I quite often pass West Dulwich train station on the way to work, and have often noticed signs pointing to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. When planning what to do with my Easter Monday, I tapped the name of the institution into Google to find that they have a rather spiffy-looking exhibition on Early Modern US art. Furthermore, Google result number 6 was a National Rail 2 for 1 entry offer.

So I popped along.

The permanent collection is somewhat reminiscent of the 18th Century rooms in the National Gallery, just a few miles further into town, with many of the same artists – Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Hogarth. The Dulwich Picture Gallery provides a change to really meditate over works by these artists, without feeling rushed along by a school crowd or gaggle of tourists. The paintings were hung lower, allowing for a more intimate viewing, which is quite unusual for these subjects and mediums and, despite being poorly-lit in places, I even found myself admiring a Constable piece – and he bores me.

There is a good representation of the period too – some religious imagery, landscapes, a few portraits, and even a bit of mythology. It was pleasantly surprising to see almost an entire wall dedicated to Rubens, including the Botocelli-reminiscent Three Graces.

Largely unadvertised, one room holds an exhibition on Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastians, which features six or seven similar pieces from across the world that prompt us to question the value of the original.

To the main feature: Coming of Age details the evolution of America’s artistic exploration. This being the first time that I’d seen an exhibition “about American Art”, I felt that, certainly in comparison to the British works I’d just seen, their landscapes were warmer, their still life paintings more ‘industrial’, and their portraits carried an air of comedy and character, which on retrospect is notably absent from their European counterparts during this period.


Reinhardt - Red Abstract

Not to get too biographical, but the fact that the start of this movement coincides with the American Civil War had an effect on the vibrancy and dynamic quality of these works. The path that led to the creation of now iconic pieces by Pollock (Phosphorescence), Reinhardt (Red Abstract), and Hoffman (Exaltment) is explained clearly and simply through the increasing abstract tendencies of their predecessors. For example, Prendergast takes the Impressionist technique and manages to execute it in a way that makes the painting appear less sleepy and more…like a snapshot of bustling life. He is sandwiched between Man Ray and Georgia O’Keefe.

The completeness of the exhibition’s “story” is really pleasing, leaving the visitor with an understanding of the momentum built up during this exciting period.

Not bad at all for £4.50 each.

Coming of Age: American Art 1850-1950 will be showing until mid-2009 at:
Dulwich Picture Gallery (March 1–June 8, 2008);
Peggy Guggenheim Collection (June 27–October 12, 2008);
Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale (November 6, 2008–March 8, 2009)

Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastians will be showing until 11 May 2008

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One response to “COMING OF AGE: AMERICAN ART, 1850s to 1950s

  1. Pingback: Greenwich « Anastrophe and Cheese

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