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Not too many years ago, the story of American art as characterized in survey courses and other summary narratives was told in an apologetic tone. How could one make a case for the importance or singularity of a nation’s output before there was a nation and in the face of a European model then characterized as a teleological progression of ever-increasing artistic greatness?
John Singleton Copley’s (1738–1815) story was frequently presented as the pinnacle of colonial uncertainty and inferiority. His output was cast as British art but lesser; the epistolary reviews from Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin West of A Boy with a Flying Squirrel (Henry Pelham) (1765) were both praising and patronizing; and the praise played a lesser role in generalized narratives than the damning verdict that Copley’s work was “too liney.”
If Benjamin West (1738–1820) was discussed, it was basically as a British painter and mentor to innocents abroad. Such apologetic linear marches through American art history would start with a comparison of Copley’s awkwardly posed portraits to British source prints, pass through homegrown Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, and then ultimately herald someone like Jackson Pollock as one of the first truly great American painters.
This type of account proffered by well-meaning members of the academy, the type that served as the foundation in the field for many current scholars, provides a context for an assessment of Emily Ballew Neff and Kaylin H. Weber’s exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH): American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World. Today, the tone of the discourse about American art’s beginnings has shifted from tail-between-the-legs apology to much-welcomed discussion of hybridity and transatlantic systems of exchange.
In keeping with this shift, the curators present Copley and West as having had something new to contribute to the art world because of the hybrid nature of their experiences. The organizing principle of the exhibition is to reconsider the context for several major works and to explore how the artists’ output moved beyond convention. Neff and Weber achieve this in a show that moves through five galleries. The first introduces West and Copley; the second builds a clear picture of West’s context and production; the third does the same for Copley; and then the two come together in a gallery devoted to the ends of their careers. Finally, the last gallery focuses on reproductive prints after the artists’ works.
The introductory text describes the eighteenth century as a time when oceans served as highways for both goods and ideas. This was an era of physical and ideological exploration in which commerce, natural history, ethnology, and cultural exchange flourished. Who better to navigate these oceanic avenues of discovery than two colleagues and rivals from the margins of the empire who had negotiated the waters both literally and figuratively? At a time during which artists sought to present themselves as cultured gentlemen, heirs apparent to the Greeks, Romans, and old masters, both Copley and West simultaneously conformed to the norm and pushed beyond the boundaries. Rather than their position on the fringes of the empire being a disadvantage, the curators argue that these two artistic sensations could parlay their authentic colonialism into popular paintings that built on the tradition of history painting but featured a new form of contemporary history. Two major paintings, West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770) and Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), become the illustration of the curators’ theories, with the works and galleries that surround them forming the supporting evidence of the intricacy of all the training, knowledge, and cultural acuity built into these much-heralded achievements.
The initial gallery introduces the artists through their self-portraits, featuring their roles as Royal Academicians and alluding to their spirit of competition. Subsequently, two grand-scale galleries—one devoted to West, the other to Copley—culminate in the majestically presented major works that the carefully constructed argument and selection of objects builds to address.
The first half of the large gallery devoted to West affirms his desire to be viewed as cultured and gentlemanly. Through wall text and supporting materials, the curators present the criteria that constitute the trappings of a gentleman painter. West’s refinement is secured by means of his elegant town house that broadcasts his success and a collection of great historical works from which he can derive inspiration, teach his aspirant pupils, and which he may display proudly to society’s elite in his picture gallery, asserting his privileged position. This section provides insight into West’s technique and his role as an innovator, including the tools of his trade such as period pigments and an elegantly displayed mahlstick. The exhibition brings together several of the seven thousand works from the artist’s personal collection, which assert that his own paintings build upon the legacy of the masters. Here West’s creations are juxtaposed with works by Parmigianino, Titian, Peter Paul Rubens, and Fra Bartolommeo, showing that the fine art that West collected served as significant inspiration for his oeuvre.
The objects on display in the first section of the gallery, with a large reproduction of West’s studio and picture gallery at its center, demonstrate that West brings to General Wolfe a gentlemanly bearing, innovation in technique, and an inclination to evoke the work of the old masters. The opposite side of the gallery begins with a large map of North America, and the narrative and objects in this part of the room present West at the nexus of cultural contact and exchange, a product of and witness to what scholars have called “the middle ground”—a space in which Europe and Native America converged and cross-pollinated. Here the curators combine portraiture and American Indian and military objects such as moccasins, jewelry, and powder horns, all of which, they argue, help to provide an understanding of West’s cultural background, context for his artistic choices in General Wolfe, and confirmation of the complexity of cultural mixing in North America.
This contextualization makes the painting come alive in new ways as an expression of multiple cultures amalgamated by West. Nevertheless, the curators’ approach somewhat inadvertently presents the painting less as an aesthetic work than as an illustration of a scholarly assertion (even the object label omits any formal analysis) while the cultural objects in the exhibition, such as a gleaming pipe tomahawk, are presented in such an aesthetically appealing manner as to transcend their role as narrative props.
The next gallery, devoted to Copley, similarly asks what idiosyncratic factors influenced the execution of his masterful Watson and the Shark and how Copley’s background contributed to his oeuvre. The curators begin with the notion that, particularly as a less experienced colonial, Copley would have needed to engage in the grand tour to enhance his artistry. His visits to the Greek ruins of Paestum and the ancient Roman remains of Pompeii are represented by prints and drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi and others. He would have encountered the great Italian paintings as well as original classical sculpture and plaster and bronze copies, in particular, Laocoön and the Apollo Belvedere. The curators assert that this classical exposure influenced his depiction of Brook Watson, the eponymous heroic nude figure being pursued by a menacing shark.
The gallery also includes a section devoted to natural history, oceanic travel, and investigations of race that precedes the presentation of Watson and the Shark. Natural history books and objects made from shark’s teeth are a prelude to perhaps the biggest show stealer, a shark jaw specimen, dramatically lighted and beautifully sculptural. The natural history materials show that Copley’s painting of a vicious shark is both based on a knowledge of just such a specimen and, with its ruby gums and protruding lips, a product of Copley’s active imagination. It is hard to tear one’s attention away from the jaw, but the curators have sensitively placed the object enough out of the way that it precludes distraction from the painting. The painting can absorb whatever interpretive work leads up to it, and the curators provide an abundance of new and exciting background material, but it is strong enough to stand on its own as a visually arresting production even if the curators had not added anything new to the dialogue. The curators successfully demonstrate that Copley was attuned to the topical, interested in natural history, and greatly influenced by his grand tour. Here, unlike the story of West, their argument resonates more as a story of modernity than one of hybridity.
The two final galleries are respectively dedicated to the artists’ fall from favor and their developing animosities and then to myriad reproductive prints. Unfortunately, the visual feast of the previous galleries of peace pipes, shark jaws, and iconic paintings provides so much visual and intellectual food for thought that there is no room for dessert. The last rooms of the exhibition feel like the denouement of a high-octane presentation. Yet, one cannot fault the curators for this decline as much as the artists. Mirroring their fates, the pinnacles of their careers were perhaps simply too tough to follow.
The exhibition’s title, American Adversaries, suggests a central focus on the conflict between the two artists. Though this conflict is alluded to in the wall text, perhaps it was not enough to justify its prominence in the exhibition’s title. For that story, the catalogue essays by Neff and Weber and other contributors are necessary enhancements. The geographically organized book follows the transatlantic story from London to North America, to Copley’s grand tour, to his connection to the sea, with a focus on cultural encounters and mixing that elaborates on the arguments presented in the exhibition.
Margaret C. Adler
Assistant Curator, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
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