Friday, January 10th, 5-7pm
American Paintings from the Nancy and Sean Cotton Collection, 1850–1940
This significant collection of American paintings, drawn from a turbulent epoch, presents a fascinating historical snapshot. We have the opportunity to see these works afresh, through a contemporary lens, and experience the benefit of current contexts. If art is a mirror of its time, what do these forty paintings say about the ninety-years between 1850 and 1940? What is portrayed, what unseen?
By 1850, American painting had established itself as distinctive from its old-world roots. To look at these paintings is to see privileged people of primarily European descent. We see traditional genres informed by the European Old Masters, painted with an American idiom: scenic landscapes, domestic scenes, still lifes – traditional themes preferred by collectors.
This group of paintings offers a picturesque view of a complex moment in American history. Largely absent is the presence of working people and people of color: the men, women, and children that powered the expanding American industrial complex. Also, not portrayed, the most tumultuous events of the period: The Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era.
At this decisive learning moment, we must ask: why did some painters wish to ignore such momentous events and the people most impacted by them? As society struggles with these issues so must the 21st century museum.
Thinking about these difficult topics helps us focus our attention on historical accuracy, how we record it, and the manner in which we represent the truth of the constituencies of our own diverse communities that comprise 21st century America.
American Paintings from the Nancy and Sean Cotton Collection, 1850–1940 is organized by the Detroit Institute of Arts and made possible by the Nancy and Sean Cotton Collection. This is one in a series of American art exhibitions created through a multi-year, multi-institutional partnership formed by the Detroit Institute of Arts as part of the Art Bridges + Terra Foundation Initiative. Generous support is provided by the Richard and Jane Manoogian Foundation.