Boaz, and kneels before him to thank him for allowing her to glean in his fields,” Ms. Ayres writes.

This may be the most dramatic moment in the story, but it is also a moment deliberately picked by the artist to reinforce the Victorian sensibility that women are dependent and helpless creatures whose salvation lies in the aid of men. The trick of the Victorian sensibility was to excuse nudity in art by making it as asexual as possible. Meanwhile in Europe, the impressionists and post-impressionists were painting nudes of great sensuality, and Auguste Rodin was beginning to create sculptures of such force and vitality that they make American sculpture look platitudinous.

Male nudity fares a little better in the Ganz collection. Orpheus, by George de Forest Brush, was termed preposterous by Hilton Kramer. Orpheus is a finely painted male nude wearing sandals and a laurel wreath, playing a lyre discreetly placed over his crotch. The music entrances four naturalistically painted rabbits, two of which sit up like begging dogs, their ears cocked and alert.

Orpheus’ nudity is justified both by classical allusion and by the myth of the power of civilization and art to tame nature, Ms. Ayres observes. The Indian Hunter, painted in 1890 (the same year as Orpheus), is a brooding, mysterious picture that reveals Brush’s sympathies for the Indian. It is probably the most sexually explicit picture, for the Indian, bathed in semidarkness, wearing only a breechcloth and moccasins, bears a dead flamingo over his shoulder, its head hanging long and pendulous.

The only other mature sexuality represented is the sculpture, Hero, by William Henry Rinehart, made in 1868. Hero modestly holds her hand to her breast, but she is particularly sensuous when viewed from behind. The story of Hero and Leander was widely popular in the 19th century, and, appropriately for Victorian sensibilities, is about a woman who drowns herself when her lover dies while trying to swim to her across the Hellespont.

The only other female sexuality to be seen in the Ganz collection is that of pre-adolescent girls. Rinehart’s sculpture, Harriet Newcomer, depicts a little girl holding a butterfly, the symbol of the soul, with her somewhat Grecian gown erotical-ly falling off her shoulder. Seymour J. Guy, a genre painter collected by the Ganzes, toys with prepubescent sexuality in a picture called Making Believe, painted in 1870. A young girl tries on a long skirt, pretending it is a bridal train. Her shoulders are bared, and we can see that beneath her borrowed corset her breasts are beginning to form. A society that has made Brooke Shields into a sex symbol should have no trouble understanding the appeal.

When women are not depicted as helpless victims in the Ganz collection, they are passive, dreamy and solitary. They languish and pose, giving introspective looks. In the neoclassic paintings of the late 19th century, women in Greek dresses stare languidly at landscapes, reflecting a classicism robbed both of sensuality and great ideas. One wonders what the Victorians would have made of classical sculpture as it was originally painted in four colors, genitalia and all.

To the extent that art of the Ganz collection is faithful to the ideals of American society rather than critical of them, it is not modern. Such art approaches simplification rather than complexity. This simplification can be seen in the favorite theme of Victorian America: motherhood. Motherhood, in the sentimental genre pictures of the Ganz collection, is taken for granted. American impressionist Mary Cassatt (whose work was well displayed last year at the Amon Carter) has shown that this theme can be treated with complexity and honesty.

Yet, if there is a place for such sentimentality in life, why not in art? Just because the Ganzes own works that trivialize women is no reason to believe that they endorse such attitudes.

And yet a major problem persists. Doesn’t this consistently patronizing attitude towards women prevent the art from being great? Despite the fine finish of the collection and its superb condition, I am inevitably led to value it as a document of its period rather than as art.

The great literary art of the 19th century runs against the grain of the culture. Herman Melville wrote of the effect of the artist constantly straining against his culture:

“There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says NO! in thunder; but the devil himself cannot make him say yes. For all men who say yes, lie; and all men who say no – why, they are in the happy condition of judicious, unin-cumbered travelers in Europe; they cross the frontiers into Eternity with nothing but a carpetbag – that is to say, the Ego. Whereas those yes-gentry, they travel with heaps of baggage, and damn them! They will never get through the Custom House….”

There is little in An American Perspective that says “no” in thunder. A Winslow Homer watercolor of a schoolteacher at a blackboard giving a geometry lesson says “no” quietly. In the simple arrangement of black and gray bands and the gray checkered apron, one feels the tension of a sensitive intellect at work, a mind that sees more than a ready-made sentiment. Homer’s pensive schoolmistress seems in some way aware of her entrapment, because she is aware of her body. We are made conscious of her awareness by the force of Homer’s design and are not made to feel like we’re spying on an attitude.

The wittiest “no” can be found in the trompe I’oeil still lifes by John Peto and John Haberle. Haberle’s U.S.A., 1889 is a witty commentary on the official greed and corruption that swept through national politics and business. It depicts a torn one-dollar bill placed over a torn 10-dollar bill so realistically that it looks as if the artist took real money and pasted it down in a collage rather than painted it. Painted below the money is a clipping of newspaper that reads, in part: “Imitation by John Haberle, is one of those clever pieces of artistic mechanics showing an old greenback….” Here we see versions of 20th-century pop art that revels in its status as art and pokes fun at the most sacred image of America, which is not motherhood or God, but money.

Money is perhaps the most deeply repressed theme in American life. Harriet Hosmer, an expatriate sculptor, made the marble figure, Puck, when her father could no longer support her. The impish Puck, a character from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is perched on a toadstool, with a beetle in one hand and a salamander in the other. The statue was enormously popular in its time, and 30 copies were made, one of which was sold to the Prince of Wales. It was a kind of serial production guaranteed to bring the money in. It was called a “conceit” because of the frivolity of the subject.

The second half of the 19th century, from which the bulk of “An American Perspective” was selected, was a time of uncertainty and gloom. The Civil War had cast a pall on the country that art never came to terms with. It was a time of national scandals in politics, a fluctuating economy, manipulation of the government by big business and corporations. People wondered at the opulence of the rich and hoped that the new inventions of technology and science would save them from their uncertainty. It was an age, in short, very much like our own, but its art was incapable of dealing directly with the strain that society was undergoing. That took time.

Traces of this gloom can be seen in several still lifes in the Ganz collection. Catalog essayist John Wilmerding points out the shift from optimism to pessimism that is represented by an early still life by Raphaelle Peale painted in 1814, to late still lifes of roses by George Lambdin painted in the 1870s and ’80s. The Peale still life of oranges, walnuts, wine decanter and wine glass is orderly and balanced. Flower Still Life with Bird’s Nest by Severin Roesen, painted in 1853, is lush and bright. (Compare it to the Amon Carter’s Roesen still life in the upstairs gallery.) The Lambdin pictures represent roses with their petals dropping, and in that symbol, Wilmerding sees the decline of optimism about America. Wilmerding detects this gloom in the dark colors of William Michael Harnett’s still lifes as well. The painter who most forcefully represents the gloom of the turn of the century was John F. Peto. His Old Companions, painted in 1904, depicts the worn-out books, the torn papers and crooked candlestick of a period that has used up its optimism.

Possibly it is unfair to dislike this art for not being bolder, more daring, more original and more critical. But better to cast a severe eye on our culture’s past than to accept its content uncritically. Better to subject it to our own values and beliefs, knowing that we are doing so.

“An American Perspective,” paintingsfrom the collection of Jo Ann and JulianGanz Jr., will be exhibited at the AmonCarter Museum through May 23.


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