The People Work: American Perspectives 1840-1940, presents approximately 70 paintings and works on paper that explore the context of why American paintings of workers were predominantly nostalgic, serving to provide a respite from the anxieties of an increasingly industrial society. On view at Terra Museum of American Art March 15 through May 25, 2003, these selected works from the 1840s through the 1940s reveal the latent as well as the conventional meanings of images of labor in American art.
"By exploring diverse representations from the Terra Foundation for the Arts collection and several key works on loan, The People Work examines a variety of human activities investigating labor. The exhibition questions common assumptions and attitudes on labor's unique history in the United States along with Europe," stated Elizabeth Kennedy, Exhibition Curator and Curator, Terra Museum of American Art.
Idealized depictions of labor and the worker reflect Americans' deep reverence for a uniquely American work ethic. From the early 1800's yeoman farmer, who symbolized the democratic ideal of a fruitful citizen, to the industrial worker of the 1930's, whose muscular form personified the supremacy of America's modern technology, pictures of people working are admired in a society that celebrates the virtues of laissez-faire capitalism.
For two hundred years, painting of workers associated with the unspoiled landscape of the New World, the Yankee farmer and the western cowboy, have characterized American values. From the first days of the republic until the Civil War, the iconic figure of the farmer was associated with hard work and self-sufficiency. The Yankee Pedlar (1872) by Thomas Waterman Wood depicts the success of the farmer, his readiness to barter reflecting the achievements of his ambition and effort. Likewise, the majestic cowboys in Maynard Dixon's The Cow Country (1938) represent an "unfettered and unrestrained" work ethic. The notion of being one's own boss in the open wilderness of the west greatly appealed to eastern businessmen who were enclosed in the fast paced, urban work force.
Though certain images of labor in American art have become emblems of national identity, others are nostalgic scenes representing cherished values. Few American painters were political activists, and they avoided depicting the harsh conditions of America's labor force in their art. In paintings, explicit scenes of physical labor are surprisingly rare, while in idealized images of work, the efforts of working men and women are subsumed or often go undetected. The title of George Luks' 1918 painting Knitting for the Soldiers: High Bridge Park acknowledges women's contributions to the wartime workforce, yet their heroic efforts during winter's chill are subtly conveyed within a beautifully colored symphony of paint.
Whether unequivocally portrayed as symbols of national identity or ambiguously acknowledged, images of labor from the Terra Foundation for the Arts collection narrate a compelling American perspective on people at work. The People Work: American Perspectives, 1840-1940, is the fourth exhibition in the series "American Perspectives" that demonstrates the depth and breadth of the Terra Foundation for the Arts collection initiated through thematic approaches. An illustrated catalogue entitled The People Work: American Perspectives, 1840-1940 accompanies this exhibition. After Chicago, the exhibition will be on view at the Musée d'Art Américain in Giverny, France from June 8 through August 17, 2003.
Terra Museum of American Art celebrates its 15th year on Chicago's Magnificent Mile. Founded by the late Daniel J. Terra, United States ambassador-at-large for cultural affairs during the Reagan Administration, Terra Museum of American Art is dedicated to the understanding and appreciation of the cultural contributions of American artists. Its collection includes notable works by Mary Cassatt, Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper, Georgia O'Keeffe, Maurice Prendergast, John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and many others. Each year Terra Museum of American Art hosts a variety of exhibitions that explore the history, culture and heritage of American art.
Terra Museum of American Art is located at 664 North Michigan Avenue. Admission is free and a suggested donation of $5 is welcome with all proceeds directly going to support museum programs. Museum hours are Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Wednesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; and Sunday 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit www.terramuseum.org or call (312) 664-3939.
The People Work—Evening, 1937,
13 13/16 x 18 15/16 inches,
Terra Foundation for the Arts,
Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1995.47.c