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American Masterworks from the Corcoran Collection: Now on View

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The successful Philadelphia portrait painter John Neagle received one of the most important commissions of his career in 1842, when Whig Party members requested a full-length likeness of their presidential candidate Henry Clay (The Union League of Philadelphia). To execute the portrait, Neagle traveled to Frankfort, Kentucky, where he received additional commissions including this painting of Clay’s fellow Kentuckian Richard Mentor Johnson (1780-1850).  Like Clay, Johnson served in both houses of Congress; he also served as the ninth Vice President of the United States in the administration of Martin Van Buren (1837 to 1841).

The son-in-law and student of Philadelphia painter Thomas Sully, Neagle displayed the same bravura brushwork as his mentor. Dazzling strokes define Johnson’s trademark red waistcoat, shiny silk cravat, ruddy complexion, and the breeze-blown gray curls that frame his pensive face. They also enliven the dense, lush trees edged in fall foliage, whose crimson color echoes that of Johnson’s vest. Neagle’s choice of a landscape background, rather than a studio setting, was relatively unusual for portraiture during this era.

John Neagle, Richard Mentor Johnson, 1843,oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington,Corcoran Collection (Bequest of Mrs. Benjamin Ogle Tayloe)

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Little is known about this handsome portrait except that it was painted by the English-born Joseph Blackburn. The painting’s sitter and place of execution are unidentified, and its circa date is based on costume and the work’s relationship to other oils by the enigmatic Blackburn, who worked in Bermuda, New England, and Britain. Supporting the painting’s possible English origin are two facts: its first recorded appearance was in that country about 1956, and it bears a relatively large signature characteristic of Blackburn’s work there.

The lavishly attired gentleman strikes a formal pose in a dark interior enlivened by a blue drapery at the right and a window featuring an elaborate volute at the left. His rosy cheeks and the tricorner hat he grasps in his right hand suggest that he has just returned from a sunset stroll. The brown coat sports an unusual scalloped cuff, a style called à la marinière or mariners’ cuff which was quite fashionable in England from at least the 1730s into the 1760s. The man’s left hand, placed assuredly on his hip, draws this coat as if to show off the sumptuous waistcoat and gold watch fob underneath. The garment’s light blue silk is accented by a delicate loom-woven subpattern and elaborate silver embroidery. Blackburn rendered this clothing in such remarkable detail that he must have worked from actual garments.

The lack of information about this portrait, along with the fact that nothing is known of Blackburn’s birth, early work, or training—which must have been with a professional English portraitist—suggest that he is an artist awaiting further study.

Joseph Blackburn, Portrait of a Gentleman, c. 1760, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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John Singleton Copley, Thomas Amory II, c. 1770-1772,  oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase through the gifts of William Wilson Corcoran)

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Before achieving fame in the 1840s as the inventor of the telegraph, Samuel F. B. Morse was a portraitist of some renown. He sought to cement his reputation as a painter by attempting a grand work of historical significance: The House of Representatives. The foundation for such lofty ambition was laid when he studied at London's Royal Academy of Arts, where painters were taught to execute epic pictures that could edify their audiences. Upon his return to America, Morse chose the chamber of the lower body of the United States Congress in session at the US Capitol—a place unseen and unvisited by most Americans in 1822—as his subject for this monumental undertaking.

Arriving in Washington, DC, in November 1820, Morse worked 14 hours a day for four months in a temporary studio adjacent to the House chamber, which recently had been rebuilt after the Capitol was destroyed by fire during the War of 1812. His massive canvas included careful renderings of architecture and people, including Congressmen, staff, Supreme Court justices, and press. In the visitors' gallery at the far right is Pawnee Indian chief Petalasharo, and on the left, Morse's father, Reverend Jedidiah Morse. Rev. Morse was in town to report on Indian affairs to Secretary of War John C. Calhoun, one of the giants of American political life before the Civil War and a leading defender of slavery.

Ultimately, Morse created a picture of the House of Representatives not as it was, but as he wanted it to be. At a time when the House was often raucous and factional—debating major legislation such as the Slave Trade Act of 1820 and the Missouri Compromise of 1821—Morse presented instead a tranquil and relatively uneventful scene. He toured the painting nationally in 1823, but its lack of sensational subject matter failed to attract wide audiences and ultimately proved to be a financial failure. In the ensuing years, Morse turned away from painting to pursue his scientific interests.

Samuel Finley Breese Morse, The House of Representatives, 1822, probably reworked 1823, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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In the mid-19th century, pure landscape pictures were traditionally ranked lower than other subject matter, such as themes from history, mythology, literature, or religion. Thomas Cole sought to create what he called a “higher style of landscape” that blended narrative elements into carefully executed scenes from nature. His use of two canvases allowed him to build his narrative to even greater technical and emotional heights. The Departure introduces a troop of knights embarking on a heroic crusade in the early summer led by their lord on his valiant white horse. In The Return, a smaller group—weary and defeated—trudges home in the autumn dusk; they carry the dying lord, his riderless horse trailing behind.

The two landscapes were commissioned as a pair by wealthy landowner William Paterson Van Rensselaer in December 1836, specifying only that the paintings should depict morning and evening. Cole had recently enjoyed critical and popular success for his epic five-canvas series, The Course of Empire (1836, The New-York Historical Society) completed earlier in the year, which likely made Van Rensselaer choose him for the project. That Cole achieved his goal of a “higher style of landscape” among his contemporaries is reflected in the praise the paintings received in an 1837 New-York Mirror review:

These pictures represent Morning and Evening, or Sunrise and Sunset; and are, merely from that point of view, invaluable. They contrast the glowing warmth of one, with the cool tints and broad shadows of the other; and to do this is the work of a master, who has studied nature and loves her….Not only this is done, but a story is told by the poet-painter, elucidating at once, the times of chivalry and feudal barbarism, and the feelings with which man rushes forth in the morning of day and of life, and the slow and funereal movements which attend the setting of his sun.

