This could be a magnificent bit of academic “over reading,” and it’s perfectly plausible. But one wants at least one more data point — a letter, a journal entry, a contemporary account — that suggests perhaps someone read the painting that way. But Perry doesn’t offer anything else, no justifying footnote, just the observation that the Dred Scott decision, which reinforced slavery and divided the nation, came down the same year as the painting.
There are also several cases in which Perry simply sees a different image than most people will agree on. In the catalogue, she says that Winslow Homer’s 1871 “Old Mill (The Morning Bell)” represents a female factory worker “commanded by a tolling” that exemplifies “the despotism of the new” industrial order. In fact, the bell is rather small, the scene quiet and the women represented in the distinctly bucolic landscape under no visible duress at all. In Albert Bierstadt’s “The Last of the Buffalo” (from about 1888), Perry describes a “desolate and windswept valley,” where Indians do battle with the last of the great species that once swarmed the continent. But, in fact, it is a rather green and pleasant valley, and if it is windswept, the winds haven’t dispelled what appear to be mists rising off the valley walls. Curiously, a verdant valley is essential to Perry’s basic analysis of the painting, which suggests that with the demise of both Indian and buffalo, the United States was a paradise awaiting the White Man.
Finally, there is an annoying tendency to use trendy-sounding verbiage as a substitute for clear thinking, a mix of sexy populism and academic obscurantism. One “chapter” of the exhibition is devoted to “Democratic Time,” the regulated, industrious and industrial sense of time that is determined by clocks, factory whistles and old adages such as “time is money.” But is there anything innately democratic about it? Spend a day in Beijing. In discussing a painting by the African American artist Robert Duncanson, Perry writes: “In claiming his right to participate in the nation’s most elevated endeavors, the intrepid artist had invented himself.” That’s okay for PBS and Ken Burns, but it’s an empty metaphor and doesn’t belong in a serious essay.
In an introduction to the exhibition, the museum’s director, Betsy Broun, says that the reader’s mind may reel as he “tries to discern some linear thread in the tangle of astounding details and rich amazement of the story.” This is, she argues, a virtue of the unfortunate hodgepodge and disconnected show. It isn’t. “The Great American Hall of Wonders” needs both an editor and a thesis, and it must be accounted a missed opportunity.
“The Great American Hall of Wonders” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Jan. 8. Admission is free. For more information, visit americanart.si.edu.