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Friday, November 28, 2008

Inspiring Exhibition

I recently had the great pleasure of viewing the traveling exhibition Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: American Art from The Yale University Art Gallery currently at the Speed Art Museum at the University of Louisville. This is the first time many of these pieces have traveled outside of New Haven for an exhibition. If you have a chance to see this, I highly recommend it.

The highlight has to be John Trumbull's eight iconic Revolutionary War paintings which he donated to Yale in 1831. Four of these paintings, The Declaration of Independence, The Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, The Resignation of Washington and the The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga hang in the Capital Rotunda in Washington, D.C. and are life size replicas of the originals on display in this exhibition. I did not know that Trumbull was directly involved in the Revolution as Washington's second aide-de-camp, Major General Horatio Gates's deputy adjutant general, and a member of the Jay Treaty Commission. He witnessed first hand The Battle of Bunker Hill, and apparently, after British agent Major John André was hanged as a spy in America, Trumbull, as an officer of similar rank, was imprisoned for seven months in London. In addition to being a first hand participant, Trumbull's stated vision was to create a series of paintings "in which should be preserved as far as possible, faithful portraits of those who had been conspicuous actors in the various scenes, whether civil or military, as well as accurate details of the dress, manners, arms & costumes of the times", and he spent years traveling to either meet with or find renderings of the signers so that he could accurately portray them. Knowing about the artist's extraordinary life and understanding his extreme dedication to precision makes viewing the detail of each face in The Declaration of Independence even more awe-inspiring.

There is much more in this exhibition which contains more than 200 "extraordinary objects" which "illustrate the sweep of the American experience from Plymouth Rock to the Gilded Age." Besides Trumbull, my personal favorites were several paintings by Thomas Eakins and one by Robert Walter Weir. Eakins's painting The Veteran (1885) is a portrait of George Reynolds, a Medal of Honor recipient from the Civil War, and is one of the most haunting portraits I have ever seen. In virtually every Civil War photo or portrait I have seen, each person seems to have the same look - the look of someone who has witnessed unmitigated hell. The Veteran captures this in a way that even a photo can not. My other Eakins' favorites in the exhibition were Portrait of Maud Cook (1895) and Dr. Agnew. Weir's The Microscope portrays the founder of microscopy in America, Jacob Whitman Bailey, showing the device to his children in a scene that is remarkably styled and that evokes a sense of the nineteenth century spirit.

Hope you get to enjoy this.

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