Art preview: Frick's new exhibition features a century of masterpieces of Americana


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When one pictures George Washington crossing a river, the image that usually comes to mind is Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze's famed "Washington Crossing the Delaware." An 1840 painting by Daniel Huntington could change all that.

His dramatic "George Washington and Christopher Gist Crossing the Allegheny River" depicts the young Major Washington, and surveyor and frontiersman Gist, piloting a small raft much closer to home.

It's among 50 works from the early 19th through the early 20th centuries in "An American Odyssey: The Warner Collection of American Painting" at The Frick Art Museum. Other artists represented include such prominent figures of the country's founding years as Gilbert Stuart, James and Titian Peale, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt; two of Severin Roesen's bountiful homages to fruit; five works by Winslow Homer and four prints by Mary Cassatt, the only woman.

'An American Odyssey: The Warner Collection of American Painting'
Where: The Frick Art Museum, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze.
When: Through May 25; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.
Admission: Free, as is the Car and Carriage Museum. Special Clayton tours will focus on Henry Clay Frick as collector (admission, reservations recommended).
Events: Docent tours 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Gallery talks by curators and educators 1 p.m. Fridays. The 1958 film “The Big Country,” starring Gregory Peck, will be screened at noon March 26. (All free.)
Book: A 2001 book, “An American Odyssey,” gives an overview of Mr. Warner’s broad interests including architecture and decorative arts. The 224-page color- illustrated and cloth-bound book is available in The Museum Shop ($40).
Information: 412-371-0600 or www.TheFrickPittsburgh.org.

Jonathan "Jack" Warner, an Alabama philanthropist and businessman who began collecting American art more than four decades ago, is founder of the Tuscaloosa Museum of Art. He is retired chairman and CEO of the family-owned Gulf States Paper Co., and his grandfather invented the flat-bottomed paper bag. Mr. Warner and his wife Susan actively support the exhibition of American art throughout the U.S.

The Huntington painting commemorates the 1753 journey Washington made at the request of the Virginia lieutenant governor to demand the French withdraw from territory claimed by the British. The painting, made a century later, depicted a heroic Washington in command of the jury-rigged craft as it floats against a fire-orange sky into current devoid of the ice prevalent that December day.

The crossing was made in the vicinity of the present 40th Street Bridge, also called the Washington Crossing Bridge, near the former Herr's Island, now Washington's Landing, said Sarah J. Hall, Frick director of curatorial affairs.

Both men kept journals of the crossing, Ms. Hall said. Gist's was "a brief entry: Washington fell in and I pulled him out." Washington embellished more, she said with a smile, writing that he'd pushed his staff into the river bed to steady the raft and the force of the ice knocked both men into the water. The work is in a grouping Ms. Hall hung at the exhibition entry to introduce various painting genres represented in the show; they also illustrate how tastes change over time.

Portraiture was long at the top of the academic painting hierarchy along with history paintings such as the Huntington work, and is represented by a handsome watercolor on ivory miniature of George Washington painted by Stuart circa 1820.

Landscape and still life were considered less important genres but became more popular with a growing middle class and a gallery system that provided for the display of non-commissioned works.

A placid undated landscape by Thomas Doughty, showing the influence of the English picturesque tradition, contrasts with the charged sublime favored by nearby Hudson River School painters. An "Arrangement of Grapes" by James Peale (1829) is a "very American still life," Ms. Hall noted, "not complexly allegorical." The Roesens by comparison are "over-the-top, abundant," having the "luxurious opulence that would fit into a Victorian mansion."

Hudson River School artists are a strong component (a gallery of such paintings at The Metropolitan Museum of Art was recently named for the Warners) with three fine works by Thomas Cole, recognized as the school's father. They include the "Catskill Mountain House," a retreat for artists until the 1940s when it was burned by the conservation department to return its surrounds to wilderness, Ms. Hall said.

A painting by Church, "Moses Viewing the Promised Land," is diminutive in size (95/8 by 121/2 inches) but still majestic. The tiny figure standing on a promontory against a vast landscape conjures "the power of God and nature over man, the smallness and vulnerability of man" that runs through Hudson River paintings, Ms. Hall said.

Alfred Jacob Miller's "Racing at Fort Laramie" and Thomas Worthington Whittredge's "Indian Encampment on the Platte River," both done in 1868, are romanticized scenes based on an earlier vision of a very harmonious West, Ms. Hall said. By the late 1860s, the Civil War had ended and the pursuit of Manifest Destiny with its genocidal component had begun.

Five works by Homer, including oil, watercolor and charcoal, show his command of medium and subject in imagery that ranges from the turbulent "A High Sea" to the tranquil "Picking Flowers." They are a welcome opportunity to see how even smaller works may be elevated in the hands of a master and they reaffirm the artist's significant contribution to American art.

Three oils by Impressionist Childe Hassam include an awkward small nude, a more typical porch scene with figures and the lustrous tranquil landscape "Among the Isles of Shoals."

Not every painting is an icon, but they fill in gaps between more frequently exhibited works by these notable artists. Delightful oddities include Joseph Decker's painting of his pet, "Squirrel With Nuts (Bonnie)," made in response to criticism of his usual hard-edged style; Bierstadt's almost abstract study of clouds and mist, and his gouache "Butterfly," created somewhat in the folded manner of a Rorschach test image; and Louis Lang's "The Sewing Party," which has a Southern quality although the artist is not known to have traveled there.

The exhibition ends with John Henry Twachtman's contemplative impressionistic "Snowbound Stream," a large oil of delicate color and vivid brushstrokes. In the bottom corner an intrusive red stamp reads "Twachtman sale." In his lifetime the artist was not commercially successful and at his death his paintings were cleared by a studio sale where they could be purchased for very little.

It's a reminder of the roller coaster monetary value assigned artworks and underscores how important it is for collectors and institutions to recognize the intrinsic value of such cultural objects and to protect them.


Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925.

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