By Mindy Besaw, Curator of American Art
During the chilly early months of 2018, when museum attendance slows after the holidays, our first two galleries—the Colonial to Early Nineteenth-Century Gallery and the Late Nineteenth-Century Gallery—will be closed. For the first time since the museum opened in 2011, Crystal Bridges is renovating and reinstalling the early American galleries. Far more than just a fresh coat of paint, the installation will include new conversations between artworks, updated interpretation, and loaned objects from other institutions.
The re-imagined installation will provide opportunities for guests to engage with the permanent collection in fresh and invigorating ways. Multiple voices and perspectives, along with the inclusion of unexpected objects and immersive experiences, will highlight the complexity of our nation’s art and history, view historical art as relevant today, and create personal connections between past and present. The re-installation includes loans from other institutions of objects that are not part of Crystal Bridges’ collection, such as historical Native American art, folk art, furniture, and art from other regions and time periods. These have been carefully selected to expand upon the permanent collection and enable us to tell textured stories about the first centuries of US history.
A Sneak Peek
Upon entering the galleries off the main lobby, guests will first encounter Nari Ward’s We the People, a 28-foot-long installation of the first three words of the preamble to the US Constitution, constructed of shoelaces. This work was on view in the 1940s to Now Gallery for months, but was always intended to be the introductory artwork for the new installation of the earlier galleries. In its new home, We the People will be in conversation with some of “the people”—in the form of portraits spanning colonial times to today, which will be installed on the opposite wall. The thought-provoking installation will not only highlight variety within the Crystal Bridges collection, but prompt dialogue about the complexity of the American experience viewed through art.
Following this introductory gallery, the reinstallation will be organized chronologically into three eras, collectively spanning from first contact through World War I. Within each era, the artworks will be grouped in themes, each anchored around one painting that introduces the main idea.
Networking and Social Status
The first era represented, covering the 1600s to 1849, will explore the formation of the visual identity of our nation and American art through the lens of artistic, social, and political networks. Gilbert Stuart’s George Washington, for example, reveals the political and social networks between the subject,Washington himself; Alexander Hamilton, who owned the painting; and Stuart, the artist. These men were part of the “in crowd,” of early America. Yet this area will also address social and class hierarchies inherent in some of the artworks. For example, Francis Guy’s Winter Scene in Brooklyn provides a very different snapshot of the social structure of the time than the portraits of upper-class Americans do.
Mobility: Upward and Outward
The second era represented, 1843-1883, explores the impact of mobility on the nation. In this era, Americans took advantage of opportunities for social mobility through education and reconstruction, and increased their geographic mobility as the country expanded its boundaries west. Richard Caton Woodville’s War News from Mexico is a mid-nineteenth-century genre painting that refers to the politically divisive Mexican American War of 1846 to 1848. As the US fought to annex new territories from Texas to California, the people considered (and argued over) the ramifications, including the possible expansion of slavery into the new areas. Reasons for migration and movement were varied—certainly for opportunities and growth, but also as the result of war and displacement, as represented by George W. Pettit’s Union Refugees. An immersive area in this section will also tell the story of how artists during this era also often functioned as explorers, naturalists, and philosophers.
Nineteenth-Century Modern Living
The last, and largest, of the three eras featured explores themes related to emerging modern life and encompasses art made between 1864 and 1918. With the rise in industrialism, both labor and leisure likewise developed, and became popular topics for artists. Thomas Eakins’s Benjamin Howard Rand anchors the theme with its references to the subject’s professional and private life. Several artworks, such as Dennis Miller Bunker’s Anne Page and Paul Lacroix’s Water Lilies will address notions of beauty during this pivotal time period: both of subject matter and as related to changes in artistic style. A small immersive installation of artworks along with furniture and decorative arts from the time period will offer guests a moment of surprise and a sense of nineteenth-century home life. Other themes in this section will address a growing nostalgia in the context of developing modern life, and American artists on the world stage, as exemplified by Theodore Robinson’s portrayal of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.
New Works and New Ways of Experiencing Them
Another new feature is a separate gallery (fondly called the “mini football” due to the shape of the space) dedicated to small, themed exhibitions featuring selections from our collection of works on paper. The first installation of about 30 figure drawings and paintings (many on view for the first time) examines and reveals the artistic process. Plan to return to Crystal Bridges regularly to see what’s new in this space, because the themed exhibition will change every five to six months as works on paper must be rotated off view to protect them from the damaging effects of light exposure.
In addition to viewing works in new and different contexts and groups, guests will have a chance to engage with the artwork through new interpretive elements—from in-depth digital labels, to sketching and writing activities, to a fully redeveloped audio guide.
When you visit us in March, there will be much to see and do! In the meantime, enjoy our temporary exhibitions (free for members) and special Collections Focus exhibitions while the galleries are closed this winter, and be ready in mid-March to see our collection anew!