Thomas Cole, The Departure, 1837, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of William Wilson Corcoran)

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In the mid-19th century, pure landscape pictures were traditionally ranked lower than other subject matter, such as themes from history, mythology, literature, or religion. Thomas Cole sought to create what he called a “higher style of landscape” that blended narrative elements into carefully executed scenes from nature. His use of two canvases allowed him to build his narrative to even greater technical and emotional heights. The Departure introduces a troop of knights embarking on a heroic crusade in the early summer led by their lord on his valiant white horse. In The Return, a smaller group—weary and defeated—trudges home in the autumn dusk; they carry the dying lord, his riderless horse trailing behind.

The two landscapes were commissioned as a pair by wealthy landowner William Paterson Van Rensselaer in December 1836, specifying only that the paintings should depict morning and evening. Cole had recently enjoyed critical and popular success for his epic five-canvas series, The Course of Empire (1836, The New-York Historical Society) completed earlier in the year, which likely made Van Rensselaer choose him for the project. That Cole achieved his goal of a “higher style of landscape” among his contemporaries is reflected in the praise the paintings received in an 1837 New-York Mirror review:

These pictures represent Morning and Evening, or Sunrise and Sunset; and are, merely from that point of view, invaluable. They contrast the glowing warmth of one, with the cool tints and broad shadows of the other; and to do this is the work of a master, who has studied nature and loves her….Not only this is done, but a story is told by the poet-painter, elucidating at once, the times of chivalry and feudal barbarism, and the feelings with which man rushes forth in the morning of day and of life, and the slow and funereal movements which attend the setting of his sun.

Thomas Cole, The Return, 1837, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington,Corcoran Collection (Gift of William Wilson Corcoran)

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A group of six dark-skinned people gather around a table in a house. A bespectacled, white-haired pastor sits to our left opposite a man, presumably the husband and father, who sits to our right. Two small children gather around the man, one behind him and one leaning on his knee. Between the men, a woman, presumably the wife and mother, stands on the opposite side of the table, serving food to the pastor. On the table is a serving bowl, cup, kettle, and a wooden cigar box. Behind the woman, one door of a tall cupboard is ajar. A fireplace to the right has an opening as tall as the stooping woman. A banjo rests on a stool in front of the table.

A Pastoral Visit, the most celebrated of Richard Norris Brooke’s genre scenes, or views of everyday life, depicts a family welcoming their elderly pastor to Sunday dinner—a frequent occurrence in both black and white rural parishes that could not afford parsonages. According to tradition, the pastor is served first and, following the meal, he will be presented with both the cigar box containing the congregation’s weekly contribution (duly protected by the family patriarch) and the cloth-wrapped fruit at right. The banjo, prominently placed at the center of the composition symbolizing its importance in African American culture, may indicate an after-dinner musical interlude.

The family’s home, rustic but comfortable, features a sturdy cupboard housing pottery and glass and brick fireplace on whose mantel are neatly arranged a coffee grinder, a ginger jar, and clothes irons. Decorating the corner near a damaged window are a circus poster and a string of dried chilies. Brooke had ample opportunity to study the interior depicted; it was located in a residence near his home in Warrenton, Virginia, where he painted the canvas. Likewise, the features of the figures resulted from the artist’s use of his Warrenton neighbors as models: George Washington, Georgianna Weeks, and Daniel Brown.

Brooke was one of many artists to depict African American life in the 1870s and 1880s, inspired by the dramatic social change during Reconstruction, when blacks achieved citizenship, voting rights, and protection under the Constitution. Unlike many of his peers, he portrayed his subjects with a degree of humanity and dignity rare in contemporary depictions of African Americans. In his letter offering the painting to the Corcoran Gallery of Art for purchase, Brooke criticized such renderings as “works of flimsy treatment and vulgar exaggeration.” He also referenced his recent French academic training, stating that he wished to elevate his rural subject “to that plane of sober and truthful treatment which ... has dignified the Peasant subjects of [his French contemporary] Jules Breton, and should characterize every work of art.”

In 1881, Brooke relocated from Warrenton to a well-known Washington studio building, Vernon Row, just east of the White House. There, he exhibited the painting and arranged for its loan and subsequent sale to the Corcoran. Active in almost every local arts organization of the day, the successful artist served as vice principal at the Corcoran School of Art from 1902 to 1918 and exhibited extensively at that institution. For reasons not entirely understood, soon after completing A Pastoral Visit he devoted himself almost entirely to landscape painting.

Richard Norris Brooke, A Pastoral Visit, 1881, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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This painting, completed just three years before the Civil War began, may be an expression of northern antipathy toward the landed gentry of the south. Leisure and Labor is the culmination of Mayer's decade-long exploration of the blacksmith theme. The bifurcated canvas juxtaposes a well-dressed man leaning casually on the right—hands tucked in his pockets and legs crossed—with an industrious and productive blacksmith hard at work on the left. A broken plow and graceful greyhound further underscore his leisure. The dog evokes breeding of animals for sport and show, an idle pursuit of Southern aristocracy during this period. During the war, the greyhound was one of the symbols of the Confederacy in anti-Southern political satires. The moral lesson is further communicated by the white poster on the right which depicts a man (who resembles the Grim Reaper) running with scythe in hand above the misspelled text "Stop Theif!" reminding the viewer that time is precious and not to be wasted.

Mayer, a Maryland artist renowned for his historical subjects and genre scenes, remained publicly ambivalent about the Civil War. After its outbreak, he traveled to Paris, as did two of the most important American collectors of the 19th century: William T. Walters, who commissioned Leisure and Labor and who later founded the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, and William Wilson Corcoran, who purchased the painting in 1859 and who later founded the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Both collectors were known Southern sympathizers.

