In this current climate of fractured national identity, it’s good to be reminded of the things we as Americans are supposed to have in common.
And as a new exhibition at M.S. Rau Antiques in the French Quarter illustrates, art — or more precisely, a particular kind of portrait and landscape painting — has always been an integral part of America’s understanding of itself.
“From Sea to Shining Sea” includes nearly 100 paintings and a handful of other objects covering the period from the Colonial era to the early 20th century.
It’s likely one the best collections of historical art on view in New Orleans in recent memory in which everything is for sale. (You’ll have to inquire for specific prices on many of them, though the shop’s website lists some prices, beginning in the high five-figure range and working their way up.)
Not everything is a masterpiece. But there are a few works that approach top-tier status, and to have them on view in a handsomely produced, free exhibition in a busy stretch of Royal Street in the French Quarter feels like a particular coup for casual visitors and deep-pocketed collectors alike.
The star of the show is a portrait of George Washington, attributed to Gilbert Stuart, which Rau calls “perhaps the most recognizable American painting ever made.” Famously, Washington was adjusting to a new set of dentures when he first sat for Stuart in 1796, which accounts for his slightly swollen lips and somewhat pinched expression.
In addition to his artistic skills Stuart was a canny businessman, and his portraits of Washington were his cash cow: He was known to have made more than 100 copies of it over the course of his career. The version in the Rau show was made around 1815, 15 years after Washington’s death, and to modern eyes its loose, almost Impressionistic brushwork paradoxically conveys a more lifelike impression of the sitter than the more “finished” versions most viewers have seen via steel engravings and schoolroom reproductions. (It could be hanging in your own schoolroom, or wherever you choose to display it, for just under a half-million dollars.)
Visitors will encounter another familiar likeness in an 1865 portrait of Abraham Lincoln by David Bustill Bowser, one of the very few African-American artists of the period to achieve renown. Based on the famous photograph of Lincoln that was later used as the basis for his portrait on the five-dollar bill, there’s an appreciable tenderness to the portrait that is missing from the more familiar versions.
It’s also notable for being one of the relative few portraits of Lincoln painted during his lifetime, even fewer of which were painted by African American artists.
Benjamin West’s “A Mighty Angel Standeth” is another standout piece in the show, a brightly colored and almost electric image of a divine personage bursting forth from a riot of clouds and rainbows. Along with Thomas Cole’s study for a painting in his “Voyage of Life” series — which comprise Cole’s best known body of work, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. — West’s piece shows how the first half-century of American art was marked by a strain of the mystical and transcendent.
Also look for a small oil sketch by Frederic Edwin Church, the leading American landscape painter of the mid-19th century. It’s a view of Chimborazo, a mountain in Ecuador that was the subject of one of Church’s most impressive canvases https://www.huntington.org/chimborazo. The diminutive size of the study in the Rau show, however, makes it a more intimate counterpart to its 8-foot-long final version: more of a picture postcard than a Cinemascope extravaganza.
The back half of the show features works by American impressionists and early modernists like Winslow Homer, Childe Hassam and Mary Cassatt: mostly pleasant pastoral and urban landscapes with a smattering of portraits and still lives that, while attractive, don’t make as much of an impact as the earlier works do.
Viewed as a whole, however, “Sea to Shining Sea” is an impressive collection, and one that M.S. Rau owner Bill Rau hopes will inspire viewers to a higher purpose.
“During a time when our country appears divided, we want to celebrate our finest historic moments as a nation,” said Rau in a statement accompanying the show. “The War for Independence, westward expansion, the rise of the modern age — these important times, when viewed through the canvases of America's greatest artists, remind us that as a nation we have and will continue to persevere.”
“Sea to Shining Sea: 200 Years of American Art”
WHEN: Through June 8
WHERE: M.S. Rau Antiques, 630 Royal St.t
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