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The American Story Through Art

Celebrate America’s birthday by looking at 11 paintings that depict some of the people, places, and events that contribute to the unfolding story of America.

Spend a minute or two looking carefully at each painting and consider:
What captures your attention? Why?
What interesting details do you notice? What can you learn from them?
What new ideas does this work of art provoke about the American story?

Explore the works on your own with a self-guided tour.

Childe Hassam, Allies Day, May 1917, 1917, oil on canvas, Gift of Ethelyn McKinney in memory of her brother, Glenn Ford McKinney, 1943.9.1

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In the winter of 1789–1790, President George Washington and his wife, Martha, posed for Edward Savage in New York City, then the nation’s capital. The Washingtons are shown with their grandchildren, Eleanor and George Parke Custis, who the couple adopted after the death of their father, John Parke Custis. On the right is William “Billy” Lee, who served by Washington’s side throughout the Revolutionary War. In this unique interpretation of Washington in his combined civil, military, and familial roles, the artist attempted to capture the likeness of the first president. Savage worked on this ambitious group portrait along with several related images over a seven-year period. One of the most important projects undertaken by a federal-period artist, this painting quickly became an icon of early national pride.

Edward Savage, The Washington Family, 1789-1796, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940.1.2

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As if she does not wish to waste time posing for an artist, Catherine Yates is shown here industriously attending to her sewing. While American taste demanded a realistic depiction of Mrs. Yates’s distinctive face and forthright character, Gilbert Stuart’s lively paint handling is riveting as well. In every passage of this portrait the artist employs some technical tour de force, using a variety of thick or thin, opaque or translucent oil paints for the fabrics, needle, thimble, wedding band, and fingernails. It is little wonder that this work has become one of America’s most famous paintings, as both an artistic masterpiece and a visual symbol of the early republic’s rectitude.

Gilbert Stuart, Catherine Brass Yates (Mrs. Richard Yates), 1793/1794, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1940.1.4

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African-American artist Robert Seldon Duncanson (1821–1872) was widely recognized during his lifetime for pastoral landscapes of American, Canadian, and European scenery. Recent scholarship, however, has begun to focus on a small group of still-life paintings (fewer than a dozen are known) that Duncanson produced during the late 1840s. Spare, elegant, and meticulously painted, these works reflect the tradition of American still-life painting initiated by Charles Willson Peale and his gifted children—particularly Raphaelle and Rembrandt Peale. Classically composed with fruit arranged in a tabletop pyramid, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts includes remarkable passages juxtaposing the smooth surfaces of beautifully rendered apples with the textured shells of scattered nuts.

Robert Seldon Duncanson, Still Life with Fruit and Nuts, 1848, oil on board, Gift of Ann and Mark Kington/The Kington Foundation and the Avalon Fund, 2011.98.1

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Painted at the outset of Inness’s career, The Lackawanna Valley stands out for its sensitive rendering of an early morning’s delicate light and hazy atmosphere. Yet the work’s fame rests chiefly with its subject. Since the mid-20th century, the painting has been embraced by American cultural historians as an iconic image in discussions of 19th-century railroad expansion and technological change. Inness painted The Lackawanna Valley as part of a commission that he received from the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad, but, as evidenced by the tree stumps scattered across the painting’s foreground, he did not shy away from addressing how the industry was actively reshaping the American landscape.

George Inness, The Lackawanna Valley, c. 1856, oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Huttleston Rogers, 1945.4.1

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Cropsey’s particular talent, manifested so clearly in Autumn – On the Hudson River, was his ability to create scenes of grandeur tempered by accessibility, landscapes where poetic vision and fidelity to nature could exist simultaneously. Though painted in England, the work draws upon the artist’s numerous sketching trips in the Hudson River Valley. From a high vantage point looking southeast toward the distant Hudson, the flank of Storm King Mountain is visible. This painting is among the most widely admired of Cropsey’s works and perhaps the finest example of the theme with which he became most closely associated both at home and abroad: the spectacular colors of the American autumn.