Frank Blackwell Mayer, Leisure and Labor, 1858, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of William Wilson Corcoran)

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In the years leading up to the Civil War, William Sidney Mount was America's most celebrated painter of genre scenes, which are views of everyday life. His work was admired for its ability to amuse audiences with complex verbal puns and stereotypical American characters. Messages in his works were often veiled, requiring viewers to puzzle out the meanings on their own. Mount offered a rare explanation for The Tough Story in a letter to his patron Robert Gilmor Jr., detailing the setting as a Long Island tavern and the three men as the tavern keeper (right), a traveler (standing), and an "old invalid . . . entertaining his young landlord with the longest story he is ever supposed to tell, having fairly tired out every other frequenter of the establishment."

As a painting about conversation, this is a work that marries content with form. The barfly's exhausting tale is echoed in the room's empty space, its dullness matched by the monotonous colors of the wall and floorboards. Although the men are united in a classic triangular composition, the stovepipe at the center divides their space. On the left, damage and decay surround the storyteller, apparent in the bandages around his neck and knee, the worn hat, and his broken chair. By contrast, the other two men share more comfortable surroundings, including warmth from the glowing stove and the well-stocked tavern shelves. This separation invites the viewer to laugh along with the pair on the right, perhaps at the storyteller's expense.
 
This painting was well received by its patron and critics alike. Proud of his successful marriage of form and content, Mount referred to this work as his "most finished painting yet."

William Sidney Mount, The Tough Story - Scene in a Country Tavern, 1837, oil on wood, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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Although Baltimore native Richard Caton Woodville lived abroad the majority of his short career, his most famous paintings depict life in his hometown. Like his contemporary William Sidney Mount, he portrayed colorful characters in stories marked by humor and deception, but Woodville's canvases assume a darker tone in both composition and subject matter.

In Waiting for the Stage, three men assemble in a tavern, commonly used as a waiting room for stagecoaches. Two of the men are seated at the table, engaged in what appears to be a game of cards; the gentleman with a carpetbag at his side is presumably a traveler. The third figure stands beside the table clutching a newspaper called The Spy. He wears the glasses of a blind man, but his cleverly titled journal betrays his ruse. From his elevated position, he can see both men's cards, and is likely conspiring with the traveler, who may be a conman. Light bounces off the wedding ring of the third individual, reminding the viewer of the existence of family members whose well-being could be threatened by this deceit. The small, cramped space of the tavern underscores the painting's menacing tone.

Woodville painted this scene in Paris, after leaving medical school and moving to Europe in 1845 to pursue painting full-time. He trained in Düsseldorf, Germany, before spending the next four years working in Paris and London. He died in London in 1855 having completed fewer than 15 oil paintings.

Richard Caton Woodville, Waiting for the Stage, 1851, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund, William A. Clark Fund, and through the gifts of Mr. and Mrs. Lansdell K. Christie and Orme Wilson)

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A crusty piece of bread, a short glass of water, a black top hat, a rosy-pink conch shell, and more than a dozen books and rolls and slips of papers are crammed into an arched alcove in this nearly square still life painting. Lining the bottom edge of the alcove, the long, thin spine of a caramel-brown book is printed with the title, “CHOICE CRITICISM ON THE EXHIBITIONS AT PHILADELPHIA” in gold against a crimson red background between two ridges. To our right, a scarlet-red portfolio holds a sheaf of loose papers under a thick book titled “LIVES OF THE PAINTERS.” A crusty hunk of bread and a black-handled knife sit on a ceramic plate on the thick book. To our left, two calling cards with handwritten notes lean on the short glass of water. Both are addressed to “Palette” and one is an invitation to visit after tea and other asks about a debt of five dollars. The glass holds open the pages of a book propped against the niche, and the title page reads, “ADVANTAGES OF POVERTY THIRD PART.” The title of a second book behind the glass, missing its cover, reads, “PLEASURES OF HOPE,” though the page is ripped through the word “hope.” The light green, coffee brown, or cardinal-red spines of a row of books behind this, along the back of the niche, are titled, from left to right: “CHEYENE ON VEGETABLE DIET,” then “MISERIES OF LIFE” to our left and “BURTONS ANATOMY OF MELANCOL” and “SIGNS OF THE TIMES” near the center. One of the two spines in shadow to our right reads “CALAMITIES OF AUTHOR.” A protractor tucked into a small notebook with an elephant-gray cover and ruby-red page edges leans on the books near the center. More books are piled on top. Three of those spines are written in cursive handwriting with “Unpaid Bills,” “We Fly by Night,” and “No Son No Supper.” The conch shell sits along the edges of the standing books below to our left, with its gleaming pale pink and golden tan interior facing us. A tightly rolled sheaf of papers wrapped with a sky-blue sheet rests diagonally from the upper left corner of the niche down behind the bread. What looks like a newspaper clipping is tied at the center with the headline “Just Published.” A tattered black top hat is wedged between the tightly rolled paper and loose, curling papers stacked above. One of the loose sheets is titled “LAUGHING PHILOSOPHER” and handwriting on another reads, “Perspective view of the County Gaot of Philadelphia.” Another newspaper clipping is affixed to the upper left face of the beige-colored, possibly stone niche. It has the headline, “SHERIFF’S SALE THE PROPERTY OF THE ARTIST,” and continues, “Consisting of One Cradle, One Blanket, Two pair of Ruffles, Petticoat, Silk Stockings, and Peck of Potatoes. Four Pictures, of Roast Pigs, Turkies Decanters of Wine and Plumb Cake Painted from Recollection. Fall of the Giants, and View of Paradise, sixteen feet by twenty. Comforts of Matrimony, odd volume. Short Cut to Wealth. Sermon on The Vanity of Human Pursuits. Philadelphia Jan 1st 1812.”

