Narrative Works by 19th-Century American Artists Shaping Young Nation’s Identity at Frist Center

"Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art" February 27–June 7, 2015

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (Jan. 8, 2015)—The Frist Center for the Visual Arts presents Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art from February 27–June 7, 2015, in the Center’s Upper-Level Galleries. The exhibition features paintings and sculptures that recount stories relating to American cultural aspirations and everyday life throughout the 19th century. Narrative landscapes by Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand of the Hudson River School, genre scenes by William Sidney Mount and Francis W. Edmonds and sculptures by John Rogers are among the highlights of the exhibition. 

Assembled from the collection of the New-York Historical Society, Telling Tales integrates genre, historical, literary and religious subjects—through styles ranging from Neoclassicism to Realism—to paint a vivid portrait of American art and life during the country’s most formative century. The exhibition is organized into six sections: “American History Painting,” “English Literature and History,” “Importing the Grand Manner,” “Genre Paintings,” “Economic, Social, and Religious Division” and “Picturing the Outsider.” Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala says, “The works in Telling Tales show a culture in the process of defining its ideals and values. They offer an overview of the complex tastes, aspirations, and internal contradictions that marked the first full century of this new democracy.” 

In Europe, historical events and figures were considered the most important subjects in art. This tradition influenced American artists who sought to shape the nation’s sense of shared knowledge, pride and identity by painting leading historical figures and momentous events. Telling Tales begins with the section “American History Painting.”  In Rembrandt Peale’s George Washington (1853), the artist aimed to capture a perfect likeness of the person who most exemplified American ideals. The exhibition continues with works that imaginatively reconstruct stories relating to America’s settlement, expansion and conflicts.

America’s language and culture were deeply rooted in English tradition, which is reflected in the second section of the exhibition. “English Literature and History” showcases works inspired by British aristocracy and popular writers, including Shakespeare, who was particularly admired in America. The subjects of many British dramas related subtly to contemporary issues in America, such as political and religious strife and slavery. A related section, “Importing the Grand Manner,” includes works created in the high styles of European art: the Baroque, the Neoclassical, and the Romantic. Believing that American taste was in need of elevation, many artists went to Europe to study the Old Masters and attend art academies where they could learn how to best convey themes of history, mythology and religion.

While some American artists studied abroad with the intention of bringing European refinement to their own country, there was a growing resistance to European elitism in America. Mr. Scala notes, “For such artists, this infatuation with European culture reinforced elitist attitudes about connoisseurship and class; it was out of step with the needs and interests of an egalitarian society.” The artists reinforced what they felt was a distinctly American identity, expressed through both the everyday subject matter and a style that was simple and direct.

Works in the section “Genre Paintings” focus on the lives of ordinary people, often living in rural settings. With a straightforward realism, the paintings convey the importance of farm work, family, faith and commerce. Artists often employed the use of stock characters, such as devout parents, politically engaged yeomen, roaming peddlers and slick Yankee traders. For example, William Sidney Mount’s Bargaining for a Horse (1835), in which two men are shown as they shrewdly negotiate the sale of a horse, was described by a contemporary reviewer as “an image of pure Yankeeism.” These genre paintings were more than simply slices of everyday life. As Mr. Scala explains, “While they appear to be charmingly uncomplicated, genre paintings often contained symbolic messages about topical matters of politics, religion and economics. These meanings would have been readily understood by the 19th century viewer but may be difficult for us to perceive if we do not know the political and historical backdrop.”

Throughout the 19th century, large numbers of people seeking work moved from rural areas and other countries into large manufacturing centers like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Art included in the section “Economic, Social, and Religious Division” reveals a growing awareness of the difficulties encountered by this expanding population of working-class and poor people.

Paintings and sculptures in the final section of the exhibition, “Picturing the Outsider,” hint at the even harsher realities faced by the most marginalized minorities, Native Americans and African Americans. John Rogers’ bronze sculpture The Fugitive’s Story (1869) reverently memorializes three prominent abolitionists with respect to their struggle to help slaves gain their freedom. Others were more ambiguous in their portrayal of race in America. Eastman Johnson’s Negro Life at the South (1859) shows slaves living in decrepit conditions but enjoying their leisure time, perhaps reinforcing the belief among slaveholders and other racist audiences that the treatment of slaves was fairly benign. “Such works tell how a culture’s perceptions—and misperceptions—are reinforced by art,” says Mr. Scala, “reminding us that as we explore our artistic heritage, it is important to take our ancestors’ biases and cultural blinders into account. It will likely be the same for us when our descendants look back on the 21st century.”

