Thursday, February 13, 2014

Pictures that tell our history, from coast to coast

Thomas Wentworth, by Joseph Blackburn
I love American pictures. Actually, I love art of all kinds, but when I first became interested in pictures many years ago, this country had an inferiority complex about its own art. Many 19th century American artists went to France or Italy to improve their painting. The prevailing sense in this country was that their work was therefore derivative, even though all artists learn from each other. Major movements like Impressionism and Cubism flourished because one artist borrowed ideas from another.

Last week, when my wife Monique and I visited the San Diego Museum of Art in Balboa Park, we happened to see the American galleries first. I'm always on the lookout for New Hampshire subjects, and by coincidence the second picture I looked at was a portrait from this state. The subject was an open-faced, confident 21-year-old Portsmouth man wearing a new gray suit with silver brocade trim.

The subject was Thomas Wentworth, nephew of the colonial Gov. John Wentworth. The governor, Portsmouth-born (1737-1820) and Harvard-educated (John Adams was a classmate and friend), invested in land on Lake Winnipesaukee and helped found the town of Wolfeboro. Alas, he fled his office in 1775 as the Revolution began and left the country the following year.

His nephew, the subject of the San Diego portrait by Joseph Blackburn, did not survive to see this day. He died in 1768 at the age of 27 or 28. His portrait now hangs between Raphaelle Peale's peaches and William Harnett's unplucked merganser carcass.

Eastman Johnson's "Wounded Drummer Boy"
Nearby is a Civil War picture by Eastman Johnson. Called "The Wounded Drummer Boy," it depicts a boy of perhaps 11 with a bandaged leg sitting on the left shoulder of an infantryman.The soldier carries his rifle on his left shoulder, and the boy is still banging his drum. To me, this is a picture of Union camaraderie and resolve -- a picture distinguished by its historical moment as well as Johnson's compositional and artistic talent.

This is one reason I like American pictures: They are art, but they tell our national story.

Johnson was a Mainer, born in Lovell, brought up in Fryeburg and Augusta. The family had New Hampshire roots, and Johnson apparently lived for a time in our hometown of Concord. He made a European tour during his early 20s, studying paintings in Germany, France and Holland.

Before the Civil War, Johnson painted in the American South. His 1859 masterpiece, "Negro Life in the South," was part of a major Civil War exhibition last year in Washington, D.C., and New York City. During the war Johnson traveled with the Union army and collected genre subjects, including "The Wounded Drummer Boy," which he did not finish until 1871.

Please don't get the idea that these paintings are the best American works Monique and I saw in San Diego or that I am so parochial that I went from one corner of the country to the other looking for home-state connections. (Truth be told, warmth was the chief attraction.) The rich mix in the American galleries includes works by Robert Henri, Diego Rivera, Georgia O'Keeffe and many others.

In the history center, also in Balboa Park, there is a fine gallery of paintings by Maurice Braun, a local artist. Working mainly during the Great Depression, Braun captured the Southwest desert, the coast and the distant mountaintops, which, unlike our mountains, resist summer green and winter white.

It was great to discover Braun -- and to see pictures with a familiar New England flavor. Did I mention that we also saw two beautifully restored Concord coaches?

Maurice Braun's "Mountains and Deserts" (1930s)

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