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Beauty & Bounty

Narragansett Bay, 1861, John Frederick Kensett

Two new exhibitions opened two days ago at the Seattle Art Museum, Beauty and Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration and Reclaimed: Nature and Place through American Eyes. Having upgraded our SAM membership level half a year ago, we were invited to attend a preview Tuesday night that included the art, lectures, food, and even free parking. Hard to pass that up (though we did three months earlier for the opening of the Nick Cave exhibition).

We arrived around 6:15, checked in, got our parking validation coupon, and headed down to the area that served as the museum’s main entrance until the recent expansion. There, just outside the auditorium, we joined the crowd in partaking of cocktails and hors d’ouevres while awaiting the program. After a few minutes, people began to head into the auditorium and we followed.

Charlie Wright, chair of the museum board (and son of Bagley and Virginia Wright, whose gallery we had visited a week earlier), made some general remarks about the shows and the sponsors, then introduced SAM director Derrick Cartwright, who would be stepping down in two days after only two years of directing, and thanked him for his service. Director Cartwright then gave some background on the two exhibitions and their curators, each of whom proceeded to give a short slide show presentation of her given show.

Patricia Junker, the curator of American art, spoke about the Beauty and Bounty exhibition. I followed her remarks closely. But as Marisa C. Sánchez, the assistant curator for modern and contemporary art, spoke about Reclaimed, I fell asleep. That’s what happens when the lights go off. Before I knew it, Charlie Wright was back at the podium, then the lights went on and we shuffled out.

Food or art? Which one first? We chose art and headed up three floors to the special exhibition space. It was a delight to see Beauty & Bounty in relatively uncrowded conditions, as only a modest number of fellow members wandered through the rooms with us, Director Cartwright, Curator Junker, and assorted SAM board members. I’ll lean on SAM’s website for a description:

The paintings and photographs brought together in this exhibition show how adventuresome America’s artists were in the nineteenth century, and how critical their role was to enlightening the rest of the population as to the natural wonders of the far west. When the first surveyors went westward to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific coast, they took painters and photographers with them to create images that would fire the collective imagination of a nation and draw emigrants westward.

Albert Bierstadt’s painting of Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast for example, a centerpiece of the show, was deemed a virtuous enterprise for attempting to transport viewers to a still unknown region of the country. “Few can look upon it without the desire to see this wondrous Western land,” a critic wrote, adding “the art is indeed noble that awakens these yearnings.” We tend to think of landscape art as a record of an artist’s personal, intimate experience in nature, but in the nineteenth century, artists painted the American landscape as a response to the enthusiasms of their audience, too. Art happily served commerce—railroad building, tourism, land speculation, and settlement. Artists enthusiastically portrayed America’s beauty and bounty to call their countrymen into the wilderness, onto the railroads, and across the Continental Divide. They led us to remote places of natural splendor and abundance, and we followed, leaving our own marks upon the land.

In addition to the northwest, some of the paintings in the show depict eastern sites. For instance, as you see at the top of the post, there is a painting by John Frederick Kensett of Narragansett Bay. As I looked at it Thursday night, I was transported back to a day trip I took to Newport, Rhode Island, in May 1980, when I looked out on the bay from a rock just like the one in the painting’s foreground. You can see several of the works in a slideshow here. Just click the arrow button at the bottom right corner of the screen.

It’s a great show, consisting of works mostly owned by SAM or local collectors, so as Derrick Cartwright explained in his remarks, the show gives a glimpse of what SAM’s American collection may some day look like.

We spent a little time in the Reclaimed exhibition, but will need to come back again to give both shows a closer look. It was time for food. We returned to the main lobby, to be met by a server with a plate of tiny shortcake desserts. Just as we grabbed one each, we were greeted by a delightful couple we have been fortunate to get to know in recent years who are supporters of the arts in Seattle. Soon, one of their neighbors joined us, and then the director of the Henry Art Gallery. When they moved on, we wandered over to a small buffet table set up with sliced steak, potatoes, a salad, and a couple of other dishes I can’t remember, all from Taste, the restaurant in SAM’s bottom level. Everything was good, but especially the potato dish. After eating our light supper, we went down to the parking garage, drove out, and headed home.

A lovely evening.

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Categories: Art, Museums
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