Exhibition Credit

Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art is adapted from Making American Taste: Narrative Art for a New Democracy, organized by the New-York Historical Society.

The exhibition was organized and the accompanying volume published with generous support from Michael Reslan, the National Endowment for the Arts through the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act, the Walter and Lucille Rubin Foundation, Richard Gilder and Lois Chiles, the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, the New York Community Trust Joanne Witty and Eugene Keilin Fund, Larry K. Clark, and the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation.

Sponsor Acknowledgment

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts gratefully acknowledges our Picasso Circle Members as Exhibition Patrons.

The Frist Center for the Visual Arts is supported in part by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Public Programs

Friday, February 27   
Lecture: “Telling Tales or Telling Truth: How Artists Created America” Presented by Bailey Van Hook, Ph.D., professor of art history, School of Visual Arts, Virginia Tech
6:30 p.m.      
Frist Center Auditorium   
Gallery admission required; members free     
Seating is first come, first seated

The exhibition Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art assembles paintings and sculptures that recount stories relating to American cultural tastes, aspirations, and, at times, contradictions that marked the first full century of the new democracy. These works offer insight into the way in which the ideals and attitudes of early America began to take hold, and how, through art, they were transmitted and perpetuated across the country. This lecture will look at how artists drew inspiration from classical sources to explore contemporary issues of the 19th century. Learn more about this lecture at fristcenter.org.

Saturday, March 7   
Workshop: “American Vignettes: Responding to Art and Rendering Moment”
1:00–5:00 p.m.      
Frist Center’s Rechter Room
$15 members; $25 non-members. Advance registration is required; call 615.744.3355 to register.

Local writer and teacher Kyle Martindale will give a writing workshop exploring the craft of the written vignette, while drawing inspiration from the visual vignettes found in the Frist Center exhibition Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art. Participants will use exhibition artworks as a guide to compose original vignettes and develop tools to strengthen their prose in any genre. Participants age 18 and over and of all levels of writing skills are welcome.

Friday, March 20    
Telling Tales Film Series: “Our Hero: Daniel Day-Lewis and American History on Film” Film: The Last of the Mohicans
7:00 p.m.     
Frist Center Auditorium     
Gallery admission required; members free

About the series: The exhibition Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art explores how 19th-century Americans represented themselves. This film series looks at how directors choose to represent some of those same archetypes—by casting Daniel Day-Lewis in the leading role. The Irish actor has played some of the most charismatic historical personages, both fictional and real, in contemporary cinema. Join us for a salute to our favorite face of American history on film. Each film in the series will include prescreening fun; look for announcements on the Frist Center website at fristcenter.org. Mark your calendars for the next two installments in the series: Friday, April 17, and Friday, May 15. Wine, beer, and a full menu are available in the Frist Center Café and can be enjoyed during each screening.

About the film: A sweeping, romantic epic set against the backdrop of the French and Indian War, this film features Daniel Day-Lewis in the role of Nathaniel Hawkeye, a white man adopted by the Mohican tribe. Driven to protect both his family and the woman he loves, Hawkeye must negotiate through a land torn apart by the conflict between British, French, and Native American forces. Directed by Michael Mann. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe, and Russell Means. Rated R. 114 minutes. 1992. DVD.

Friday, April 17    
Telling Tales Film Series: “Our Hero: Daniel Day-Lewis and American History on Film” Film: Lincoln
7:00 p.m.      
Frist Center Auditorium   
Gallery admission required; members free
Seating is first come, first seated

The exhibition Telling Tales explores how 19h-century Americans represented themselves. This film series looks at how movie directors choose to represent archetypal heroes and villains from American history and literature—by casting Daniel Day-Lewis in leading roles. The Irish actor, famous for living in character during lengthy shoots, has played some of the most charismatic historical personages, both fictional and real, in contemporary cinema. Join us for a salute to our favorite face of American history on film. Each film in the series will include prescreening fun; look for announcements on the Frist Center website.

