Established in 2003, the Wyeth Lecture in American Art is a biennial event hosted by the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, National Gallery of Art, and supported by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art. Wyeth lecturers are chosen on the basis of their outstanding contributions to the study of and scholarship on American art. Lectures are available as podcasts as indicated.
Wyeth Lectures in American Art
Andrew Wyeth, Maine, 1981.
© Bruce Weber
Reversing American Art
Jennifer L. Roberts, Harvard University
Jasper Johns (artist) and Zigmunds Priede (printer), Hand, 1963, lithograph in black on Japan paper. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of Tom Levine Published by Universal Limited Art Editions © Jasper Johns and U.L.A.E. / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
This lecture explores one of the fundamental operations of printmaking—reversal—in order to trace its impact on American art across a spectrum of media. Behind every print lies a matrix (from the Latin for mother): a plate or block or stone or screen from which the print has been "pulled." And in most printing processes, the final print is a reversed version of the matrix. Although reversal may seem at first to be a simple geometrical switching operation, its material and philosophical complexity is profound; indeed, one may posit a kind of "negative intelligence" that informs any work of art that deploys reversal. Given its status as the result of contact between surfaces and its connection to symmetry, orientation, and handedness, reversal creates its own poetics of bodily experience. Inasmuch as the reverse lurks as the invisible "other side" of any form. It is often coincident with mystery or secrecy. In its close association with reproduction, reversal informs thinking about patterning, generation, and fecundity. And it embodies critique, negation, and the visualization of alternative dimensions and forms.
To focus on reversal is to open up new ways of thinking about connections among the fine, decorative, and industrial arts in America, not least because so many prominent American artists from the eighteenth through the twentieth century had backgrounds in print and printmaking. "Apprenticed as an engraver"; "trained as a lithographer"; "found initial success as a commercial artist": such are the typical preludes of American artists' biographies. A rigorous analysis of reversal offers an opportunity to expand the adventure of print from the preludes into the main narratives of the stories we tell about American art. The lecture addresses reversal in several contexts, from the nature prints of Joseph Breintnall in the 1730s to the handprints of Jasper Johns in the 1960s, with a core focus on the later nineteenth century in the work of James McNeill Whistler and the American trompe-l'oeil painters.
Between the Lines: Philip Guston and “Bad Painting”
Bryan J. Wolf, Stanford University
Philip Guston, Rug, 1976, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, gift of Edward R. Broida
In the years between 1967 and 1970, Philip Guston scandalized the New York art world by renouncing abstraction and turning instead to figurative modes of painting characterized by cartoonish images that mixed Ku Klux Klan hoods, idioms of popular culture, and a private vocabulary of cigars, light bulbs, legs, shoes, and other assorted—and often hairy—body parts. Buried within these often outlandish works are three recurring concerns: questions of pilgrimage, revelation, and epiphany that link Guston to Hudson River School painting of the nineteenth century; a covert interest in writing as a cultural logic that informs his painting practices; and an obsessive focus on line that distinguishes his art from the drips and gestural forms of Jackson Pollock. Ultimately, each of these concerns points to what can be seen as the real focus of Guston’s ﬁgurative work: the history and memory of the Holocaust.
Minstrelsy "Uncorked": Thomas Eakins' Empathetic Realism
Richard J. Powell, Duke University
Thomas Eakins, Study for “Negro Boy Dancing”: The Banjo Player, probably 1877, oil on canvas on cardboard. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
The lecture focuses on Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) as uniquely empathetic among the many 19th-century artists who depicted African American performance and entertainment. Eakins' Negro Boy Dancing (1887; Metropolitan Museum of Art) shows a young banjo player, an elderly teacher, and an adolescent dancer, evoking the American rage for the form of musical theater known as minstrelsy. Eakins' watercolor, along with two oil-on-board studies at the National Gallery of Art, challenged the tendency of minstrelsy to employ racial ridicule and physical exaggeration. Instead, Powell argues, Eakins adhered to a painterly realism as well as his own brand of empathy and ethics.
Ground Swell: Edward Hopper in 1939
Alexander Nemerov, Yale University (now at Stanford University)
Edward Hopper, Ground Swell, 1939, oil on canvas. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund
Edward Hopper's paintings often show people and places in states of enigmatic isolation, loneliness, and contemplation. These are among the fabled Hopper themes—so fabled it would hardly seem possible to go beyond them to give another account of his art. Focusing on one Hopper painting, Ground Swell of 1939, the lecture tries to provide a thicker, denser, more surprising story of what it meant for Hopper to make a painting, especially in the year 1939. The lecture was presented in conjunction with the exhibition Edward Hopper.
Thomas Eakins and the “Grand Manner” Portrait
Kathleen A. Foster, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Thomas Eakins, Archbishop Diomede Falconio, 1905, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, gift of Stephen C. Clark
Codiﬁed in the late eighteenth century as a full-length, life-size portrait with impressive costume and attributes of rank and identity, the Grand Manner portrait evolved in the nineteenth century to suit the status-consciousness of a new, bourgeois era. Thomas Eakins (1844–1916), born and educated in Philadelphia and trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, absorbed the conventions of Grand Manner portraiture from baroque Spanish and Dutch works, from the English tradition of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Gilbert Stuart, and from the new naturalism of contemporary French art. Returning from Europe to Philadelphia in 1870, he launched a career as a figure painter that was, as Elizabeth Johns has argued, based on portraiture in many guises.
Eakins painted about two hundred fifty finished portraits in his lifetime (apart from portrait-related figure subjects), most of which depict the sitter at life size but on a small canvas that shows less than half the figure. But from the very outset of his career, and with increasing frequency after 1889, he essayed full-length portraits in the Grand Manner. Between 1870 and 1909, when he all but ceased painting, Eakins produced 36 full-length portrait figures, either seated or standing. A closer look at the choice and treatment of these relatively few sitters teaches us much about Eakins, his methods, and his values. If, as Oscar Wilde remarked, every great portrait is a picture of the artist, this “grand” series reveals in the most ambitious format the identity of the artist, covertly buried in the elaborate perspective coordinates of each composition, or enacted in a private pantheon of colleagues—artists, scientists, and teachers—that embody his grandest aspirations and mirror his sense of self.
Friends and Rivals: Copley, West, Peale, Trumbull, and Stuart
Jules David Prown, Yale University
John Singleton Copley, The Copley Family, 1776/1777, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Andrew W. Mellon Fund
John Singleton Copley and Benjamin West were born in 1738; Charles Willson Peale, some two and one-half years later. Gilbert Stuart and John Trumbull, born in 1755 and 1756, respectively, belonged to the next generation. Their paths crossed and recrossed throughout their uniformly long lives. They formed friendships, influenced each other both through their art and personally, competed for clients, and eventually drifted apart, or, in the case of Copley and West, became bitter enemies. The lecture focuses on the artists' personal and professional encounters and interactions to tell the story of how they affected each other's lives and work.