Manifest Destiny

At the corner of Eighth and G streets in the nation's capital lies the Old Patent Office Building, which houses one of the country's better-kept cultural secrets: The Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Smithsonian, a vast government bureaucracy consisting of 17 separate museums, has always been known more as a repository of history than as an art museum, and for a number of reasons. For one, its art holdings have always been overshadowed by the greater glory of the National Gallery. For another, the Smithsonian's art museum has always had something of the look and feel of an archaeological site--and never more so than now, as the Old Patent Office Building lies shrouded in chain-link and scaffolding, closed for much-needed repairs. For the most part, however, the Smithsonian's art-world obscurity is a function of what the collection holds: American art, primarily from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, the period before America came of age as a cultural capital.

But this may all be changing a bit. Not only is the venerable institution getting a much-needed face-lift; in the meantime, its holdings have gone on the road. The collection has been divided up into eight separate shows, and we the people in flyover-land are the beneficiaries of this diaspora. One of these shows, The Gilded Age: Treasures From the Smithsonian American Art Museum, is now on view at the Dallas Museum of Art.

As the title suggests, The Gilded Age features paintings, sculpture and decorative arts from the belle époch, one of America's most interesting and artistically underrated periods. It was the golden age of imperialism, of conquest and development, of wholesale building, plundering and pillaging; the age of the robber baron and the "American Renaissance," when newly minted fortunes tried to outdo Europe. Americans may have believed in Manifest Destiny, in America's role as the city on the hill, that their new society was destined to replace a corrupt and culturally exhausted Old World--but they wanted Europe's artifacts on their walls. Led by figures such as Bernard Berenson, American "squillionaires" went overseas to study and to buy up Europe's cultural heritage.

As The Gilded Age shows, this rage for all things European left American artists of the 19th century in a bit of a quandary. One response was to follow fashion, to indulge the taste for genre scenes from faraway lands, to create exotic confections. The result was pictures such as "Farm Interior: Breton Children Feeding Rabbits," William Henry Lippincott's 1878 picturesque fiction depicting simple peasants, and Frank Duveneck's 1884 "Water Carriers, Venice," with its sturdy, good-natured folk populating ancient sites. By way of contrast, Siddons Mowbray's 1895 "Idle Hours" and Frederick Bridgman's 1884 "Oriental Interior" now seem souvenirs of an impossibly naïve era, period pieces as dated as a Pucci print.

Others went the opposite direction. American artists like Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer set out to create a genuinely American aesthetic, as practical and realistic and romantically contrary as the American spirit itself. This impulse is represented in canvases like Homer's 1894 "High Cliff, Coast of Maine" and Eakins' 1908 nude, "William Rush's Model." Considered daring in their day, both artists look surprisingly modern, especially in comparison with the mannered art nouveau period pieces turned out by Luis Comfort Tiffany and Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Fittingly, the show begins with a canvas by John Singer Sargent, society portraitist extraordinaire, a man who embodied the zeitgeist. His 1893 portrait of Elizabeth Winthrop Chanler presents the wealthy young American woman in black silk and jewels, resting against overstuffed damask pillows. As do all Sargent portraits, it flatters--but oh, so subtly. The painter emphasizes his subject's swanlike neck and graceful arms, but at the same time his sitter's dark eyes, rimmed with dark circles, hint at tribulations. The portrait is at once an essay on privilege and on its limitations.

The show's strength is in portraiture, often by figures better known to specialists than the hoi polloi, even the museum-going classes. One of the highlights is Cecilia Beaux's 1898 portrait of her brother-in-law Henry Sturgis Drinker, a stunningly modern painting of a real period piece of a man. There are plenty of portraits of women as hothouse flowers; studies like Irving R. Wiles' 1896 "Russian Tea" and Thomas Wilmer Dewing's 1897 "A Reading" seem straight out of Edith Wharton.

While some chose to depict lives of privilege, others were, as always, ready to criticize. Albert Pinkham Ryder's moralizing fantasies seem as coarse and heavy-handed as someone standing amid the bacchanalia, wagging his finger. Painters like Frank Benson and Henry Brown Fuller, in turn, retreated into only slightly less angry moralistic fantasies that recall the symbolist work of the pre-Raphaelites and other creators of idyllic, escapist utopias.

As one might expect, this is a traveling sideshow, not a seriously argued or even coherent curatorial effort. There is little or no scholarship afoot, indeed, little effort of any sort beyond the sheer organizational feat of shipping, insuring and mounting goods on the museum wall. For its part, the DMA has appended a "me too" section, which consists mostly of photographs tracing the first glimmerings of Dallas' interest in high culture to the period. The good news: The exhibit is a welcome respite from the museum-as-fashion-victim show. The DMA is, for once, not functioning as a cog in the art world's promotional wheel. Far from being a show about what's happening, this is a show about what's obsolete, presented in straightforward fashion, with a minimum of nostalgia or mythmaking.

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Christine Biederman