Anyone feeling the need for an island of surcease from the fractious present -- and who doesn't? -- can find it at the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, where, in the ground-floor graphics galleries, four small exhibitions of 19th-century American works on paper have been commodiously arranged.
This selection of shows is an excellent case, in the words of deputy director John Wilmerding, in which "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," for though each has its particular merits, each gains immeasurably by association with the others. The result is a sort of enchanted garden, a view of the North American continent at a time when the sense of amazed discovery of its natural riches was still fresh, and an image of an industrious but not industrial provincial culture whose everyday objects so often were astonishingly beautiful.
Like all golden-era visions, this one is part myth, part reality, and thoroughly appealing. It is just impossible not to be affected by the fabled drama of "The Birds of America" as recorded by John James Audubon (52 of whose large hand-colored engravings are on view); or by the visual chronicle of the country's early arts and crafts as painstakingly compiled by painters working for the Index of American Design, an exemplary Depression-era public works project (85 of 17,000 images were selected for this viewing); or by the homespun lucidity of "American Naive Watercolors and Drawings" (49 rarely seen examples from the gallery's collection of nearly a hundred such pieces); or, finally, by the jewel-like finesse of Thomas Moran's 19 watercolor paintings made after a scientific-artistic expedition to the Yellowstone country in the summer of 1871.
Except for the Moran show, each of the exhibitions was culled from the National Gallery's permanent collection. Their combined presentation was fortuitous. "We had curators working on different tracks at the same time," Wilmerding recalls, "and last spring it just became apparent that we had enough to establish a critical mass."
The Audubon show was a natural because of the coming bicentennial anniversary of his birth. The Index exhibit celebrates the long labors on the part of Lina Steel, who retired as curator of the Index this year, to catalogue this immense holding. The show of naive watercolors resulted from the work of curator Deborah Chotner on this little-known aspect of the Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch collection, the fame of which rests upon its assortment of oil paintings. The Moran materials, loaned by the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Okla., simply "took the idea one step further," Wilmerding says.
Audubon, an early case of an immigrant becoming more American than the Americans, was born in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) in 1785 and raised in France. His life story, from the time, at age 18, he was sent to manage a farm his father had bought near Philadelphia, has become part of the national lore. He was, at first, a restless failure who tried a number of businesses, leading his family to a hard, itinerant life in the process. In truth he preferred hunting and roaming the woods to a stable shopkeeper's existence; his friends were the hunters, trappers, backwoodsmen and boatmen along the wilderness rivers. He did not conceive his great ambition to record America's birds until he was 35, but for 20 years afterward his immense, arduous, solitary travels, interspersed with voyages to England to supervise the publication of the vast work, were intensely focused.
The National Gallery owns one of only two known complete unbound sets of "The Birds of America," which contained, after two decades, 1,065 figures representing 489 different species. The exhibition includes many of Audubon's more striking images. It is hard to pick a favorite, although I must say the image of three blue jays popped out at me from across the room and, upon closer inspection, made me appreciate the spirit of a bird I'd always thought of as unlikable.
It was Audubon's great gift of life to his subjects. He (and his collaborators, who often drew the plants and landscapes) had a tremendous decorative ability -- he would place the birds at dramatic angles on the sheets of paper (called elephant folios because of their large size) -- but it was his intense concentration upon the creatures themselves that makes Audubon's "Birds" such an impressive, ever-popular union of science and art. His best drawings always seem on the very edge of bursting into song.
Containing 17,000 images, the Index is one of those great troves of material that are of inestimable value to all kinds of scholars and specialists but are hard to comprehend as a whole, and impossible to exhibit except in small increments. The present exhibit, arranged geographically, provides an excellent overview of the Index while suggesting the regional complexities of American culture. One will find a little bit of almost everything recorded in these meticulous watercolors, from Boston weather vanes to Pennsylvania crockery to death carts from Colorado and architectural interiors from California.
The Index was one of the lesser-known New Deal art programs, which nonetheless at its height employed more than 1,000 artists. Nancy E. Allyn gives an excellent short account of its history in the pamphlet that accompanies the show. The artists worked according to strict rules governing paper sizes, placement of objects and even style -- the object was, after all, a faithful recording of unique objects. As this selection indicates, many of the painters were able to accomplish this end with no loss in artistic standards.
One of the great virtues of naive painting is its unmediated quality: The creators, whether relying on distant European traditions or not, were uniformly moved to record what they saw in the most direct manner possible, and this unself-conscious methodology often produced images of unusual interest and, sometimes, intensity. The tradition of painting mourning pictures, for instance, as demonstrated in the current selection of watercolors from the Garbisch collection, was the source of elegant and emotionally powerful landscape images. Similarly, plain-spun portraits, such as Joseph E. Davis' 1836 double portrait of John and Abigail Montgomery, provided images of the lives of their subjects that are at once uncomplicated, deeply revealing and touching.
In a special category are the sacred sheets of the Shakers -- devotional drawings that record visions received by sisters in the United Society of Believers. These testaments of faith, sometimes containing unrecognizable symbols and filled with beautifully scripted messages, are very moving. In 1842, for example, Phebe A. Smith, in her vision of "A Fruit-bearing Tree -- A Cedar of Paradise," describes the "easy Chair of Faith" for the times when one is "worn down with burden and care."
Moran is the only artist in these shows who was fully familiar with the great traditions of European art, but his Yellowstone watercolors fit the context beautifully, in part because of their subject. Moran, then 34, attached himself to an 1871 expedition to chart and record the Yellowstone country at a time when interest in its untamed natural wonders was at a high pitch. Reproductions of the sketches he made there, along with the photographs made at the same time by William Henry Jackson, were distributed to members of Congress that winter and were instrumental in the adoption of a bill making Yellowstone our first national park.
But the watercolors are real esthetic treats as well. It was on this expedition that Moran discovered his true artistic vocation, which was to make a visual record of the awesome western terrain in the spirit of European painters such as Claude Lorrain and, especially, J.M.W. Turner. His treatment of this theme eventually became hackneyed, but these early works sparkle with the spirit of his fresh, first impressions of Yellowstone's brilliant light, strong colors and dramatic vistas.
The Audubon engravings will remain on view through April 14, 1985. The other exhibitions will close in January (the naive watercolors on Jan. 13, Moran and the Index watercolors on Jan. 27). Handsome pamphlets, on sale for $3 each, have been provided for each show.