By Joanne Greco Rochman
It has been more than 200 years, yet the United States Constitution is still making news as debates about the interpretation of the “supreme law” of the land rage on. How timely it is for the Yale University Art Gallery to present a series of three exhibitions exploring how Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness has evolved from America’s first settlers, a diverse and determined people, to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. The first of the three-part series is titled: “We the People.”
Are there any words more significant in America than “We the People”? Those three words most appropriately make up the title and essence of the first exhibition of Yale University Art Gallery’s three-part presentation featuring more than 100 works, on view through December 31, 2011. The second installment, Defining the Nation, will be on view January 31 through April 8, 2012; the third and final installment, America Rising, will be on view May 8 through July 8, 2012.
Patricia E. Kane, Friends of American Arts Curator of American Decorative Arts, states, “Our hope is to do more than display the masterpieces of the American collection. We want to present works that span several collections, side by side, allowing the visitor to see the objects in a cultural context.”
By observing American paintings, sculpture, decorative arts, coins and medals, and works on paper, the exhibition illuminates the diverse and evolving American experience from the earliest European colonial settlements of the 17th century to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.
We the People features more than 100 works dating from the time of the first English settlers in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 and explores the cultural blending that took place as European immigrants and enslaved people not only brought their energies and skills to this country, but they brought their cultural heritage with them, which was illuminated in the objects they created here. This is what Yale has on exhibit.
English religious tradition is reflected in works such as John Smibert’s imposing portrait of The Bermuda Group (Dean Berkeley and His Entourage), while the heritage of America’s other cultural communities is preserved in objects including a silver beaker engraved in the Dutch tradition.
As the nation spread out, a distinctive American artistic language emerged. The voices of the colonists, who struggled for independence from the British Empire, were heard and seen in their paintings, prints, and decorative arts. After independence was gained, the bald eagle and female figure of Liberty became national symbols and were used to decorate many domestic objects.
John Sartain’s lithograph of George Bingham’s The County Election (1854), depicts a diverse group of men gathered to vote in an election. The Civil War in 1861 was depicted and commemorated on objects ranging from simple kitchen pitchers to Winslow Homer’s painting of wearied soldiers at rest–revealing the sectional loyalties of their makers.
We the People, the first in the exhibitions ends with the new nation torn apart in the aftermath of the Civil War, as seen in Thomas Eakins’s portrait The Veteran (Portrait of George Reynolds) (1885). Eakins depicts a former student and veteran as a living monument to the war. With a visible scar on his forehead and serious mien, Reynolds conveys both the history and the anxiety of a reunified and healing nation.
The exhibition is free and open to the public. Looking at the objects created by our ancestors, recognizing not only their artistic merit, but their cultural contribution to our country is what makes us “We the People” – diverse and culturally rich.
Yale University Art Gallery
1111 Chapel St (at York St)
New Haven, CT 06520
Hours: Tues to Sat 10am-5pm; Thurs 10am-8pm; Sun 1pm-6pm
Joanne Greco Rochman is the arts editor of The Fairfield County Review, a columnist, critic, feature storywriter and English professor. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Republican-American and Hersam-Acorn Publications.