Friday, February 21, 2014

Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture

The portrait collection of the New York Chamber of Commerce, assembled over a two-hundred-year period beginning in 1772, captured with aesthetic and symbolic power the giants of American business to become one of the most significant examples of institutional portraiture in the nation's history. Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture, held exclusively at the Princeton University Art Museum from March 9 through June 30, 2013, gathered fifty of the best portraits from the now dispersed collection in a dense, Salon-style installation evoking its original majestic setting in the Great Hall of the Chamber’s ornate Wall Street headquarters. Featuring images of business titans (J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt), military and political leaders (George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant), and great Americans such as Samuel F.B. Morse, the exhibition recreatedd the most impressive corporate display of portraits in American history while demonstrating the varied and fascinating uses to which portraiture has been put in the service of institutions.

Daniel Huntington (1816-1906), The Atlantic Cable Projectors, 1895. Oil in canvas, 87 x 108 ¼ in. New York State Museum

Picturing Power drew attention to a fundamental predicament of American art: namely, how to portray power in a democracy, where the fundamental ideals of equality conflict with the inherently aggrandizing act of commissioning, posing for, and collecting portraits. “Americans’ shifting and ambivalent relationship to commerce situates these portraits at the intersection of enduring and critical contests in American life—between self-interest and the greater good, between equality and the social hierarchies that wealth engenders,” said Karl Kusserow, curator of American art at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Matthew Pratt, American, 1734–1805: Cadwallader Colden, 1772. Oil on canvas, 196.2 x 118.7 cm. New York State Museum, Albany.

Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy, and American Portraiture
gathered together fifty-one of the best portraits from the now-dispersed collection in a dense, Salon-style installation evoking their former majestic display at the Chamber of Commerce Building near Wall Street. Interpreting the collection in terms of its changing function and meaning within and beyond its institutional setting, the exhibition explores the ways in which portraiture was used by a wealthy and powerful group to fashion an identity that promoted its corporate, civic, and ideological agendas while also reflecting, through its evolving use, the successive concerns of the organization, its members, and the wider world they inhabited.

From its inception in 1768, the Chamber regulated and codified commercial practice, provided business concerns with a unified means of forming and advancing their interests, and consolidated and elevated the status of its members and of business, generally. By linking commercial development to social and cultural progress, portraiture did much to support these ends.

Fedor Encke, German, 1851–1926: John Pierpont Morgan, 1903. Oil on canvas, 127 x 101.6 cm. Credit Suisse, New York

As a result of its unusually long history, the Chamber of Commerce portrait collection has produced a singularly rich legacy of uses and meanings. The exhibition offered a rich and stimulating analysis of how the wealthy and powerful leaders of American commerce employed portraiture to fashion an identity that promoted their corporate, civic, and ideological agendas—while reflecting their evolving concerns and those of the wider culture they inhabited.

Picturing Power departs from standard art-historical approaches in considering, for the first time, not only the straightforward growth of a large and important collection, but also the ways that its function and meaning changed over time, as the institution it served and the world around it also changed. Arranged in six parts throughout the Museum’s Sterling Morton Gallery—the Museum’s central gallery and itself a public gathering place, akin to the Chamber’s Great Hall—the installation created a narrative that charts the evolution of the Chamber from a young and struggling institution to a major civic (and ultimately national) force, as well as its subsequent decline and the portraits’ final revitalization, in a new setting, as iconic sources of power and prestige.

The exhibition was accompanied by Kusserow’s book Picturing Power: Portraiture and Its Uses in the New York Chamber of Commerce (Columbia University Press) which was the inspiration for the exhibition and will appear this spring. More than a decade in preparation, the 424-page volume features additional contributions by David L. Barquist (Philadelphia Museum of Art), Elizabeth Blackmar (Columbia University), Daniel Bluestone (University of Virginia), and Paul Staiti (Mt. Holyoke College).