National Geographic : 1951 Feb
American Processional: History on Canvas BY JOHN AND BLANCHE LEEPER ON November 22, 1800, President John Adams welcomed to Washington, D. C., the Houses of Congress assembled for the first time in that "palace in the wilder ness," the new United States Capitol. One hundred and fifty years later the Nation ob served the Capital City's anniversary. The National Capital Sesquicentennial Commission, which planned the celebration, commissioned The Corcoran Gallery of Art, a privately endowed museum in Washington, to borrow and exhibit a series of historical paint ings, drawings, and prints illustrating the country's growth. This collection, entitled "American Proces sional," was designed to encompass the years between 1492 and 1900, and to include political, economic, cultural, and social devel opments. Every picture had to show an im portant and unique phase of the American story. Two Continents Searched for Art We of the Corcoran staff felt we needed two years to prepare an exhibition of such magnitude. Instead, we had six months. Within that interval many problems had to be mastered. The mere transporting and as sembling of 311 pictures seemed the least of many obstacles to be surmounted. Selection of material to be invited was a serious concern. The preliminary search was made by a group of staff researchers who documented each picture considered-thou sands in all. Then staff members, headed by Director Hermann W. Williams, Jr., made exploratory trips. They went to London, Windsor Castle, and Dublin; to The Hague and Amsterdam; to Paris and Versailles. They searched Mont real and Mexico City. They covered every important art center in the United States, and some that were not so well known. They dug up material long neglected, much of it never shown before to the public. It was agreed that pictures had to be first-hand reporting wherever possible. One might think this a self-evident provision, but historical painting as an art form is not in variably a dependable record of actual events. Romantic artists too often used their imagi nations without regard to facts. American Processional was resolved to stress accuracy above artistic quality. If profes sional painters had not portrayed a given incident, then we turned to soldiers, travelers, house painters, and primitive artists. Primitive painters, as historians of their times, made up in vigor and authenticity what they lacked in skill. Many were accurate eyewitnesses to events, seemingly trivial at the time, which recorded America's growth. Today the study and collection of folk paintings is a serious pursuit among art his torians. For three examples: Kemmelmeyer's Washington (page 183) is more exciting pictorially than Trumbull's Cornwallis (page 187), and is probably a more authentic record. It is characteristic of primitive works all over the world that relative importance is in dicated by size. Thus Kemmelmeyer's Wash ington and merry-go-round steed dwarf the other figures. An anonymous artist's "Schoolroom," as humorous as a chapter from Mark Twain, gives insight into the methods of early 19th century education (page 191). Linton Park's "Flax-scutching Bee" shows country people taking advantage of their host's hospitality to begin a hilarious party (page 193). After weeks of preliminary study the re search staff gathered to inspect the photo graphs of some 3,000 entries and choose the first pictures for invitation. To see that each vital historical develop ment was represented, it was necessary to name an alternate to almost every picture invited. The mere existence of a painting did not mean it was available for loan. Many institutions restricted lending; others had already committed their pictures. Occasion ally a desired painting was too fragile or too large for moving. One Picture Too Big for Door When Thomas Eakins's colossal "Agnew Clinic" arrived, it was too large to go through the service doors and into the freight elevators. Traffic within the museum was suspended as the painting was carried through the front entrance. Before it reached its destination, a door and its frame had to be removed (page 174). Galleries had to be redecorated; the plaster in some was scarcely dry when the show opened July 8, 1950. While the exhibition was intended to stress scenes of action, the portraits of a few key figures could not be overlooked; they were invaluable in indicating the temper of their times.