Charles Bird King painted this unusual and intriguing trompe-l'oeil, meaning "fool-the-eye," still life to resemble an alcove holding fictional artist C. Palette's meager possessions: a crust of bread, glass of water, palette, and journal of unpaid bills. Two calling cards addressed to Palette bespeak his sad circumstances. One, from a parsimonious would-be patron, Mrs. Skinflint, invites him to visit her after tea, and the other records the artist's debt of five dollars. Several details suggest a more complex message, and that Palette's tastes and ambitions outstrip his modest means. The advertisement for a Philadelphia sheriff's sale of an artist's property at the upper left lists a few articles of clothing and a peck of potatoes—in stark contrast to the fashionable beaver pelt hat nearby—but also features a 16-by-20-foot painting called Pursuit of Happiness.

King makes pointed reference to the lack of support for the arts in Philadelphia, where he lived with little professional success from 1812 to 1816, and more broadly to the lack of support for the arts in America. In addition to the locale of the sheriff's sale, a sheet of paper on top of the hat shows a perspective view of the city debtors' jail. A tally of paintings sold in Philadelphia, which peeks out from the red portfolio at lower right, records a large number of portraits, the most popular but least creative genre of the period. A book titled Choice Criticism on the Exhibitions at Philadelphia, at the very bottom, is noticeably thin; that and Mrs. Skinflint's invitation imply the lack of art patronage in Philadelphia. Indeed, many of King's fellow artists departed the city due to a lack of commissions.

Charles Bird King, Poor Artist's Cupboard, c. 1815, oil on wood, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund and exchange)

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The top three quarters of this horizontal landscape painting is filled with roiling, deeply shadowed clouds that tower over a line of buffalo that cross a grassy meadow below. Small in scale, the buffalo form a line that extends away from us at a diagonal into the distance to our right. Sunlight creates a bright reflection on the stream where the frontmost buffalo walks across, but the other animals are nearly backlit in the raking light. Trees, with branches whipping in the wind, rise along the left side of the painting and the mountainous landscape to our right lost in darkness under heavy clouds to our right. The clouds above lighten from navy blue in the lower right corner of the sky to slate and silvery blue and white at the center of the painting. Small patches of blue sky are visible between a few breaks in the clouds, and sunlight falls on a cliff-like mountain face in the distance behind the trees to our left. Another bank of parchment-colored clouds in the upper left corner, seeming closer to us, contrasts with the glimmering light highlighting some of the clouds nearby.

By 1869, when he created this idyllic view, Albert Bierstadt had made two extensive trips to the American West. He based this lush scene of buffalo peacefully making their way across a river or creek against a roiling sky on views he had sketched during one or both of those expeditions. In a letter he wrote on September 3, 1859 during his excursion with the survey team of US Army Colonel Frederick W. Lander, the artist describes one such scene. He recorded his awe at encountering the majestic buffalo in a passage that could easily describe Buffalo Trail: Impending Storm:

We find here plenty of buffalo. One morning we saw a noble looking animal crossing the river near us, and I alighted from my ambulance and took a position behind a bluff, in order to give him a reception. As he came splashing through the water, I felt half inclined to lay down my rifle and take up my sketchbook, but I was so wrapped in admiration and study I could do neither for a few moments.

Bierstadt's meticulous attention to detail and texture, as well as his tightly brushed technique—results of his early training in Düsseldorf, Germany—characterize this bucolic, romantic scene.

Albert Bierstadt, Buffalo Trail: The Impending Storm, 1869, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington,Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, through the gift of Mr. and Mrs. Lansdell K. Christie; Frame: Museum Purchase through the gifts of William Wilson Corcoran)

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We seem to hover over the greenish-blue surface of a river as it rushes towards a horseshoe-shaped waterfall that curves away from us in this horizontal landscape painting. The water is white and frothy right in front of us, where the shelf of the riverbed seems to change levels near the edge of the falls. Across from us, the water is also white where it falls over the edge. A thin, broken rainbow glints in the mist near the upper left corner of the painting and continues its arc farther down, between the falls. The horizon line is just over halfway up the composition. Plum-colored clouds sweep into the composition at the upper corners against a lavender purple sky. Tiny trees and a few buildings line the shoreline to the left and right in the deep distance.

Niagara's tremendous success both in the United States and abroad secured Frederic Edwin Church's reputation as the most famous American painter of his time. The acquisition of Niagara by the young Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1876 secured the institution's reputation and inspired other major artists to seek representation in the collection.

In the 19th century, many American artists attempted to capture the power and beauty of Niagara Falls. Widely considered the nation's greatest natural wonder as well as a symbol of its youthful vigor and promise, the site was also deemed far superior to any natural phenomenon in Europe. Church's majestic 1857 canvas reveals the vista from the Canadian shore, based on oil and pencil sketches he had made during several visits to the site in 1856. He was the first to render the spectacle on such a grand scale, with such fine detail, naturalism, and immediacy. He heightened the illusion of reality by selecting a non-traditional format of canvas with a width twice as wide as its height to convey the panoramic expanse of the scene. Moreover, he pushed the plane of the falls nearest the viewer significantly downward to reveal more of the far side as well as the dramatic rush of water. Most notably, he eliminated any suggestion of a foreground, allowing the viewer to experience the scene as if precariously positioned on the brink of the falls. As one writer enthusiastically noted, "this is Niagara, with the roar left out!"

