Artists. We know their work, but we don’t always know their faces.
In “For America: Paintings from the National Academy of Design,” on view through January 20 at the New Britain Museum of American Art, over 90 paintings spanning from 1809 to the present featuring the artist’s face in self-portrait form or as portraits by other artists are presented with examples of their representative work, personalizing what the artist makes as art, with who they are as people.
The exhibition was organized to highlight the National Academy of Design’s (NAD) expansive collection, and to remind audiences of the Academy’s fundamental mission and educational goals as a teaching and collecting institution that is a “forward-thinking” place to train artists in the best academic practices and promote and exhibit their work. What’s important is the historical fact that from 1839 to 1994, the NAD required its associates to present and donate a portrait of themselves, whether painted by their own hand or that of a fellow artist. The artist’s gifts to NAD serve as their “diploma works” and “diploma portraits,” demonstrating the student’s achievement and hence becoming the core works of the collection. Because of this requirement, the portrait collection in “For America” is remarkable and can stand alone as a specialized exhibition.
Some of the best self-portraits on view include that of a brooding Andrew Wyeth, 1945, egg tempera, done in his gorgeous signature realist, expressive-minimalist style. It is an outstanding exact portrait, perfectly composed to show the artist’s internal mindset. The exhibition’s label notes: “This commanding yet ordinary self-portrait is a master study in ambivalence. Is the young artist’s gaze one of steady determination or a register of trouble just ahead?”
Along with Andrew’s portrait, his father’s, N. C. Wyeth, 1940, self-portrait, also egg tempera, hangs nearby. Here we have the teacher-father presenting himself in a calm classical style with a regionalist toned rural landscape behind him. N.C. is relaxed, satisfied and colorful, an opposite of his son, who is in a subdued color palette, and in motion and thinking.
What’s similar between father and son are the dramatic clouds above their heads in their individual self-portraits. What we learn from these two is the progression in formal painting style. Andrew’s move away from, and reduction of, his father’s round and soft colored forms to his crisp, sometimes aggressive lines and alternating wispy to heavy color washes, while still maintaining the same conceptual goal: to show emotion.
The portrait pairing of two Wyeths exemplify the smart curatorial organization of “For America,” arranged to tell a story of how American art has shifted to reflect contemporary time and how the artist’s portrait is the perfect indicator of technical and conceptual changes from teacher to student. Jeremiah William McCarthy, associate curator for the American Federation of Arts, who co-curated the exhibition said that “For America” “presents the way artists see the world alongside the way they see themselves inhabiting that world. It’s an unprecedented look at the history of American painting written by its makers.”
To understand how portraiture became the focus of NAD, we look at the institution’s founder and how his portrait cemented the Academy’s teaching and collecting character. The NAD was founded in 1825 in New York City by leading American artists Samuel F.B. Morse, Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole. Morse’s self-portrait, watercolor on ivory, a miniature, circa 1809, at the age of 20 years, opens the exhibition. From the exhibition label, we learn what influenced Morse to establish NAD: “when he arrived in London to study with American-born Benjamin West, second president of the Royal Academy itself were decisive models for Morse’s decision to found the National Academy in the following decade.”
But what made portraiture the core feature of artistic skill? “The deft self-portrait likely served to display Morse’s skill to prospective patrons.” In other words, if an artist could paint themselves, they could skillfully paint other people. A traditional portrait of Samuel F. B. Morse is presented in 1811, now an elderly man, by his friend Benjamin West, in oil on canvas.
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