I am featuring Winterthur all week because it has a week’s worth of amazing things to do. Gardens, of course, being one of the most well known. However, Winterthur is also a Museum and Country Estate. Part of the museum is an art gallery which is today’s feature. On view here, right now, Faces of a New Nation which includes one of the best collections of Early American portrait painting in the U.S. The paintings in this exhibit are on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection. Winterthur explains, the show ranges, “from those created by the first immigrant limners at work on these shores to those of highly professional artists who undertook commission ins the Country’s major cities just before the Civil War.” For the American art history buff, this exhibit is a who’s who of Early American Portrait painting featuring 39 works from famed artists including: Joan Smibert, John Singleton Copley, Gilbert Stuart, Charles Wilson Peale and Samuel F. B. Morse. Faces of a New Nation is currently on display at the Winterthur galleries until January 24th, 2010.
For those who are not American Art History Buffs, here is a small primer. This 150 year time span covering these paintings gives us an extraordinary look into our history and culture of the era that built this Nation. Early American portraits from the 1600’s were mostly known for their “Folk Art” nature. The artisans of this era generally had little formal training and were working learning from memory or prints of pictures from Europe. Although these works may seem stark in their strength and delineations of space, they are incredible in style, color and iconographic portrait style. As time went on we came into our own in the art of portrait painting and this exhibit illustrates some of the best examples from that time frame.
Having taken some classes in American Art History over the years I immediately knew this was a show of shows. Also, what many of you may not know is that I also am a portrait painter and always up to enjoy a great exhibit of paintings. To walk these walls and look at the various techniques and coloring was a highlight indeed! Of the works these are just some of my top pics.
In 1842, Boston born portraitist, George P. A. Healy, painted this commissioned portrait of Euphemia White Van Rensselaer. Euphemia was a recent New York heiress on vacation in Paris when she sat for Healy. What makes this portrait amazing is the subtle handling and luminous quality of the paint. The grays within the entire paint structure provide a soft daylight that glows of the canvas beneath. Her eyes and hair are warmed by brown tones that perfectly offset the orange-rose glow of the cheeks and lips. The Yellow bonnet is strong and textural. The outer side mimics a buttery yellow silk, while the inside which frames her face is bold golden yellow. The hat, features both a delicate flower lace head wrap under the bonnet and a dramatic plume of feathers off the top of the bonnet.
Although, the overall black look of her dress seems Puritan in its styling, the bonnet and the lovely viridian green ribbon that accompanies Euphemia’s black shawl are bold and exciting and quite cosmopolitan. She looks us straight in the eye with a demure and honest glance. Healy began this canvas with a wispy hint of the sky and landscape and then built up heavier brush strokes and paint layers to create the 3-dimensionality of Miss White Van Rensselaer before delicately blending the facial areas to give a porcelain focal point to the entire piece. The draftsmanship alone was worth every hour of drive up here.
Another great work is by our well known Gilbert Stuart, known mostly for his paintings of George Washington. This particular work was created in 1795. Stuart works Washington’s face predominantly with pinks and whites with grey and bluish mid-tones for the transitional areas, (where the plane of the facial area changes direction). He too uses a wispy cursory approach to laying down the background and hair, while the face is more detailed with layers of paint. The shadow-work under Washington’s chin is what makes him real and appear to sit in the space. It would be fascinating to line up all 18 works of Washington and see the progression in style and paint handling over time.
This painting of Susan Walker Morse, by her father Samuel F.B. Morse is a compositional stunner. Here Susan sits with a large drawing pad and pencil considering what draw. Her incredible yellow-ochre taffeta gown is topped with a delicately patterned linen lace and belted by a wide patterned silk belt with a bold black buckle. The sleeves are fantastic and the Vermillion colored chaise lounge is pictured here as though on a terrace in Europe overlooking the countryside at sunset.. Things I love about this work include the overall composition, color and lovely handling of the reddish-brown hair, complete with a detailed curl at the nape of her neck. The fringe of the chaise lounge and the lovely soft handing of the paper drawing pad are my highlights. Also just to her right is a ribbon with a hanger top. I wonder if the art pad was hung vertically by the ribbon being slipped between the pages? I am sure an expert would know.
Lastly there is this wonderful portrait of by Rembrant Peale from 1826 of his children Michael Angelo and Emma Clara, who were the youngest of nine. The faces of these two warmly glow as if from candle light against the cooler toned blueish and green background. Peale was an American Neoclassicist and avid student of the European masters. He brought many of their varying techniques into his own painting process. Peale liked to work with a realistic style and with trompe-l’oeil which often made his works have a familiarity that seems almost photographic in some areas and yet painterly in others. This combined with his use of black as a graphically delineating element make this work stark within the transitional areas between the well lit and porcelain faces and the darker edges of the hair and skin. The turning of the heads gives the viewer a comfortable glance inside the world of the two sitters simply sitting for a portrait in the familiarity of the their father’s studio. Rembrandt Peals was the son of the famous painter Charles Wilson Peale. His wife Harriet Cany Peale was also a painter.
If you head to Winterthur after the gardens have gone for the season there is still plenty to do! The Art Gallery at Winterthur is home to exhibitions throughout the year. The next amazing exhibit on tap is right up our alley: the Lost Garden’s of the Brandywine Valley. It’s on view from March 27th- July 26th, 2010 and includes, Winterthur states, “rare early color images and garden ornaments, (that), explore the private, historic gardens of the Brandywine Valley-hidden gems of fleeting beauty, many of which have been lost to time.” This looks like an upcoming feature for this Bee! For more information on the exhibitions at Winterthur visit www.winterthur.org
As for me, I am about to make a nice hot cup of Harrod’s London Earl Grey tea and plan my next garden visit. As for the Photo Garden Bee, were spending tomorrow looking at the amazing gardens at Winterthur! They are lovely and worth an arm chair visit and a real one as soon as the flowers come back!
Britt : )