Critics and public alike marveled at the painting, which debuted in a one-painting exhibition at a New York City gallery shortly after its completion. The 25-cent admission allowed each visitor to view the monumental canvas, sometimes using binoculars or other optical aids to enhance the experience. The admission price also included a pamphlet reprinting critics' praises of the canvas and offered exhibition-goers the opportunity to purchase a chromolithograph of the painting. Within two weeks, Niagara had lured 100,000 visitors to glimpse what one newspaper critic described as "the finest oil picture ever painted on this side of the Atlantic." Following its phenomenal success in New York, the painting was exhibited in major cities along the eastern seaboard, made two tours of Britain, and was included in the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris.

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara, 1857, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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We seem to hover over a palm-tree lined river winding into the distance before a monumental, snow-covered mountain at the center of the composition in this horizontal landscape. The spit of land along the riverbank in the lower left corner is filled with lush vegetation, including waving ferns, vines, leafy trees, and palm trees. At the bottom center of the composition, along the shoreline, a boat with a pointed prow is occupied by three people wearing white pants. Two of the men are bare-chested and the third wears a red shirt. The boat is covered with a rounded, hut-like structure and tendrils of white paint, perhaps indicating smoke from a fire, waft up in front of the opening to the structure. The placid river widens beyond the boat and across from us, the distant shore is lined with white buildings with brown thatched roofs and a white church with two spires and a red tile roof. Trees around and beyond the buildings fill in the space before brown, seemingly barren hills that eventually lead to the snowy peaks of the central mountain. The earthy moss and sage greens and tawny browns of the vegetation and river closer to us fades to pale caramel and almost mauve-tinted tan in the hazy distance. A few birds fly across the watery blue sky to our left, and wisps of light gray clouds float in from our right. The artist signed and dated the work with light green against dark green in the lower left corner: “Church 1854.”

Frederic Edwin Church and his fellow 19th-century landscape painters—many of whom were known as Hudson River School painters in accordance with the oft-depicted locale—extolled not only the natural wonders of the northeastern United States, but also those of the American West, South America, Europe, and the Near East, providing armchair travelers with views of exotic scenery most had never seen.

In 1853, Church embarked on a trip to South America, inspired in large part by the writings of prominent German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). The artist was particularly interested in the scientist's epic volume Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. Von Humboldt encouraged artists to record—and therefore share with viewers—the locale's diverse tropical features, for he understood the icy mountaintops, arid deserts, and steamy rainforests as evidence of a divine harmony in nature. Church heeded Von Humboldt's call, retracing his route through the Andes and recording in meticulous pencil and oil sketches details of nature and life along the Magdalena River in Colombia. Upon returning to his New York studio, he created Tamaca Palms using these studies, including those of the tamaca species of palm and the boat in the foreground, known as a champan or bongo. His attention to minute detail in the canvas shows the indelible influence of his teacher, Thomas Cole (1801–1848); moreover, it led one critic to deem Church "the very painter Humboldt so longs for in his writings."

Frederic Edwin Church, Tamaca Palms, 1854, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of William Wilson Corcoran)

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Like his friend and fellow artist Frederic Edwin Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford sought inspiration both in the northeastern United States and further afield. The Ruins of the Parthenon derives from sketches he made while visiting the Acropolis in 1869. In this depiction, the famous temple is surrounded by strewn architectural fragments and studied by a sketching artist (possibly a self-portrait) and his Greek guide. However, the hilltop setting ultimately serves to showcase another more subtle motif: a remarkable range of light and atmospheric effects that Gifford rendered with unrivaled and much-heralded finesse. The sky's nearly invisible transitions from pale pinks near the horizon to deep blues above evidence the artist's frequent remark to his brother that of all of his paintings, this one demanded the most "painstaking labor." Tellingly, Gifford referenced his precise portrayal of light and atmosphere by deeming the completed work "not a picture of a building, but a picture of a day."

The artist considered The Ruins of the Parthenon—his last important painting—the crowning achievement of his career, and hoped that it would be acquired by an American museum. When he visited the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and reached the gallery featuring Church's Niagara, he remarked: "there would be a good place for my ‘Parthenon.'" Although the painting remained unsold at Gifford's death, the Corcoran purchased it at his estate sale in 1881 for $5,100, at the time the highest price ever paid for one of the artist's paintings.

Sanford Robinson Gifford, Ruins of the Parthenon, 1880, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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Winslow Homer, A Light on the Sea, 1897, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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A woman with dark hair pulled up in a bun, wearing a long, lilac-colored silk dress, stands singing in front of woman playing a piano and a man playing a cello in this vertical painting. All the people have pale skin. Light falls from our left onto the singing woman and the musicians sit in shadow behind her. The singing woman’s body is angled to our right, almost in profile, and she looks up and off into the distance with the light illuminating the curve of her forehead and right cheek. She has dark eyes, an oval face, and her lips are parted. She holds a sheet of paper, presumably music, down at her waist. Her pale purple dress is edged with lace at the neck and cuffs. A ruffle runs down the side of her floor-length skirt, and a ruffle lines the bottom hem around her feet. A train affixed to the back of the dress rests on the floor behind her. Both musicians face our right in profile. To our left, the man playing the cello has a white beard and hair, and he wears a dark suit and glasses. To our right, the woman at the piano has dark hair pulled up and she wears a dark dress. The singing woman stands on a brick-red, patterned area rug and the wall behind her is papered with a sunflowers and perhaps leaves against a gold and caramel-brown background. A tall, light blue vase sits on a mantlepiece along the left edge, next to the cello player. A gold-framed picture hangs on the wall over the pianist.

Thomas Eakins made his career portraying upper-middle class residents of his native Philadelphia. Such depictions are anything but static likenesses; instead they show individuals engaged in their chosen profession or avocation, whether at the city's rivers and parks, in its surgical amphitheaters, or in its public and private performance venues, as in Singing a Pathetic Song.

