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200 years of American painting: Traveling exhibit opens Tuesday at Davenport art museum

This wall of paintings at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport pairs portraits of artists with works they created. It is pa
This wall of paintings at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport pairs portraits of artists with works they created. It is part of the “For America” exhibit spanning 200 years of American art, with nearly 100 works from the National Academy of Design in New York City. The show opens Tuesday. (Quad-City Times)
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DAVENPORT — Step off the elevator onto the third floor of the Figge Art Museum IN Davenport, and you’ll be face-to-face with a star of the museum’s newest exhibit spanning 200 years of American art.

Titled “The Bash Bish,” the painting is of a small waterfall in the Bash Bish River in western Massachusetts, painted in 1855 by John Frederick Kensett.

The subject matter and style — a romanticized landscape of the Hudson River Valley and surrounding area — is regarded as the first distinctively American look.

The work is one of about 100 in the traveling exhibit, “For America: 200 Years of Painting from the National Academy of Design,” covering American paintings from 1809 to 2013.

The exhibition arrived in Davenport from Sante Fe and will be going to Sacramento.

The exhibit opens to the public in Davenport on Tuesday and continues to May 16.

‘Vip Experience’

To allow for social distancing, the works are spread out across three of the museum’s four floors, providing not only safety but a “VIP experience” in that visitors should not feel rushed or crowded because of gallery capacity limits, Michelle Hargrave, the Figge’s executive director and CEO, said. Reservations are encouraged because of gallery limits.

The exhibition explores how artists have represented themselves and their country, including its shifting diversity, and the complexities of what it means to be an American. Portraits are a key component.

Asked to pick a work and explain how it reflects America, Hargrave cites a self-portrait done in 1964 by Hughie Lee-Smith, the second African American artist to be admitted to the highest level of the design academy.

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“It’s a beautiful work,” Hargrave said. “It shows this self-assured, serious man in a dress shirt and tie with a penetrating, attentive look. It’s almost an upward image, as if he is looking down, studying us. One can speculate that he’s making a point. He could be challenging the established racial stereotypes.”

For context, 1964 was the year in which President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, making segregation in public facilities and discrimination in employment illegal. It was the year Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Five Sections

The works are organized into five sections, representing different time periods.

After the initial “Founding an American School” comes “New Internationalism” in which American artists traveled to Europe and were influenced by what was happening there, primarily the development of Impressionism.

Third is “Painting America” in which artists depict more everyday scenes, such as streetscapes, and include the work of the first African -American artist admitted into the National Academy, Henry Ossawa Tanner.

Fourth is “Postwar Realisms,” including the growth of abstraction, and “For America,” featuring contemporary works.

Sponsors

The traveling exhibit was organized by the American Federation of Arts and the national academy.

It was made possible by the Major Exhibitions Endowment that was started by individuals, families, businesses and organizations in the Quad Cities.

The endowment is also sponsoring the exhibit, along with Estes Construction, the Harris Family Charitable Gift Fund, U.S. Bank, Alan and Julie Renken, Mark and Rita Bawden and BITCO Insurance Cos.

If You Go

• What: “For America: 200 Years of Painting from the National Academy of Design”

• Where: Figge Art Museum, 225 W. Second St., Davenport

• When: Feb. 23 through May 16

• Admission: $10 for adults, $6 for seniors, $4 for children ages 4-12

• Reservations: Because of gallery capacity limits, reservations are encouraged and can be made at figgeartmuseum.org or by calling (563) 326-7804.

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• Programs: Six programs will be held during the exhibit; go to figgeartmuseum.org for information.

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