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300 years of American history at a glance in Seoul

Historic artwork speaks of everything from the era it was created, to the customs, culture, thoughts of people, and even the landscapes of the period.

This time, the National Museum of Korea (NMOK) and four leading American museums (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Terra Foundation for American Art) have come together to unveil a major art exhibition uncovering America’s past and giving a chance for viewers to rediscover America, its history, and culture, through 300 years of art.

(photo) Charles Willson Peale "Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and Their Daughter Anne" (1772), Philadelphia Museum of Art; (table) Thomas Affleck "Card Table" (1770-1771), Philadelphia Museum of Art (image courtesy of the NMOK)

(photo) Charles Willson Peale "Portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and Their Daughter Anne" (1772), Philadelphia Museum of Art; (table) Thomas Affleck "Card Table" (1770-1771), Philadelphia Museum of Art (image courtesy of the NMOK)


The exhibition, entitled as “Art Across America,” showcases 168 paintings as well as decorative art and designs spanning American art history from the 18th through the 20th century. The artworks are organized into six sections featuring different periods from colonial settlement to the aftermath of World War II. Along with the historic aspects, American craftsmanship and regional character during the periods are illustrated in the pieces.

[American People]
The first painting viewers come across in the first section is a portrait of a three-year-old child named John Gerry, painted by Joseph Badger.

Portrait was common at around the 18th century,” explained Docent Chang Hae-yoon from NMOK. “It was a way for artists to describe the situation in America of the times, when it was accepting a large inflow of migrants and explorers who came seeking new opportunities and freedom. The portrait paintings reflect the people’s desire to distinguish a community of their own from others. Also, portraits of that time appeared to be similar with European styles because there were no distinctive trends or artistic features settled in America.”

[Landscape: East to West]
The second section gathers works created during the early 19th century when the westward movement was increasingly influential in society. Around the period, the art world was mostly dominated by Hudson River painters which focused on depicting landscape, especially romantic views of unsettled areas of the Hudson River Valley with realistic compositions. The landscape paintings are drawn, in a sense, for publicity of the empty land through which they perhaps hoped to gather money and a workforce required for cultivation, according to Chang.

Thomas Cole "Landscape with Figures: A Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans"" (1826), Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Daniel J. Terra Collection (image courtesy of the NMOK)

Thomas Cole "Landscape with Figures: A Scene from “The Last of the Mohicans" (1826), Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago, Daniel J. Terra Collection (image courtesy of the NMOK)


[Daily Life in Art]
In the 19th century, when society became stabilized to a certain point, still-life and genre paintings were prevalent. The paintings, generally drawn in a realistic manner, capture scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people at work or play, and also of the materials they use.

The third section is dedicated to art that allows viewers to peek into daily lives, depicting dull routines to scenes of dating and enthusiastic people enjoying a festival.

Winslow Homer "A Temperance Meeting" (1874), Philadelphia Museum of Art (image courtesy of the NMOK)

Winslow Homer "A Temperance Meeting" (1874), Philadelphia Museum of Art (image courtesy of the NMOK)


[Cosmopolitan America]
In the mid- to late 19th century, Americans turned their attention to artistic traditions in Europe.

“There was a growing tacit agreement that artists cannot achieve success in the world of art without academic experience in Europe,” said Chang in the fourth section. “A majority of the artists left for France to study global trends.”

The section shows that artists returning from Europe began to introduce the Impressionist movement back home.

Mary Cassatt "Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child" (1880), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (image courtesy of the NMOK)

Mary Cassatt "Mother about to Wash Her Sleepy Child" (1880), Los Angeles County Museum of Art (image courtesy of the NMOK)


[Modern America]
The walls in the fifth and sixth sections are enlivened with works characterized by individualism and freedom of each artist. In the early 20th century, the country was undergoing rapid urbanization which inspired artists, in some parts, to transform their visual experience or emotions into concrete art pieces that ended up giving birth to the Realism, Abstractionism, and Cubism movements.

American arts continued to develop after World War II ended in 1945 and took center stage in the world of art, based on the characteristic openness and diversity of America.

Jackson Pollock "No. 22" (1950), Philadelphia Museum of Art (image courtesy of the NMOK)

Jackson Pollock "No. 22" (1950), Philadelphia Museum of Art (image courtesy of the NMOK)


After visiting the special exhibit, if anyone wants to dive deeper into American art, “American Impressionism 1870-1940” at the Hangaram Art Museum is highly recommended.

The works of American Impressionists, highlighted by lighting techniques largely influenced by French style, are on display until March 29.

Visitors who have a ticket to either exhibition can get a discount for the other gallery. “Art Across America” continues till May 19 at the National Museum of Korea.

More information is available at the websites of "Art Across America" and "Transcending Vision: American Impressionism 1870-1940".

By Lee Seung-ah
slee27@korea.kr

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