In the Boyd Gallery on the south side of the newly renovated Walker Art Museum, Gilbert Stuart's portraits of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison sit in their stately majesty as silent testimonies to the breadth of the American art collection at Bowdoin.
The Boyd Gallery's current installation, "The American Scene, Part I," boasts a formidable assortment of paintings and furniture from the College's permanent collection.
Currently, the exhibition features a range of 31 portraits, landscapes, pieces of furniture, and decorative art work from the Federal and Colonial periods up to the mid-19th century.
During the Colonial and Revolutionary eras, the majority of American art consisted of portraits commissioned by the upper echelons of society. Portraits completed in the mid-18th century by John Smithbert and John Brewster featuring various members of the Bowdoin family reveal an ornate style steeped in European artistic tradition.
Wall text accompanying the exhibition addresses the tension between "the inheritance of European modes and styles" and their adaptation to "greater and lesser modification to the idiosyncrasies of American national life." The exhibition is arranged both chronologically and thematically, tracing the development of American identity through art.
As American society evolved, portraiture veered away from traditional European high style in favor of a more democratized style of painting. Portraits by Rembrandt Peale and Gilbert Stuart, in particular, reveal a contrast to earlier European-influenced works with their sense of sober dignity.
A shift in subject matter and style in the progression of the exhibition alludes to the search for an American identity.
During a recent tour of the museum, Assistant to the Director of the Museum Victoria Wilson explained how Americans came to terms with their national identity by looking inward to the natural beauty of the landscapes.
"The American Scene" includes several works by prominent 19th-century landscapists, including Martin Johnson Heade and William Trost Richards.
The landscape genre became increasingly popular in American art during the 19th century, with many artists seeking to depict the wilderness in poetic and romantic styles. "Evening Landscape, Late Autumn" by Jervis McEntee depicts the outdoors in the pastoral tradition of the Hudson River School, while John Quidor's 1832 "Leatherstocking's Rescue II" alludes to the spirit of self-determination so pervasive on the American frontier.
The exhibition concludes with Winslow Homer's 1875 painting, "Weaning the Calf." The idyllic farm scene, laden with metaphor and symbolism addressing the escapist mood of Americans after the Civil War, acts as a capstone to the exploration of American identity in "The American Scene."
Diana Tuite, the museum's curatorial intern, discussed the exhibition's relevance to the history of Bowdoin College.
"When possible, we opted to include those works which tie in with the history of the College, and attest to the Museum's history as an institution with pioneering vision," Tuite said.
Among the works that fit this category are the 1810 "Portrait of a Minister" by early African-American artist Joshua Johnson and the 1830 "Portrait of a Gentleman," featuring an unidentified African-American man.
"Both works were included in a landmark 1964 exhibition at Bowdoin examining representations of African-Americans in American art," Tuite said.
The comprehensive collection of early American art featured in the "American Scene" has garnered considerable attention.
"The reception to the installation has been overwhelmingly positive, with only a few visitors expressing regret that yet more of the beloved collection could not be on view," said Tuite.
Art History major Tim Bourassa '08 praised the breadth of the installation.
"The fact that James Bowdoin III bequeathed several Bowdoin family portraits to the Museum's early collection [in 1826] really set a precedent for such an extensive portrait collection," Bourassa said.
"The Gilbert Stuart portraits of President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison certainly shine as the most popular works in the gallery," Tuite added.
A continuation of the installation, "The American Scene-Part II," is scheduled to open in January 2008. Part II will feature works ranging from the mid-to-late 19th century through the present.
The Boyd Gallery is located on the upper floor of the Walker Art Building, adjacent to the Rotunda.