Jasper Francis Cropsey, Autumn - On the Hudson River, 1860, oil on canvas, Gift of the Avalon Foundation, 1963.9.1

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One of Lane’s finest paintings from his late career, this work shows a pair of topsail schooners sailing on Maine’s Penobscot Bay at sunset. The vast expanse of colorful sky casts a shimmering, diffuse light over the meticulously rendered vessels and surrounding coastal waters. The scene’s poignant sense of loneliness, time stilled, and nature’s complex beauty abstracted into a few simple shapes suggest a host of possible readings, ranging from a reverence for the divine to a transcendentalist’s response to the physical world. Lumber Schooners reveals Lane’s success in distilling the essentials from long-familiar subjects, transforming the ordinary into the exceptional with incredible refinement.

Fitz Henry Lane, Lumber Schooners at Evening on Penobscot Bay, 1863, oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Francis W. Hatch, Sr., 1980.29.1

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In 1871 Moran was asked to illustrate a magazine article describing a wondrous region in Wyoming called Yellowstone and quickly made plans to travel west. Before he reached the land of geysers and hot springs, he stepped off the train in Green River and discovered a landscape unlike any that he had ever seen. Rising above the dusty railroad town were towering cliffs, reduced by nature to their geologic essence. Throughout his career, the artist repeatedly returned to the western landscape that he saw first —the magnificent cliffs of Green River.

Thomas Moran, Green River Cliffs, Wyoming, 1881, oil on canvas, Gift of the Milligan and Thomson Families, 2011.2.1

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When the Civil War began in 1861, Homer was working as a freelance illustrator for Harper’s Weekly. The artist made two trips to the front, and his resulting sketches were translated into wood engravings published in the magazine. The war also inspired major paintings from his early career, including Home, Sweet Home. Here, two Union soldiers listen to the regimental band shown in the distance; one pauses in the midst of writing a letter. Homer’s mastery of telling detail—threadbare uniforms and meager rations—captures the reality of conditions of life in the field and, along with the painting’s title, evokes the homesickness and loneliness that Homer experienced firsthand.

Winslow Homer, Home, Sweet Home, c. 1863, oil on canvas, Patrons' Permanent Fund, 1997.72.1

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One of the best–known and most beloved artistic images of life in 19th-century America, Breezing Up was first exhibited in 1876, the year of America’s centennial celebration. Critics hailed the work for its freshness and energy. The young boy who holds the boat’s tiller faces the horizon—a forward-looking, optimistic metaphor of his future and, more expansively, of the young United States. The anchor on the boat’s bow was understood to symbolize hope. Amid the general climate of optimism and expectations for the years ahead, contemporary viewers responded positively to Homer’s painterly prediction of “A Fair Wind”—the work’s original title—as America recovered from the aftermath of the Civil War.

Winslow Homer, Breezing Up (A Fair Wind), 1873-1876, oil on canvas, Gift of the W. L. and May T. Mellon Foundation, 1943.13.1

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Bellows’s charismatic teacher, Robert Henri, exhorted his students to forego conventionally beautiful, genteel subject matter and to instead paint the grittier aspects of modern urban life they encountered on the streets of New York. The Lone Tenement presents a particularly bleak scene. A tenement district has been razed to the ground except for a single remaining edifice to make room for the new Queensboro Bridge over Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), where the city’s least fortunate were sent after the destruction of their community to reside in the island’s almshouse, workhouse, and penitentiary. A lone tenement building surrounded by wraith-like vagrants remains as a vestigial monument to the area’s marginal lives. The Lone Tenement’s unusual palette of ambers and ochres, oblique point of view, and forlorn poetry profoundly influenced another of Henri’s most gifted protégés, Edward Hopper.

George Bellows, The Lone Tenement, 1909, oil on canvas, Chester Dale Collection, 1963.10.83

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Allies Day, May 1917 is an early example of more than 30 paintings of flag-lined streets executed by Hassam from 1916 to 1919. Hassam commemorates the designation of Fifth Avenue as “the Avenue of the Allies” in the spring of 1917 as America entered the First World War. One of Hassam’s most ambitious efforts, Allies Day is both an arresting pattern of abstract shapes and a concrete representation of America’s city of progress, industry, and hope for the future. Hassam was gratified to have his flag paintings used as expressions of patriotism and even authorized the sale of color reproductions of the painting for various war relief efforts.

Childe Hassam, Allies Day, May 1917, 1917, oil on canvas, Gift of Ethelyn McKinney in memory of her brother, Glenn Ford McKinney, 1943.9.1

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