About the film: Set in 1865, during the final days of the American Civil War, this film features Daniel Day-Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln, depicting his fight to achieve passage of the landmark constitutional amendment that will forever ban slavery in the United States. As the nation confronts the prospect of reunification, Lincoln faces his own crisis: either to end slavery or end the war. Nominated for twelve Oscars, the film garnered Day-Lewis his third Academy Award for Best Actor. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Fields, and Tommy Lee Jones. Rated PG-13. 150 minutes. 2012. DVD.

See fristcenter.org for more information on this exciting film series. Wine, beer, and a full menu are available in the Frist Center Café and can be enjoyed during each screening.

Friday, May 8*    
ARTini: Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art
7:00 p.m.    
Presented by Ginny Soenksen, assistant curator of interpretation, Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Meet at exhibition entrance
Gallery admission required; members free

Are you curious about art? Do you want to learn more about the content and concepts behind an artist’s work? If you answered yes to either of those questions, then the ARTini program is for you! ARTinis are designed for everyone—from the novice to the connoisseur—and include informal and insightful conversations that offer a deeper understanding of one or two works of art in an exhibition.

Join Frist Center Assistant Curator of Interpretation Ginny Soenksen as she explores some of the tales told by the works of American art in this exhibition.

*This program will also be offered on Tuesday, May 12 at noon.

Thursday, May 14    
Curator’s Tour: Telling Tales: Stories and Legends in 19th-Century American Art Presented by Mark Scala, chief curator, Frist Center for the Visual Arts
Noon      
Meet at exhibition entrance   
Gallery admission required; members free

Assembling paintings and sculptures from the collection of the New-York Historical Society, Telling Tales explores how nineteenth-century American works of art expressed the young country’s aspirations through narrative. This exhibition features influential American artists such as Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and John Rogers. Join Frist Center Chief Curator Mark Scala for a tour of this exhibition and a look at the artwork that helped shape America.

Friday, May 15    
Telling Tales Film Series: “Our Hero: Daniel Day-Lewis and American History on Film” Film: Gangs of New York
7:00 p.m.      
Frist Center Auditorium    
Gallery admission required; members free
Seating is first come, first seated

The exhibition Telling Tales explores how 19th-century Americans represented themselves. This film series looks at how movie directors choose to represent archetypal heroes and villains from American history and literature—by casting Daniel Day-Lewis in leading roles. The Irish actor, famous for living in character during lengthy shoots, has played some of the most charismatic historical personages, both fictional and real, in contemporary cinema. Join us for a salute to our favorite face of American history on film. Each film in the series will include prescreening fun; look for announcements on the Frist Center website.

About the film: In 1862, America was born in the streets. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, an Irish immigrant seeking vengeance against the psychotic nativist kingpin Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. With the help of a beautiful pickpocket and an army of colorful allies, Vallon fights his way to power in New York City during the era of corrupt Tammany Hall political bosses and seething race and class conflicts. Featuring a powerhouse of actors, including Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill, the film was nominated for ten Academy Awards. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cameron Diaz.

See fristcenter.org for more information on this exciting film series. Wine, beer, and a full menu are available in the Frist Center Café and can be enjoyed during each screening.

CONTACT:
Buddy Kite:  615.744.3351, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
Ellen Jones Pryor: 615.243.1311, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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About the Frist Center
Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit art exhibition center dedicated to presenting and originating high-quality exhibitions with related educational programs and community outreach activities. Located at 919 Broadway in downtown Nashville, Tenn., the Frist Center offers the finest visual art from local, regional, national, and international sources in a program of changing exhibitions that inspire people through art to look at their world in new ways. The Frist Center’s Martin ArtQuest Gallery features interactive stations relating to Frist Center exhibitions. Information on accessibility may be found at fristcenter.org/accessibility. Gallery admission is free for visitors 18 and younger and to members; $12 for adults; $9 for seniors and college students with ID; $7 for active military. College students are admitted free Thursday and Friday evenings (with the exception of Frist Fridays), 5:00–9:00 p.m. Discounts are offered for groups of 10 or more with advance reservation by calling 615.744.3247. The galleries, Café, and Gift Shop are open seven days a week: Mondays through Wednesdays, and Saturdays, 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.; Thursdays and Fridays, 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.; and Sundays, 1:00–5:30 p.m., with the Café opening at noon. Additional information is available by calling 615.244.3340 or by visiting fristcenter.org.

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