This evocative depiction of the home musicale—popular in Victorian America generally, and in Eakins' own household in particular—exemplifies the artist's unidealized renderings of his contemporaries as well as his love of music. An earnest young singer accompanied by a pianist and cellist in a richly decorated interior concentrates on holding a note of her tune. The pathetic song, the most popular type of melody in 1860s and 1870s America, told tales of woe, such as death or tragic circumstances befalling innocent women or children. Recited by the singer as autobiographical, such ballads commonly moved audiences to tears. 

A leading art critic of the day called the work "admirably painted, and . . . absolutely true to nature, a perfect record of the life amid which the artist lives." The painting remained in Eakins's collection until late 1885, when Edward Hornor Coates, a trustee of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (where Eakins taught), asked to exchange it for his Swimming (1885, Amon Carter Museum), a commissioned painting whose depiction of the artist and his male students posed nude in a landscape was both unexpected and controversial.

Thomas Eakins, Singing a Pathetic Song, 1881, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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A woman with pale white skin and dark brown hair, wearing a long sleeved, floor-length white satin dress, stands facing and looking out at us in front of a chaise lounge in a room hung with gold drapery in this vertical, full-length portrait. The woman’s body is angled slightly to our left and her hair is piled on top of her head. She has dark eyes, a straight nose, and her rose-red lips are closed. She wears pearl earrings, a string of pearls at her throat, and a brooch with two large pearls at her chest. The deep V-neck of her dress is edged with layers of sheer fabric that drapes over her shoulders. Some areas of the dress are loosely painted but gives the impression of lace edging along the collar and bows down the front of the bodice and at the elbows of the half sleeves. The train of the dress bunches around her feet behind her to our left and is either gathered at her left hip, on our right, or her dress has a voluminous bustle there. She holds a partially open fan in her right hand, on our left, and black opera glasses in the opposite hand, nestled into the bustle. She wears a gold bangle on her left wrist and a glittering blue stone ring on the ring finger of that hand. She stands before a chaise longue—a half-chair, half sofa—edged with gold and upholstered with gold fabric. A swath of golden ivory fabric hangs behind her like a curtain. The artist signed and dated the work in the lower right corner in dark brown paint: “John S. Sargent 1883.”

Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherford White made quite an impact on her expatriate acquaintances in Europe. Novelist Edith Wharton recalled her striking beauty: "It is hard to picture nowadays the shell-like transparence, the luminous red-and-white, of those young cheeks untouched by paint or powder, in which the blood came and went like the lights of an aurora." Although she appears rather serious in this formal portrait, Mrs. White—called "Daisy"—was known to be quite lively in her social pursuits. As the author Henry James wrote from London in 1888: "The happy American here, beyond all others, is Mrs. Henry White."

When Gilded Age aristocrats and socialites wanted someone who could capture both their gifts and their status, they called on John Singer Sargent. Paris was the artist's home from 1874, when he began study there with the well-known portraitist Carolus-Duran, until 1886, when he moved to London. He frequently exhibited portraits at the annual Paris Salon, which led to many new assignments. Such was the case with this likeness of the wealthy Daisy White. Upon seeing Sargent's Lady with the Rose (1882, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) at the Salon of 1882, White arranged her commission. The subject came from a prominent academic and social New York lineage and in 1879 had married diplomat Henry White, scion of a distinguished Maryland family. When White requested her portrait at age 29, her husband was the First Secretary of the American legation in Paris. The couple lived mostly in that city before Henry White was posted to Vienna in 1883 (and later to London).

Sargent began the portrait in late 1882, and worked on it alongside the painting of another American woman living in Paris, Virginie Amélie Gautreau (Madame X, 1884, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). However, White left Paris for obligations in the south of France after only a few sittings. Gathering up the enormous and unusually wide canvas, the artist followed her and kept "brushing away" on the portrait in Nice and back in his Paris studio. The virtuoso handling of the dress—featuring a dazzling array of white fabrics of varying texture, including satin, lace, and tulle—and of the highlights on the fan and opera glasses makes the subject glow against the elegant chaise and muted background.

John Singer Sargent, Margaret Stuyvesant Rutherfurd White (Mrs. Henry White), 1883, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Gift of John Campbell White)

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A sunlit bowl of pale and deep pink flowers sits on a white curtain draped over the sill of an open window in this vertical still life painting. The sill comes about a third of the way up the composition and the open window and landscape beyond fills the top two-thirds. Shell pink and ruby red flowers with pine green leaves fill the shallow, slate-gray bowl. Sunshine highlights one white flower and one blush pink flower, perhaps roses. The white curtain falls over the right half of the window and pools on the sill before draping down and off the bottom edge of the composition. Sunlight dapples the curtain and the surface of the sill, and the paneling of the wall below the window is white. A tawny brown path winds through a pale green lawn and around an ivory-colored house in the landscape seen through the window. The sky turns from silvery blue above to light mauve around trees lining the horizon in the distance.

This charming still life, created just two years after John La Farge took up painting, is primarily a study of color and light. La Farge beautifully renders the effects of sunlight on the white curtain by blending an innovative mix of colors—peach, creamy white, and a light, green-tinged gray—to capture the subtleties of shadow, contour, and light on the fabric. Brushwork, not color or line, distinguishes the curtain from the window ledge and background sky, anticipating modernist art styles such as post-impressionism.

Painted within the year of his marriage to Margaret Mason Perry, Flowers on a Window Ledge may also express the artist's romantic sentiments. Such an interpretation was not lost on critics of the time, one of whom wrote that La Farge's flowers were "burning with love, beauty, and sympathy . . . their language is of the heart, and they talk to us of human love." The setting proves meaningful as well, as the canvas was painted from the window of Hessian House, a Rhode Island inn where La Farge and his wife stayed during the early years of their marriage. Moreover, the white curtain fabric visually evokes a bridal gown; the bowl of pink and red flowers, a bouquet; and the interior setting, the domesticity of marriage.

