American Integrity

On Show at Fogg

For those people who have convinced themselves that art is more often frivolous than substantial, the latest exhibit of American art, on display in the Fogg Art Museum second-floor gallery, could force them to re-evaluate those conceptions.

The display surveys American art from 1830 to 1930, a critical period in which our national style took shape in the hands of artists like Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, and George Inness. American art celebrated the dignity of everyday life and everyday people, stripped beauty to its bones, proving that art can be as frugal as the bare New England landscape, as simple as a bowl of oranges on a white table cloth.

Even the most cynical of critics will admit that the American show lacks the pretentious atmosphere of many others. The exhibit of more than forty works from the Fogg's permanent collection pays tribute to simplicity and understatement--it neither confuses nor intimidates the greenest of museumgoers.

The exhibit's three rooms are arranged in rough chronological order, beginning with earlier 19th-century works. Traditional landscapes, by artists such as Inness, sit in heavy, gilt frames that line the walls of the first room. Although serenely beautiful, their muted tones are somewhat uninspiring.

More impressive are the sculptures, especially a white marble bust by Hiram Powers titled "America." This work seems to embody the character of American art and the spirit of the exhibit. The woman Powers sculpts is proud. She stares ahead with calm eyes and quiet strength. Her features are not delicate; her steady gaze demands our respect.

The second room features portraits, including my favorite painting in the show, "The Breakfast Table," by John Singer Sargent. Sargent depicts a young girl reading a book while peeling an orange--one very ordinary moment in one anonymous girl's life. Trivial, yes, but hardly insignificant.

Something about this demure painting makes my eyes linger upon its soft brushstrokes, looking but not knowing exactly what I hope to find. There is something that makes this scene curiously familiar. I slowly realize that this painting is not simply about one girl. It is a beautiful work about hushed moments in the early morning, about indulging in solitude.

The solitude is broken in the final room where the tone abruptly changes. There, bold early 20th-century works dominate. The American artists abandon somber colors for brighter hues in works which are no longer constrained to the traditional landscape and portrait genres.

For instance, Stanislas Poray's still life, "Rhythm," represents Buddha sitting beside an Oriental vase. It is one of the first works to introduce Eastern influences into American art. Two of Georgia O'Keefe's "Squash Blossoms" are also on view, but they lack the power of some of her larger, better-known paintings. Still, the last group of paintings is no disappointment. Works such as Charles Sheeler's oil on board "Oranges," a vibrant still-life of the fruit on a table, attest to the growing sophistication yet enduring honesty of the American art of that period.

The exhibit, on display through May 6, is a unique opportunity. The Fogg's collection is so extensive that many of its master works have never been displayed before, and some of the American paintings shown now might later be stored or lent. Museum-goers who appreciate artistic honesty and integrity should visit the Fogg before these exemplar pieces are whisked away from view.