Exhibition at the Dayton Art Institute presents 100 extraordinary paintings

William J. Whittemore, Charles Courtney Curran, 1888-89. Oil on canvas, 17 × 21 in. National Academy of Design, New York Courtesy American Federation of Arts.

William J. Whittemore, Charles Courtney Curran, 1888-89. Oil on canvas, 17 × 21 in. National Academy of Design, New York Courtesy American Federation of Arts.

DAYTON, OH.- The Dayton Art Institute begins its centennial season of special exhibitions with For America: Paintings from the National Academy of Design, on view from February 23 through June 2. The DAI is the debut venue for this new touring exhibition, organized by the American Federation of Arts (AFA) and the National Academy of Design (NAD). 

For America is the first exhibition to highlight the fundamental characteristic of the National Academy’s collection: the joint presentation of an artist’s portrait with her or his representative work. The exhibition’s 100 extraordinary paintings present not only a visual document of the Academy’s membership, but also a unique history of American painting from 1809 to the present. 

For America offers a nuanced story of American art,” said Pauline Willis, Director and CEO of the American Federation of Arts. “The exhibition’s national tour will bring these important paintings to audiences across the country, enriching the dialogue of scholars, students and artists of all ages with the first-hand experience of American masterpieces.” 

For America is the perfect start to our centennial year—100 paintings for 100 years, and Dayton will be the first city to see these beautiful works from the National Academy of Design,” said Dayton Art Institute Director and CEO Michael R. Roediger. “We invite the region to join us in celebrating the museum’s centennial and this amazing works by some of the greatest names in American art.” 

“This is a major exhibition that represents a real who’s who of American painting,” said Jerry N. Smith, DAI Chief Curator. “I studied most of these artists and many of these paintings while in school, and to see them all together in this one exhibition is a real thrill.” 

From its founding in 1825 to the present, the NAD has required all Academicians to donate a representative work to the Academy’s collection, and from 1839 to 1994, the Academy also required Associates to present a portrait of themselves, painted by their own hand or by a fellow artist. 

Exhibition co-curator Jeremiah William McCarthy, Associate Curator for the AFA said: “Essentially, this exhibition 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.” 

“This is the largest traveling exhibition of the Academy’s painting collection we have ever undertaken,” said Diana Thompson, exhibition co-curator and the NAD’s Director of Collections and Curatorial Affairs. “It allowed us to include beloved icons, such as William Merritt Chase’s The Young Orphan, alongside lesser-known gems like Charles White’s Matriarch, which has undergone conservation and will be on view to the public for the first time in decades, as well as new gifts like Peter Saul’s Self-Portrait, the only one he’s made up to this point.” 

The first of five exhibition sections, Founding an American School, explores the origins of the Academy and the accompanying rise of the Hudson River School and American genre painting. Asher B. Durand’s impressive Self-Portrait (ca. 1835) and Landscape (1850) provide an exceptional lens through which to view one of the Academy’s founders: the figures depicted in the latter work speak to the importance of artists’ relationships, one’s place in the natural world, and the power of interpretation. 

Other featured works include portraits of polymath and explorer Eliza Greatorex and noted landscapist Worthington Whittredge, as well as superb examples of this native school of painting from Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, and John Frederick Kensett. This section also provides the opportunity to view the earliest of Eastman Johnson’s self-portraits (ca. 1859–60) alongside a scene drawn from his series devoted to the American South. 

A New Internationalism reveals the impact of contemporary European art and art education on the pedagogy of the Academy and its associated school of fine arts. William John Whittemore’s striking portrait, Charles Courtney Curran (1888–89), provides an archetypal representation of the American artist in Paris, depicting the painter sketching from a classical statue at the Louvre. This section traces artists’ friendships and social networks abroad, with the intimate friendship of Robert Frederick Blum and William Merritt Chase as a telling case study. The two traveled throughout Europe together in the first half of the 1880s, frequently depicted one another, and were elected Associate National Academicians in the same year. While some of Chase’s critics perceived an aloofness in his figures, the artist’s emotionally stirring portrait of Blum forges a deeper connection between the duo’s well-known paintings The Young Orphan and Two Idlers, framing each in a new light. 

Painting America explores the Academy’s nascent role in the early twentieth century as the purveyor of artistic tradition in the United States. Strongly rejecting European modernism, the Academy compensated by widening its national base. This resulted in a geographically diverse and highly representative collection of landscapes and scenes of American life, from Daniel Garber’s New Hope School of Pennsylvania Impressionism to Ernest L. Blumenschein’s interpretations of the American Southwest. This section also explores the importance of intergenerational mentorship within the Academy, recorded visually in two works from the same year by the influential and important teacher Robert Henri and his student George Wesley Bellows, one of the most celebrated artists of his generation. Bellows’s Three Rollers (1911) was created alongside his mentor Henri on a trip the two took together to Maine. 

Postwar Realisms outlines how realism in its various incarnations remained a viable alternative to American abstraction, which dominated the postwar period. Highlights include Ivan Albright’s otherworldly Self-Portrait (1948), a melancholic yet visionary Self-Portrait (1945) from Andrew Wyeth, and Richard Estes’s photorealistic NYC Parking Lot (1969). Although women had been admitted to the Academy since its inception, at mid 20th century, the Academy broadened its membership to encompass a diversity of American experiences including artists of color. For example, the exhibition includes Charles White’s diplomat portrait Matriarch (1967)—a portrayal of his great-aunt Hasty Baines, born into slavery in 1857 on the Yellowley plantation in Ridgeland, Mississippi. Painted 110 years after her birth, in the thick of a decade rife with political and social unrest, the deeply personal work stood for White as a symbol of wisdom and courage—universal themes also explored in his mature work Mother Courage II (1974). 

The exhibition’s final section, For America, presents paintings from National Academicians whose work addresses contemporary concerns while harkening back to America’s storied past. This section shows that one of the most vital artistic legacies within American art is an undaunted commitment to realism, especially the figurative tradition, which has been championed by artists across centuries. The Academy is a living institution that counts 460 of today’s leading artists and architects as members, and paintings by Emma Amos, David Diao, Jaune Quick–to–See Smith, and Peter Saul provide mirrors for the present, ways of imagining and grappling with the past, and, finally, dreams for a possible future. 

Included in the exhibition are works by some of the most recognizable names in American art: Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Maxfield Parrish, William Merritt Chase, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth, Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri, Ernest Blumenschein, Isabel Bishop, Richard Estes, Charles White, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Wayne Thiebaud, Peter Saul, and many more. 

The exhibition will be accompanied by a richly illustrated scholarly catalogue. Essays by a roster of distinguished historians and art historians, curators, artists and architects delve into single artworks or pairs of paintings, while others explore themes such as the representation of landscapes and the figurative tradition in American art. Further contextualizing works in the exhibition, 18 current Academicians such as Catherine Opie and Fred Wilson contribute personal responses to individual artworks. 

For America: Paintings from the National Academy of Design is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the National Academy of Design.