After a serious illness and a period of financial stress in 1866, the artist stopped producing still-life paintings. When he resumed working, he turned to mural painting and decorative stained glass, considered more conventional artistic practices at the time.

John La Farge, Flowers on a Window Ledge, c. 1861, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Anna E. Clark Fund)

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En route pour la pêche depicts a scene in the quiet fishing village of Cancale, on the north coast of Brittany, France. Against the broad beach at low tide, the town's quay and lighthouse, and cloud-filled blue skies, a group of women and children set out to gather fish and shellfish from shallow pools for their evening dinner. The figures, arranged along the light-dappled shore like figures on a classical frieze, are followed by several more people descending the slipway. John Singer Sargent's impressive composition and deft brushwork endow the popular, but often overly sentimentalized, 19th-century subject of everyday peasant life with an unprecedented freshness.

While this painting gives an impression of spontaneity and facile execution, Sargent devoted an extraordinary amount of effort to preparing it for the 1878 Paris Salon, a highly regulated annual exhibition. The young artist understood the conservative nature of the Salon and therefore executed the canvas as formally and tightly as possible given his training. Even before the Salon closed, the painting had found a patron, marking the second sale of Sargent's career.

Born to American parents in Florence, Italy, Sargent studied in Paris in the 1870s at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts and with the fashionable French painter Carolus-Duran. During these formative years before his rapid rise to fame as a portraitist, Sargent loved to sketch the sea and coastal life while traveling with his family. The artist began to develop En route pour la pêche, along with a related work in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, at age 21. These were his first genre paintings (scenes of everyday life) and, along with their many preparatory works, constituted his first large body of work devoted to one locale.

John Singer Sargent, En route pour la pêche (Setting Out to Fish), 1878, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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We look across a shaded field of snow, through two loosely spaced groves of trees to either side, towards a cobalt-blue mountain that nearly fills this square landscape painting. The base of the mountain comes about a third of the way up the composition and only a narrow band of vibrant turquoise sky runs above it, along the top edge of the canvas. The mountain curves up to its gentle peak to our left of center and slopes down gradually to our right. Patches of white snow stand out against the deep blue mountain just above the treetops. Trees along the mountaintop create a choppy contour against the sky. The broad summit of a second mountain beyond, to our right, is lit by the sun so the face is golden tan, shaded with denim blue. The snowy field close to us is painted with loose brushstrokes in arctic blue. The trees are painted with deep, olive green foliage or needles and tall, dark, straight trunks. Patches of topaz blue and fuchsia-pink appear on the ground among the larger clump of trees, on our left.

Abbott Thayer described Mount Monadnock, the subject of this subdued, violet-blue landscape, as "this dear mountain." It provided continual artistic inspiration and personal solace for the artist throughout his life. In this depiction, he casts the majority of the scene in shadow, save for the stark white mountain peak, illuminated by the rising sun in the dawn sky. Thayer represents the mountaintop in thick, expressive strokes of paint, further differentiating the peak from the more smoothly rendered landscape in the foreground. Born in Boston and raised in rural New Hampshire, Thayer trained in Paris and New York, becoming a successful portrait painter and leading member of the Society of American Artists. Wishing to retain his connection to the countryside, in 1888 Thayer acquired property in the quiet town of Dublin, New Hampshire, an artists' colony with views of his beloved mountain. He would settle there permanently by 1901.

A generation earlier, Mount Monadnock figured prominently in the lives of the transcendentalist poets and philosophers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Both artist and naturalist, Thayer was deeply rooted in transcendental philosophies that imbued his landscapes with cultural, spiritual, and personal significance. He regarded his landscapes as a form of portraiture, true to nature.

Upon learning in 1911 that a group of private developers wanted to purchase an expanse of Mount Monadnock, Thayer successfully organized the local community around its conservation. When he died, his ashes were scattered on its summit.

Abbott Handerson Thayer, Mount Monadnock, probably 1911/1914, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Anna E. Clark Fund)

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There may be no painter more associated with New York City in the early years of the 20th century than George Bellows. Like his fellow urban realists, particularly those of the so-called Ashcan School, Bellows fully subscribed to his mentor Robert Henri's credo: to create work "full of vitality and the actual life of the time." Forty-two Kids depicts a band of lanky, nude, and semi-clad boys engaged in a variety of antics—swimming, diving, sunbathing, smoking, and urinating—on and near a dilapidated wharf jutting out over the East River.

A sharp observer of urban life, Bellows sketched his streetwise subjects with his characteristic vigor and economy of means, and he has carefully rendered their varied ethnic backgrounds. In turn-of-the-century slang, "kids" referred to roaming young hooligans who were frequently the offspring of working-class immigrants living in Lower East Side tenements.

When it was exhibited in New York in 1908, the painting was derided by many critics due to its adventurous subject and exuberant style; one writer called it a "tour de force of absurdity." However, Forty-two Kids was purchased less than a year after its completion, marking the second sale of Bellows's career and his first to a private collector.

George Bellows, Forty-two Kids, 1907, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund)

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Edward Hopper, known for haunting depictions of isolation in American life, was also a dedicated painter of nautical subjects, the result of a lifelong enthusiasm for the sea. In 1934, Hopper and his wife, Jo, built a simple home and studio in South Truro, Massachusetts, to escape summers in New York City. In the ensuing years, he executed a number of maritime works from this location, including Ground Swell.

