Thursday, October 28, 2010

Taxing Visions

American portraits of hard times in the Palmer Museum of the Pennsylvania State University.
As America's economic might surged in the last half of the 19th century, culminating in the Gilded Age, a growing class of wealthy industrialists wanted fine art to furnish their grand homes. Elegant portraits, verdant landscapes, and lush still-lifes were popular, and such artists as John Singer Sargent, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Thomas Eakins obliged.

But Americans also suffered hardship during those years, weathering at least four financial panics—in 1857, 1869, 1873 and 1893. Some artists weighed in with works commenting on the recessions and the financial inequities they produced. "Taxing Visions: Financial Episodes in Late Nineteenth-Century American Art," which is on view through Dec. 19 at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University and then travels to the Huntington Library near Pasadena, Calif, showcases that strain of American art.
Fortunately, the exhibition itself is not depressing, for as the catalog notes, artists knew that their paintings could not be too "squalid," or they would not sell. Some, then, put a hopeful gloss on their works, while others injected humor and still others settled for straight reportage.
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4 comments:

Clare said...

'Tattered and Torn,' the 1886 painting by Alfred Kappes evokes the spirit of the widow's mite - if you had a frail elderly relative and had lost your last pfennig you'd search hi and lo to find it to pay for some salve or ointment that promised to return the beloved to a hale and hearty state, no? Perhaps the lady depicted is examining a phail of some such medicinal distillate to see if anything remains within? This is surely the delight to be had from such art - imagining a suitable heroic narrative to be found in the imaginary lives of personages held captive in time and space on the canvas? A dinner salon conversation memento mori perhaps for the well to do Christian merchant class? 'There but for the grace of God go I' is what comes to mind for me as an observer at this time of year:

Ask not for whom the bell tolls... it tolls for thee!

or

Ask not who goes so tattered and torn... it could be thee!

Happy Halloween! Clare Krishan

elena maria vidal said...

Thank you, Clare darling, your insights are always appreciated!

leo said...

Greetings, I am one of the curators of Taxing Visions and I just wanted to chime in to thank you for your thoughtful comments about the exhibition. Leo Mazow

elena maria vidal said...

My pleasure! Thank you for stopping by, Leo!