Art Review: “Taxing Visions: Financial Episodes in Late Nineteenth-Century American Art”

“Tattered and Torn” (1886), by Alfred Kappes. Smith College Museum of art, Northampton, Mass.

It’s not such an alluring title for an art show, and one’s hesitation may well double upon learning that the exhibition – a collaborative effort between The Huntington and the Palmer Museum of Art at Pennsylvania State University – emerged out of the co-curators’ Ph.D. dissertations.

Fortunately, after researching the underbelly of the optimistic American Dream as it applied to art and artists during the last 40 years of the 19th century, Leo G. Mazow and Kevin M. Murphy made their subject fairly accessible to the rest of us.

As the curators (and co-authors) explain, “Taxing Visions” “explores the subject matter of taxes, rent, economic depression, and financial inequality in a group of visually provocative paintings and works on paper.” This tallies up to 34 works from 31 collections, and includes pictures by unfamiliar names as well as a few pieces from the likes of George Inness, Albert Pinkham Ryder and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

During the years represented – from just before the Civil War through Reconstruction and the various financial panics and depressions (1857, 1869, 1873, 1893) – Tonalist and Impressionist landscape paintings were in vogue. As Mazow points out, people in general prefer to have uplifting or peaceful works on their walls, and that “pictures of taxing visions are often sidestepped, banished, overlooked, and otherwise treated in a manner comparable to the downtrodden subjects that appear within them.”

Even today, the general populace believes that art should depict noble and beautiful subjects, something or someone to lift our spirits. If the work is abstract, then bold, imposing lines or forms or splashes of color to depict the strong and the confident or the graceful and the sublime. But an image that shows us the deplorable or the sad – well, most art fanciers seem to take a pass.

As Murphy writes about the artists in “Taxing Visions,” “Their works show how tenuous financial security was for nearly everyone in late nineteenth-century America, whether artist, farmer, or even Wall Street speculator.”

“Panic of 1869” (1869), by Charles Knoll. Colby Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine.

Artists in particular had a hard time (even more than usual), and Murphy discusses at length the many ways that artists struggled to make ends meet. In the latter 19th century, for example, art guilds were formed or consolidated to protect artists from such things as dishonest agents or losses incurred because of mishandling or shipping. In 1889, the American Fine Arts Society emerged out of several less potent organizations, much like those cooperatives that arose to safeguard workers in other sectors of the economy.

Somewhat ironically, “Taxing Visions” is perhaps more in tune with its subject than it would prefer, and that’s because the present economic downturn scaled back the original plans for this exhibition and forced it to become more tightly focused – and smaller.

While we cannot judge what never materialized, the size and the intensity of the present show seems right, and is more intriguing than one might have guessed.

Taxing Visions: Financial Episodes in Late Nineteenth-Century American Art is on view through May 30 at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino. Hours, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday from noon to 4:30 p.m., plus Saturday and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Closed Tuesday. General admission on weekdays is $15 for adults and on weekends it’s $20. Less for seniors, students, etc. The show’s 80-page catalogue, published by Penn State Press, sells for $24.95 paper and is available by phone, (626) 405-2142 or by e-mail: bookstore@huntington.org. For more information about The Huntington, call (626) 405-2100 or go to Huntington.org. ER

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