Despite its bright palette and seemingly serene subject, Ground Swell echoes the themes of loneliness and escape typical of Hopper's oeuvre. The blue sky, sun-kissed figures, and vast rolling water strike a calm note in the picture; however, the visible disengagement of the figures from each other and their noticeable preoccupation with the bell buoy placed at the center of the canvas call into question this initial sense of serenity. The lone dark element in a sea of blues and whites, the buoy confronts the small catboat in the middle of an otherwise empty waterscape. Its role, to emit a warning sound in advance of unseen or imminent danger, renders its presence in the picture ominous. The cirrus clouds in the blue sky—often harbingers of approaching storms—reinforce this sense of disturbance in the otherwise peaceful setting.

Although Hopper resisted offering explanations of his paintings, the signs of impending danger here may also register a more severe disturbance: during the time that Hopper worked on Ground Swell, from August to 15 September 1939, World War II broke out in Europe.

Edward Hopper, Ground Swell, 1939, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, William A. Clark Fund)

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This scene depicts a lively gathering of poets and artists at Petitpas', a French restaurant and boardinghouse in the Chelsea district of New York City. Shown from left to right around the table are literary critic Van Wyck Brooks; painter John Butler Yeats; poet Alan Seeger; the artist's wife, Dolly Sloan; Celestine Petipas (standing); fiction writer Robert Sneddon; miniature painter Eulabee Dix; John Sloan, the artist (corner); Fred King, the editor of Literary Digest; and, in the foreground, Vera Jelihovsky Johnston, wife of the Irish scholar Charles Johnston.
 
Associated with the Ashcan School—a group of urban Realists who espoused the notion of "art for life's sake" instead of "art for art's sake"—John Sloan was well known for his scenes of everyday life. This lively representation of assembled artists and friends comes out of that context, as gatherings such as the one in the painting were common at the time. John Butler Yeats, Irish painter and father of poet William Butler Yeats, lived at Petipas' from 1909 until his death in 1922, and presided nightly at a table in the courtyard. By 1910, when Sloan began this painting, Yeats had become a significant mentor to the artist, especially in his detailed and methodical approach to portraiture. It is notable that Sloan chose to depict Yeats drawing a portrait rather than engaging in the lively conversation for which he was so well known. Sloan's rendering of his own likeness is also noteworthy as one of the most carefully executed and complete within the painting. These choices by Sloan invite a reading of this work as a tribute to the elder Yeats and his significant influence on Sloan.

The painting also functions as a commemoration of the year 1910 in general, a time of several professional accomplishments for Sloan, some of which were celebrated at this famed restaurant.

John Sloan, Yeats at Petitpas', 1910/c. 1914, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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In 1877 Albert Bierstadt displayed this enormous composite of Sierra Nevada mountain views at a New York City exhibition with the generic title Mountain Lake. The following year, inspired in part by the Corcoran Gallery of Art's well-publicized purchase of his rival Frederic Edwin Church's Niagara, Bierstadt offered the work—rechristened Mount Corcoran—to the museum and its founder, William Wilson Corcoran. Staff and board members were deeply suspicious, but Bierstadt presented them with a War Department map showing the mountain's location. Curator William MacLeod opined that a government official had manually added Corcoran's name to the document, but it was revealed that the artist had, in fact, named a specific Sierra Nevada peak for the banker (albeit after he had offered him the canvas). Undeterred by the controversy surrounding the painting's acquisition, the artist stated: "I am happy to have named one of our highest mountains after him, the first to catch the morning sunlight [and] the last to say good night."

Bierstadt was the first artist to use his European training to translate field studies into expansive paintings celebrating western American grandeur. Evident everywhere in Mount Corcoran, from the glassy water to the snowy mountain peaks, are the artist's detailed naturalism and smooth surfaces. Following the discovery of gold in California, the American West became a source of intense fascination for East Coast art patrons and armchair travelers alike who were eager to see images of the vistas enthusiastically described by forty-niners, surveyors, and journalists. In 1859 Bierstadt joined US Army Colonel Frederick W. Lander's survey party to the Rocky Mountains. Four years later he set his sights on California's spectacular Yosemite Valley. When he returned to New York following that trip, Bierstadt began producing stunning landscapes such as Mount Corcoran that introduced eastern audiences to the natural wonders of the West.

Albert Bierstadt, Mount Corcoran, c. 1876-1877, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

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The Last of the Buffalo is Albert Bierstadt's final great western landscape. Measuring six by ten feet, it perfectly complements his first painting of that size, Lake Lucerne (1858), also in the National Gallery of Art collection. The ambitious landscape combines a variety of elements he had sketched during early western excursions (1859, 1863, and 1871), and is closely related to later studies he made in Yellowstone National Park in the summer of 1881 (contained in two sketchbooks also in the National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection). Despite its composite nature, the view incorporates many topographical features representative of the Great Plains. The dead and injured buffalo in the foreground occupy a dry, golden meadow; their counterparts cross a wide river in the middle ground; and others graze as far as the eye can see as the landscape turns to prairies, hills, mesas, and snowcapped peaks. Likewise, the fertile landscape nurtures a profusion of plains wildlife, including elk, antelope, fox, rabbits, and even a prairie dog at lower left.

Many of these animals turn to look at the focal group of Native American, horse, and charging buffalo locked in combat. In contrast to his careful record of landscape and fauna, the artist's rendering of this confrontation and its backdrop of seemingly limitless herds is a romantic invention rather than an accurate depiction of life on the frontier. By the time Bierstadt painted this canvas, the buffalo was on the verge of extinction, as were the Plains Indians who relied on it for their survival. The animals had been reduced to only about 1,000 from 30 million at the beginning of the century, largely because of demand for their hides in the fashion industry. Scattering buffalo skulls and other bones around the deadly battle, Bierstadt created what one scholar described as "a masterfully conceived fiction that addressed contemporary issues"—one that references, even laments, the destruction wrought by encroaching settlement.

Albert Bierstadt, The Last of the Buffalo, 1888, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Corcoran Collection (Gift of Mary Stewart Bierstadt [Mrs. Albert Bierstadt])

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