America: Painting a Nation is the latest exhibition in the excellent Sydney International Art Series, which brought us Francis Bacon: Five Decades last year. This new exhibition offers to chart the development of American painting through the history of the United States from the 18th century to the mid 20th century. This means a very broad selection of themes and styles, from early portraits to the triumph of abstract expressionism.
The paintings are arranged in chronological order. The first few rooms contain portraits of Native Americans and early settlers, encounters between their respective cultures and sweeping landscapes. We then shift to more social concerns with portrayals of everyday scenes of labour and family life in rural surroundings.
In the next room two stunning society portraits particularly stand out, one by John Singer Sargent and the other by James Abbott McNeill Whistler. They were part of a generation of American artists who established themselves in Europe, where they encountered immense success.
Arguably one of the most remarkable paintings in this exhibition, Edward Hopper’s House at Dusk is a perfect example of the sense of isolation and the tension between nature and manmade structures that characterise most of his work.
One of the effects of urbanisation on American art was for artists to embrace modernist styles as a way to express the exhilarating pace of life in the metropolis.
The exhibition concludes with abstract expressionism works by, among others, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, from a time when America rose to the forefront of the art world.
With such variety of subjects and styles there is much for everyone to admire in this exhibition. If you are not convinced yet, ask yourself: “when am I going to see again on Australian soil an exhibition that gathers works by Cassat, Hopper, Pollock, Rothko, Sargent and Whistler?” That’s right: not in a very, very long time.
America: Painting a Nation is on at The Art Gallery of NSW until 9 February 2014.