The Patent Office now houses one of the most splendid collections of American painting and sculpture, housed in an impressive work of architecture. Our national character has never been solely about commerce and machinery; from the beginning we have made fine achievements in art and the imagination.
Nothing soothes the soul like a museum. Museums and churches are for me the most comforting of places, speaking of permanence and recollection. Especially in the month of July when patriotic feelings run high, I enjoy rambling through the Smithsonian American Museum of Art in Washington, located in the massive Greek Revival structure formerly known as the Old Patent Office. The museum has changed locations and names many times since its founding in 1829, and it has been situated its present building for the past fifty years.
The American Art Museum deserves to be better known. One reason for its relative obscurity might be that American art is itself not well known, even among Americans. To stroll into the museum is to discover an honorable tradition in painting and sculpture, comparable to yet distinct from that of Europe.
American artists have always remained rooted in the everyday, and the scenes that greet you on these walls are ones you recognize from growing up—majestic landscapes, still life, scenes of home and farm and hearth, and of course the chronicle of our history.
Those history painters often had an endearing way of giving our American story a classical resonance. German émigré Emmanuel Leutze reacted to the fresh flush of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny with a painting sometimes referred to as Westward Ho! The finished work adorns the House of Representatives, but there is a glowing study for it at the American Art Museum. The scene shows caravans of pioneers striking out for the West, the “New Eden,” symbolized by the San Francisco Bay. Along the border of the painting are depicted travelers and searchers of history ranging from Columbus to Hercules to the Three Magi.
Even more extravagant is The Apotheosis of Washington, in which Constantino Brumidi pictures the founding father in heaven, surrounded by allegorical figures representing the original thirteen colonies. In one corner, the goddess Athena vanquishes evil, personified by none other than—Jefferson Davis! Again this is a study for a larger work, adorning the U.S. Capitol. Brumidi was Greek-Italian, and in this work he combined Greek mythology and Italian Renaissance influence into a fantastical symbolic rendition of U.S. history.
Occupying a whole wall to itself is one of the most stunning of all landscapes, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains by Albert Bierstadt—another German immigrant who found success on our shores. So theatrical were Bierstadt’s that he charged admission to view them, “unveiling” them before a rapt audience.
Powerful and visionary scenes of nature were caught by such artists as Frederick Church in his Aurora Borealis and William Beard in his whimsical The Lost Balloon, suggesting any number of religious allegories.
But not only paintings are to be seen at the museum. I am fond of a flamboyant, decorated Steinway piano on the upper floor, as well as several sculpture busts in idealized classical Grecian style by Hiram Powers. The museum offers pleasure to the lover of architecture and décor, too; each room is beautiful and is painted and lit so as to enhance the aesthetic qualities of the paintings.
Perusing the museum’s collection, you realize how many artistic styles American art encompasses. There are Romantic landscapes like Bierstadt’s, Impressionism, and modern and abstract art. One section is devoted to realist paintings created under a New Deal program to aid artists during the Depression (many of these are in the general vein of Edward Hopper). Our history as a nation may be comparatively short, but we did catch up rather quickly to all the aesthetic trends.
I haven’t mentioned one of the loveliest features of the museum: its long, airy, canopied courtyard, an invitation to quiet leisure with its fountain and cafe. One seems to travel back in time to the world of gracious repose of former centuries. In summer it is a veritable oasis, cool in the summer and often filled with orchids and other floral displays. The museum also houses a lecture and recital hall and a gallery where in 1865 President Lincoln held his inaugural ball.
American Art is part of the Smithsonian Institution and like its sister branches is free to the public. One is mightily grateful that such an outpouring of beauty is free of charge. Anyone who visits the American Art Museum gets a twofer, since the National Portrait Gallery occupies the same building. Here you can walk in the famous Hall of Presidents with its presidential portraits, as well as depictions of famous Americans of four centuries and every field of endeavor. The connection between art and history is stronger than ever here.
And that is one of the great takeaways from a visit to this museum. Art tells the story of mankind, and one of the best ways to get a feel for the history and character of America is to look at her pictures, which present the scenes, personalities, and ideals which have shaped her. It is a more tactile and alluring way into history than can come from any written text. A great deal of America is bottled up here, and walking through the museum evokes a play of emotions—heroism, the awe of nature, the humor and charm of everyday life—that make you fall in love with home.
The American Art Museum was established at a time (the early 19th century) when Americans were becoming conscious of the need to develop the habits and traditions of high culture—to counter the “rough and ready” reputation we had abroad. This calls to mind a statement of Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad, his irreverent Old World travelogue, comparing America and Europe:
The popes have long been the patrons and preservers of art, just as our new, practical republic is the encourager and upholder of mechanics. In their Vatican is stored up all that is curious and beautiful in art; in our Patent Office is hoarded all that is curious or useful in mechanics.
The irony is that the Patent Office now houses one of the most splendid collections of American painting and sculpture, housed in an impressive work of architecture. In fact our national character has never been solely about commerce and machinery; from the beginning we have made fine achievements in art and the imagination. A visit to the Smithsonian American Art Museum reminds us that it’s high time we started appreciating some of our American Old Masters.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Among the Sierra Nevada, California” (1868) by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The other images in the essay are “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way” (1861) by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; “Apotheosis of Washington” (1865) by Constantino Brumidi (1805-1880), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; “Aurora Borealis” (1865) by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; and “The Lost Balloon” (1882) by William Holbrook Beard (1825-1900), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.