Winslow Homer: 'A Temperance Meeting'. 1874
Winslow Homer: ‘A Temperance Meeting’. 1874

AMERICA: PAINTING A NATION is the most expansive survey of American painting ever presented in Australia. With over 80 works ranging from 1750 to 1966, this summer blockbuster exhibition examines more than 200 years of American art, history and experience.  The works have come from four major institutions in the USA: the Terra Foundation, Chicago; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; The Museum of Fine Art, Houston; and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. ( The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has lent its major work, Edward Hopper’s ‘ House at dusk ‘ 1935.)

The huge , at times rather overwhelming  ,exhibition , beautifully presented , features works by major artists including Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe, James McNeil Whistler, Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. Most of the works have never been seen in Australia and the Art Gallery of New South Wales is the only Australian venue for this exhibition. The exhibition is part of the Sydney International Art Series, bringing the world’s outstanding exhibitions to Australia. It has been made possible with the support of the NSW Government through Destination NSW.

Over its eight rooms, and quoting from Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson among others where appropriate, the exhibition guides the observer on a course from New England to the Western frontier, from the Grand Canyon to the burlesque theatres of New York, from the aristocratic elegance of colonial society to the gritty realism of the modern metropolis.

One of the very first paintings we see is of No-Tin (Wind), a Chippewa chief 1832–33 by Heny Inman contrasted with the white European style dandy Edward  Shippen  IV By Robert Feke

We also see a glorious landscape by Gifford ‘October in the Catskills’ thrilling, glowing and golden (1880) which has a huge, ornate frame.

Moving along slightly, a stunning ‘Portrait of Misses Mary and Emily McEuen’ by Thomas Sully (1823) is found among rather stilted ,very formal other ones  of the period . This is a fascinating indication of changes in fashion too – look at the incredible detail in the collar of the portrait of the Fields and the very tight curled ringlets in the portrait of Ms Clarissa Cook .

A room called ‘The Nursery of Patriotism ‘ , darkly lit , features huge landscapes .Thomas Moran’s ‘ Grand Canyon’ dominates the room and there are breathtaking pictures of the Hot Springs at Yellowstone and also the Yosemite Valley .

In the room , ‘Chronicles of National Life’, there are ‘genre’ scenes capturing what were already lost traditions of huntsmen et c ( eg Remington’s ‘The Herd Boy ‘, or  Homer’s ‘Huntsman and Dogs’ – which has a fabulous swirling energy and great use of line and composition . ) You can also perhaps  see the precursors of abstract expressionism with the unusual  ‘Rack Picture ‘ by Peto.

The ‘ Gilded Age’ of American painting , with elegant Sargents, luscious luminous Cassatts ,starkly dramatic Whistlers etc is then featured as are some incredible Victorian era still lifes of flowers etc. Also daily life, with travel on the Boston ferry depicted and Hassan’s ‘Rainy Midnight. Late’. Some are photographic realist in style, others far more Impressionist. Chases’ ‘Mother and Child’ is starkly dark and dramatic, in some ways similar to Whistler’s ‘Arrangement in Black’. They are such a contrast to the glorious ‘Tannis’ by Daniel Garber, with the stunning light and trees.

When you enter the next room there is a definite change to Modernism with the development of modern art for modern cities and the development of abstractionism ,Cubism etc .as well as yet more sensational landscapes . Shinn’s ‘Theatre Scene’ reveals a possible Toulouse -Lautrec influence. This room features the major work by Edward Hopper’ House at Dusk’ , as well as looking at the diversity of San Francisco art in the 1920’s. It also features a Georgia O’Keefe ( ‘Red and orange streak ‘) where the colour sings vibrantly.

‘The American Scene’ room challenges the national narrative and we see depictions of slaves and First Peoples. Khun’s ‘Clown With Drum’ is very powerful,( quite ‘Paglicacci ‘ish )and there is O’Keefe’s  sort of almost abstract , quite erotic in a way  lily painting . Jackson Pollock is also included.

In the final room, ‘The sublime is now’, taking us through to  the rise of Abstract Expressionism , I was immediately drawn to the superb Robert Irwin untitled work using light and shadow. There was also the explosive powerful paintwork of Gotlieb’s ‘Penumbra’. There is a fascinating, detailed timeline on the wall of the corridor as you exit and head for the shop.

AMERICA: PAINTING A NATION runs at the Art Gallery of NSW 8 November 2013- 9 February 2014. For further information,- http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/