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Art review: 'American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915' @ LACMA

February 28, 2010 |  9:03 pm

Homer Veteran 
What is an American? Today, as the 20th century -- the so-called "American Century" -- recedes in memory, the question can seem immodest or even grandiose. If we don't know now, after decades  wielding almost unimaginable superpower status around the globe, will we ever?

Still, there's another way to look at it. The question arises anew because of the conflicted place in which the United States finds itself today.

With the national nervous breakdown unleashed by the 9/11 terrorist attacks -- trauma Americans have collectively been unable to resolve -- our identity remains a shambles. The uncertainty had been building for at least 30 years. In the aftermath of Abu Ghraib and AIG, once-settled matters of morality now appear unrecognizable.

A new exhibition of American paintings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art seems prompted by this deep unease. The show turns to history -- to the era when the question of what an American might be was still brand new and very much up for grabs.

"American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915" centers on 19th century art. Lots of first-rate paintings keep company with dreadful Victorian morality plays. George Bellows, Mary Cassatt, John Singleton Copley, Thomas Eakins, Charles Willson Peale and Rembrandt Peale (father and son) and others stand out.

Mostly it regards the evolution of genre paintings, which show men and women at work and leisure, engaged in public and private life. A few portraits also make an appearance. They include Copley's classic 1768 depiction of Paul Revere, silversmith and Revolutionary War hero, in shirtsleeves. His chin is contemplatively held in his right hand, a handsomely crafted silver teapot cradled in his left.

Copley-Paul Revere

The teapot of course nods toward the critical role of tea in the New World's economy. A year before, Britain's Parliament fiddled with the tea tax; results were devastating for colonists. (Witness Revere's grim, shadowed face.) The subsequent Boston Tea Party was an insurrection against a corporate stranglehold on trade, held by the British East India Company working with George III. Copley's brilliant image fuses head and hand as tools for thought, labor and moral action. The portrait describes a person, but it places him in the context of an epic story.

The painting -- as sleek and elegantly crafted as Revere's light-reflective silver -- puts artists in that developing story too. Copley is as much an agent of thought, labor and action as Revere is, and his work speaks to the present as much as to history.

The painting occupies pride of place as the first picture encountered in the show. Across from it is Copley's monumental -- and morally ambiguous -- "Watson and the Shark," showing a notorious British businessman who, in his youth, fell overboard from a merchant marine ship and was nearly eaten by an enormous shark. With the theatrical flourish of Grand Manner style, Copley painted this thrashing melodrama of heroic rescue in London.

"Watson and the Shark" keeps company on the wall with two other pictures: William Sidney Mount's 1845 "Eel Spearing at Setauket," in which an African American woman teaches a young white boy the self-sustaining art of fishing, and Winslow Homer's 1899 "The Gulf Stream," which shows a black man swept away in an ocean-tossed skiff, facing his mortality. Together with the black man standing as  mooring behind the romantic hero in "Watson and the Shark," the trio introduces race as a powerful American story.

Race is of course integral to conflicted identity in a slave-owning nation founded on the self-evident truth that all men are created equal. Mount and Copley compose their scenes within classical, timeless geometry, while Homer goes for baroque dynamism. But their watery locations, perhaps coincidentally, suggest a thoroughly unstable situation.

Mount-Eel Spearing Race, together with class and gender, percolates through the exhibition. Homer's 1865 "The Veteran in a New Field," painted in the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination and the end of the brutal Civil War, is a haunting image of a farmer scything a vast wheat field beneath a bright blue sky, his Union uniform lying on the ground nearby. An anonymous grim reaper, the veteran metaphorically harvests death while simultaneously reaping the bounty of the North's bittersweet victory.

The work is in a smashing line-up of five Homer paintings on one wall, all from the 1860s and '70s, which is almost worth the price of admission. (Admission, by they way, is steep -- an unfortunate $20 premium, which I'd guess is designed to drive visitors to LACMA's membership desk.) Homer's formal power is riveting.

Most works can't match it -- or that of Cassatt, whose squirming children are brought to life with blazing brushwork, or of Eakins, whose naked "Wrestlers" celebrates the human body in the plainspoken skin of a radiant painted surface. True, these (and some other) artists set a very high standard. But the show also includes a sizable array of wincing allegories of virtue -- sometimes unwittingly funny -- which tell us bits of interesting social history via flat-footed painting.

Wrestlers Metropolitan Museum of Art curators H. Barbara Weinberg and Carrie Rebora Barratt organized the show, in association with LACMA consulting curator Bruce Robertson and Margaret C. Conrads at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. It has been trimmed from its fall debut at New York's Met, from more than 100 works to about 80. Despite losing some great paintings, the smaller size helps; the Met show rambled, while LACMA's version is more focused.

It could be more focused still. National identity is a huge topic. The primary difficulty is its old-fashioned "Westward Ho!" framework.

Although not strictly chronological, it generally considers American identity as something that blossomed in the East and unfolded as it moved West. The Spanish province of California is pretty much an afterthought, in 10 added paintings (at the Met it was virtually omitted), as are artists from vast swaths of America. William Aiken Walker's rustic pictures of rural Louisiana, Otto Stark's Midwest family scenes or Alexander Harmer's chronicle of Mexican life in the West, all absent, don't measure up artistically to Homer or Cassatt, but neither do any number of mediocre Eastern artists who are included.

Still, there's a lot to chew on here, plus a good number of flat-out masterpieces. And if it gets us wrestling with distinctive, battered American ideals, more's the better.

-- Christopher Knight

Photos: Winslow Homer, "The Veteran in a New Field" (1865); John Singleton Copley, "Paul Revere," 1768; William Sidney Mount, "Eel Spearing at Setauket" (1845); Thomas Eakins, "Wrestlers" (1899). Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art

"American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915," Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (323) 857-6000, through May 23. Admission: $20. Closed Wednesday. www.lacma.org

Follow Times art critic Christopher Knight at KnightLAT on Twitter.

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