Thursday, April 18, 2013

Reflections on Water in American Painting:The Phelan Collection

Tracing the maritime and seaside history of America through 50 paintings, the exhibition Reflections on Water in American Painting also illustrates the different artistic trends that shaped American art. Ranging in date from 1828 to 1945, these paintings depict ship portraits, sailboats, warships, waterside towns, waterscapes, harbor scenes, industrial waterfronts, and beach life, capturing virtually every aspect of life on or in the water.

From its beginning, America's history has been intertwined with the oceans that bracket the continent and the rivers that cross it. Waterways opened the continent for exploration and the inland commerce that followed. The fall of rivers and the accessibility of natural harbor basins dictated the locations of many major cities. Artists represented in this exhibition, from the early 19th century to the mid 20th century, have taken inspiration from water, depicting not only its functional and practical side but also exploring its inherent beauty.

This exhibition at the Flint Institute of Arts from 4.6.13 to 6.16.13 documents evolving trends in transportation, and records economic shifts as inland maritime commerce slowly diminished in the wake of railroad expansion. Highlights of the exhibition include a rare 1828 painting by John S. Blunt of a U.S. Naval frigate,

John Blunt
American, 1798–1835
U.S.S. Constitution
oil on canvas, 1828
23 1/2 x 27 1/2 inches
Arthur J. Phelan Collection

James Bard's meticulously rendered Hudson River steamboat,

James Bard
American, 1815–1897
James A. Stevens, Hudson River Steamboat
watercolor and gouache on paper, 1873
19 x 41 inches
Arthur J. Phelan Collection

William Trost Richards' Breaking Waves:,

William Merritt Chase's beautiful study of the Arno River:,

and Reginald Marsh's cathedral-like rendering of a New Jersey railway bridge:

Lift Bridge, Jersey Marches,' by Reginald Marsh, 1936

This exhibition also includes commercial vessels on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers and the Great Lakes, an oceangoing tall ship in New York Harbor by Antonio Jacobsen and 20th century racing yachts by A. O. Fischer.

Other highlights of the exhibition are paintings by major American Impressionists, William M. Chase, Frank Benson’s marshland with more than 30 rising ducks, and Robert Vonnoh. It also offers many views of Connecticut seaside towns, whaling ports turned tourist meccas for artists and the wealthy. These range from Cos Cob’s Mianus River by Elmer MacRae, through scenes Old Lyme by Wilson Irvine and Willard Metcalf, to views of Mystic, by G. A. Thompson, Charles H. Davis and others.

George Albert Thompson, Mystic River, Connecticut, 1915, oil on canvas, 25 1/4 x 30 1/4 inches

The subjects range from seascapes by A. T. Bricher and West Coast views of Lake Tahoe and the Columbia River, to life on the beach in the 20th century. A selection of industrial waterfront scenes from 20th Century modernists such as Preston Dickinson reflect the time when even artists celebrated the heights of American industry.

Reflections on Water in American Painting
is drawn from the collections of Arthur J. Phelan, well-known for his paintings depicting life in the American West. Phelan began collecting nautical paintings in the 1960s.

“I have built a number of collections that started with a chance acquisition of an artwork that reminded me of something in my past,” says Phelan. “This group of maritime and coastal scenes arises from time spent at my family’s summer home in Connecticut. Our house, between New London and the Connecticut River, was on the water. During World War II, I sailed small sloops at the point where Long Island Sound empties into the Atlantic and where large commercial sailing ships occasionally still passed by. Later, while at Yale [B.A. and M.A. in American history], I was never far from the Sound.”

Presented by Exhibits Development Group and organized with Arthur J. Phelan.

Aiden Lassell Ripley,
Beach Scene ca. 1935,
Images © Arthur J. Phelan

Anton Otto Fischer
American (1882–1962)
Summer Seas
oil on canvas, 1945
26 x 32 inches

Richard Babcock
American, 1887–1954
Industrial Waterfront - Great Lakes
oil on canvas, ca. 1930
33 x 25 7/8 inches
Arthur J. Phelan Collection

Charles McIlhenney
American, 1858–1904
Steamboat at Night, Mississippi River
oil on canvas, ca. 1885
24 x 20 inches
Arthur J. Phelan Collection

William R. Wheeler
American (1832–1894)
Great Lakes Marine Disaster
oil on canvas, ca. 1860
27.5 x 47.5 inches