It’s interesting to me I have now been to enough museums that I can often look at a painting and know where it belongs—or at least where it’s usually hanging. The current exhibit American American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915 gave me a number of opportunities to show off my memory.
There’s The Artist in His Museum by Charles Willson Peale (usually in Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts), Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley (usually in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), Not at Home by Eastman Johnson (usually in the Brooklyn Museum), The Contest for the Bouquet by Seymour Joseph Guy (usually in the Met’s visible storage) and In the Luxembourg Gardens by John Singer Sargent (usually in the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
This is a show about genre paintings, and most genre paintings have some sort of story to tell. In my opinion, the best pictures are the ones that have stories of to tell (or at least a mood or idea to convey), so you may understand that this is one of my favorite exhibits from recent memory. In giving title to the exhibit, it’s notable the fact that these paintings have stories is even given precedence over even the fact that they are paintings.
A few of these paintings somehow look reinvigorated in their new, if only temporary, environment. All things considered, to me anyway, there is no painting quite like The Artist in His Museum, and somehow it looked even better placed in the galleries at the Met than it does at home at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There may be two reasons for this, the first being that the painting is centrally placed in the Met Exhibit so that Peale is almost pulling the curtain back to open the exhibit. The second reason is very much related. As far as American Museums go, the Met is the largest repository of Art collected. Peale as an artist, scientist and collector opened the door—or curtain as it may be, to where we are now.
On the first visit (I’ve been there twice so far) to the galleries, the time was dangerously close to closing, so I felt the need to go quickly past the paintings I was familiar with. Had I more time, I may have spent a disproportionate amount on the old favorites and not gotten to know some new friends as well as I did. Among them is Bargaining for a Horse by William Sidney Mount. Here we see two farmers debating the merits and value of a horse being traded. At first glance we may only see a scene that’s out of place in our world not so interesting to modern eyes. We may no longer see scenes like this often, but the actions and warnings are still quite relevant. The farmer on the right has been seduced by the pursuit of profit, and while he may not be involved in a banking scandal, he has let his barn deteriorate and he ignores his wife (in the background). Though I don’t think it’s much of a problem in modern America, or particularly in Washington, here Mount is reminding his viewers that this Yankee may be too shrewd for his own good.
Though we may not always be consciously aware of them, we all have faults and weaknesses. My fault is not purchasing fancy new clothing (although it may be not purchasing it) , but lest we assume the only fault in The New Bonnet by Francis William Edwards lies with the woman holding the hat, we can look over to her parents who seem more interested in the bill. Above the gentleman we soon notice a wine glass and behind the woman we see a mirror. Vanity, gluttony, worldliness—here we see imperfect people and an imperfect family (one in the scene however may naively believe consumption can lead to perfection). The dog knows it smells suspicious. It makes you wonder how else we might have come to know the family in Contest for the Bouquet. Guy may have been as good a public relations man as a painter! The show is at the Met through January 24, 2010.