Starting next Sunday, Washingtonians will get a chance to see the most expensive American painting ever -- Frederic Church's panoramic oil "The Icebergs," which brought a record-breaking $2.5 million at auction last October. The Church painting will no doubt be the star attraction in the National Gallery's "American Light: The Luminist Movement (1850-1875)," an examination of the culminating phase of the Hudson River school of landscape painting that will be on view Feb. 10 through June 15.
But the show is only one of a trio of upcoming exhibitions which may change our perceptions of pre-20th-century American art. Taking up where the Luminists leave off, "The American Renaissance, 1876-1917," an exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum, will be seen at the National Collection of Fine Arts from Feb. 22 through April 20. Meanwhile, the National Gallery is also mounting its first show of decorative arts -- "In Praise of America: 1650-1830," presenting 77 examples of American furniture and decorative arts that will run from Feb. 17 through July 6. The show's title -- "In Praise of America" -- could well serve as a general description for this three-part festival marking the recent phenomenal revial of interest in 19th-century American art.
The appearance of Church's "The Icebergs" in the NGA's first 19th-century American show in a decade serves as a reminder of what has happened to American art in this century. Oddly enough, Church has broken purchase price records before: in 1859 his "Heart of the Andes" sold for $10,000, then the highest price ever paid to a living American artist. In between the record-shattering sales, however, Church and most of his contemporaries were largely ignored by American museums and collectors who insisted that there was no truly original American art before mid-20th-century Abstract Expressionism.
But in the mid-'60s a new generation of art historians in search of fresh ideas began to look again at the field of American art. "Until Pop Art and the revival of interest in realism there was no climate of taste that made rediscovery possible," says National Gallery curator John Wilmerding, who organized the Luminist show. "And yet some of us would argue that these are among the finest paintings American art has produced, both in their technical ingenuity and breathtaking sense of praise and celebration of the American wilderness."
As American lost her innocence after the Civil War, the sense of optimism and the glory of nature implicit in these grandiose landscapes gave way to a more pessimistic and apocalyptic vision -- reflected in the turbulent storms and fiery sunsets of late Luminist work -- and eventually Church and his contemporaries faded into obscurity. The NGA show is, Wilmerding says, an attempt to "reevaluate the field" by showing that Luminism "was not just a murky sidestream of American art." Luminism's "sublime beauty that has meaning and power and content" makes clear, Wilmerding adds, that "America was capable of producing something impressive over a century ago."
The indigenous American vision of the Luminists was followed by the period detailed in the NCFA show, called the "American Renaissance" because it was a time in which Americans saw themselves, partly in response to the country's expanding role in world affairs, as the spiritual heirs of the European Renaissance, particularly that of Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. The art of the day -- architecture, sculpture and design, as well as painting -- was created to rediscover and reinterpret the European past in order to produce a new American heritage. Included in the NCFA exhibit are more than 300 works from the period, including architectural models, plans, drawings, photographs, paintings, murals, sculpture, glass, book-binding, jewelry, furniture, fabrics and wallpaper.
Furniture and decorative arts will also highlight the smallest of the three American art shows, the exhibit of the finest examples of American design and craftsmanship from the country's first 200 years. "In Praise of America: 1650-1830" will be installed chronologically in the upper-level galleries of the National Gallery's East Building and will include highboys, chairs, sofas, chests, sideboards, desks, mirrors, clocks and works in glass, silver, brass, copper and iron made in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston and New Orleans.
Taken together, these three exhibits forecast a bright future for the state of American art scholarship. As John Wilmerding observes, "It opens up what still needs to be done; there's a lot of aesthetic pleasure to be had in the future." CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 4, Paintings from the National Gallery's "American Light: The Luminist Movement (1850-1875)": "The Icebergs" by Frederic E. Church, painted in 1861 and recently sold for a record $2.5 million; Fitz Hugh Lane's "Ships and Approaching Storm Off Owl's Heade, Maine"; "Sunset, Camel's Hump, Vermont" by John Frederick Kensett; Kensetts's "Beacon at Newport." Pictures 5 through 7, American Renaissance architecture at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893; a study for the Library of Congress Building, designed in 1885 by the firm of Smithmeyer and Peltz; Elihu Vedder's "Rome" or "The Art Idea," 1894.; Picture 8, Abbot Handerson Thayer's oil painting "The Stevenson Memorial" (1903), from the NCFA's "The American Renaissance." Thayer's well-known figures of the period suggest the highly refined Venetian paintings of the Italian Renaissance.; Picture 9, a chest over drawers (1695-1720) from Hadley, Mass., at the NGA's "In Praise of America."; Pictures 10 and 11, Two pieces from "In Praise of America": a red earthenware plate made in Montgomery County, Pa., in 1787, probably by George Hubener; a 17th-century armchair, or great chair, probably from Boston and made of oak and soft maple.; Picture 12, in "The American Renaissance," artists such as Albert Herter, who produced furniture and tapestries, also painted works such as "Woman With Red Hair" suggesting the 15th century through pose and decorative devices.