National Geographic : 1948 Sep
American Masters in the National Gallery BY JOIN WALKER Chief Curator, National Gallery of Art T HE American School of painting is scarcely 200 years old, but those 200 years have been extremely productive. Few countries in a similar period have ever produced per capita as many canvases covered with oil paint as has the United States. In 1829 an early American art critic, John Neal, wrote: "You can hardly open the door of a best-room anywhere without surprising, or being surprised by, the picture of some body, plastered to the wall and staring at you with both eyes and a bunch of flowers." True, these staring effigies with their peren nial bouquets were banished by changes of fashion to the attics of mansions and farm houses; but recently many have descended from their garrets to enter public galleries. With them have also come a swarm of works of forgotten painters of the American scene, obsctrre designers for Currier & Ives, dim illustrators of Harper's Weekly, forlorn Ro mantics of the Hudson River Valley. In such pictures we have caught a glimpse of our past so seductive and so enthralling that we have forgiven their frequent artistic shortcomings in our love of their subject matter. This has caused a confusion of values which is unfortunately wearing away a belief in the basic standards by which a good painting is distinguished from the bad and the mediocre. Yet by these standards some Americans rank among the great painters of the last 200 years. Here is the challenge to the collector of the art of this country: to show these masters in their full splendor: to prune away the under growth of average production until their loftier achievements can be properly seen. This has been the difficult goal we have sought to attain at the National Gallery of Art.* 230 American Paintings in Gallery In the seven years the National Gallery has been in existence, the collection of Amer ican paintings has grown from a token rep resentation of eleven 18th-century canvases until today it includes more than 230 por traits, landscapes, and figure compositions. Of these pictures only one has been purchased; the rest have been either selected from offers of gift or acquired by friends at the request of the Gallery. The collection as a whole falls into two cate gories: those paintings which are in them selves esthetically satisfactory and those which are of interest as historical documents. Pic tures in the first category are exhibited per manently: those in the second, once a year. The reason for this double standard is that the National Gallery is the custodian of a number of canvases intended eventually for a National Portrait Gallery. Plans have been laid to establish in Washington an institution modeled on the National Portrait Gallery in London. When these plans have been carried out, which I hope will be within the next few years, the new gallery will be hung with paintings portraying those who have affected the history of the United States. Founding Fathers of Our Complex World Such a painting is "Men of Progress" by Christian Schussele (pages 309 and 324). Now on loan to the White House from the National Gallery of Art, it hangs in the lobby of the Executive Office wing. The painting shows 19 men whose inventive genius helped to change a world of the handi crafts into a world of the machine. They pioneered such complex inventions as the sewing machine, the electric motor, the tele graph, and the reaper; such domestic con veniences as a pair of rubbers, the base burning coal stove, and carpeted floors; and such characteristic features of our modern world as the skyscraper, the revolver, and the battleship. Whether the future blesses or curses these self-confident inventors-a question which never would have occurred to them or to their patron saint, Benjamin Franklin, dimly seen in the background-their portraits painted from life are of great historic interest. Our generation is often hazy about the appearance of the men who have guided the growth of this country, and it is important to assemble as soon as possible their accurate likenesses. Among such men George Washington is pre eminent. The National Gallery now owns seven contemporary portraits of our first President, some of which will be placed on permanent loan in the National Portrait Gal lery. Two of these canvases are by Gilbert Stuart, who was a vigorous delineator of char acter, both with brush and with pen. "There were features in his face," Stuart * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Old Masters in a New National Gallery," by Ruth Q. Mc Bride, July, 1940.