Crystal Bridges Announces Landscape, Tapestry

A luminous 19th-century landscape and a contemporary tapestry that confronts viewers with Civil War-era racial violence, both by important African American artists, are the latest works announced by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Flatboat Men (1865) by Robert Scott Duncanson builds on the collection’s strength in Hudson River School paintings, joining works by Jasper Cropsey, Thomas Moran and Asher Durand. Duncanson is thought to be the first black artist in the United States to make a living as a painter and become internationally known. A Warm Summer Evening in 1863 (2008) by Kara Walker supplements other post-modern works in the museum’s collection that use unconventional media to rethink the past. Walker is widely acclaimed for exploring the intersection of race, sexuality and violence through the traditionally proper Victorian medium of cut-paper silhouettes.

Shimmering sky and water envelope the minuscule figures in Robert Scott Duncanson’s Flatboat Men. This pastoral idealization of American industry and wilderness, painted late in Duncanson’s career, radiates a serenity characteristic of his work.

“This painting documents the timber industry but also romanticizes the landscape in a manner typical of the Hudson River School,” said Manuela Well-Off-Man, assistant curator. “The tiny scale of the figures emphasizes the insignificance of the human within the grand scale of nature.”

Largely self-taught as an artist, Duncanson was born in Seneca County, New York sometime between 1817 and 1821 and was raised in the more tolerant atmosphere of his father’s native Canada. He returned to his mother’s home near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1841 and thereafter traveled widely, working as an itinerant artist and sketching landscapes throughout the United States and Canada. In the early 1850s a prominent Cincinnati landowner and abolitionist, Nicholas Longworth, commissioned a series of eight large murals for his home that marked the largest single project in Duncanson’s career and financed the first of several European tours. Late in life, Duncanson suffered from mental illness that may have been linked to lead paint poisoning from his early work as a house painter and years of grinding and mixing paints. He died in 1872.

Duncanson’s Longworth murals may be viewed at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati; his work is also represented in the Detroit Institute of Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Ga., and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., among others. His paintings were exhibited in the United States and abroad during his lifetime and are the subject of growing interest among collectors and scholars.

Kara Walker is part of a new generation of artists who look to the past for inspiration, presenting historic images in new and sometimes unsettling ways. She is best known for creating theatrical room-size tableaux of black cut-paper silhouettes – often stereotypical figures from the Deep South engaged in acts of extreme violence and cruelty. Walker brings a new dimension to her work in A Warm Summer Evening in 1863. This tapestry, Walker’s first, is based on an engraving originally published in Harper’s Magazine during the Civil War that documented the destruction of an orphanage for black children in New York City. By choosing this event, Walker focuses attention on labor tensions between immigrants and freed slaves in the North. The black felt silhouette of a lynched female figure that is superimposed on the scene, her noose tied in a neat bow, is not based on a real person, but effectively telegraphs the horror of the racially motivated violence.

“It’s just this type of collision between documented history and imagined history that makes Kara Walker’s work so strong,” said Don Bacigalupi, director. “This work speaks to the complexity of race relations in the Civil War era.”

In this work Walker has also juxtaposed pop culture and folk art forms with tapestry, a format originally made for the wealthy elite. In the exhibition catalog Demons, Yarns & Tales: Tapestries by Contemporary Artists Walker said: “The engraving, which is an early example of mass-media information, is very crude … I liked the irony of transferring this lowly craft into a medium once used for kings and princes. There’s also an unwitting humility about the cutout silhouettes. It’s an undervalued craft form.”

Kara Walker was born in Stockton, Calif. in 1969 and moved to Stone Mountain, Ga. at age 13, a cultural shift that profoundly shaped her development as an artist. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the Atlanta College of Art in 1991 and her Master of Fine Arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1994. At age 27 she became one of the youngest recipients of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation (“Genius”) Fellowship, and in 2002 she was chosen to represent the United States in the São Paulo Biennial in Brazil. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally, with the 2007 exhibition Kara Walker: My Complement, My Oppressor, My Enemy, My Love organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis providing the most comprehensive overview of her work to date. Walker currently lives in New York, where she is a professor of visual arts at Columbia University. Her work is included in the collections of numerous major museums, among them the Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art, both in New York City, and the Art Institute of Chicago .

6 thoughts on “Crystal Bridges Announces Landscape, Tapestry

  1. Pingback: Wall Tapestry
  2. Boy, it sure is hard to put together an American collection nowadays. Ms. Walton is to be commended for trying to unite art, nature & architecture and bring it to a region of the country that traditionally hasn’t had a big arts scene. While she is advancing American artistic integrity in Bentonville, the Pew Trusts, The Annenberg Foundation and the state of Pennsylvania is fouling-up another very special American Art installation, the magnificent Barnes Foundation in Merion, Pennsylvania, which has the most important private collection of post-impressionists in the world and is the reference standard for unifying art, architecture and nature. The Barnes belongs in Merion. For more on Pennsylvania’s disgusting Barnes Move, see


      1. An intersting argument, more people would get to see Crystal Bridges if they moved it to downtown Philly as well. Hmm, good idea: do you think someone will come around to wreck Alice Walton’s vision in a hundred years in the name of public access should Wal-Mart get displaced by the next big chain and if the control of Crystal Bridges can be manipulated into the hands of designing persons?

        While we’re at it we should move Frank Lloyd Wright’s “Falling Water” to central park. And St. Bonaventure’s University’s Rembrandt “The Wandering Jew” with the tear in his eye far away from podunk Bradford, PA. We should move the Statute of Liberty closer to shore. And, we really have to find a way to move Monticello closer to Washington.

        The Barnes in Merion is a true American original, the color in a Cezanne will never pop the way it does in Merion after your eyes have been prepared by the colors of the 12 acre gardens and arboretum surrounding The Barnes Merion, the line in a Cezanne will never be as edgy when they are taken out of the soft, sweeping suburban campus at Merion. The Barnes has more Cezannes than are thought to be in all of Paris. In my opinion, Barnes knew Cezanne, The Father of Modern Art, better than anyone ever has because Barnes lived with those paintings for so many years. The French gave Barnes a medal twice for his artitistic intuition. Barnes could have put his Foundation in Philly and didn’t. He put it in its specially designed Merion home for a good reason and, he did it for us, so we could truly see art.. Now, Pennsylvania wants to tear the art out of this proud American place for a couple sheckles & so we can pay twice as much for a lesser experience in the concrete and smog of Philly. (When I think of it it makes me sick)

        In my opinion, Pew & Annenberg are doing American culture and Cezanne a very great disservice. Peace.


      2. I have to admit, it’s kind of sad to see Durand’s Kindred Spirits leave New York and go all the way down to Arkansas, but as Thomas Jefferson said, the earth is for the living. Moving Falling Water would be no easy feat, and one could argue place is much important to Falling Water than it is to the Barnes. Those impressionist painters weren’t doing their thing in suburban Philadelphia. But that’s not a solid argument either else those paintings would be moving to France. I can see the case for keeping the works of art where the former owner intended and willed them to be. Even Frick’s collection in New York may get moved around eventually even though he forbade it from leaving the house. It hasn’t yet. It is a difficult decision you have there in Philly, but museums now more than ever need visitors to survive and they will have more of them in Center City. We aren’t always able to have things the way we want them, but it seems from here like the tides are against your efforts. As long as the house still exists, it can always be moved back at some future date. If I were you I might focus on what becomes of that building.


      3. Actually, the Barnes Merion is built with stone quarried from the same region where Cezanne was painting. It is a uniquely integrated site and a modern wonder of the world.

        Goes to show how little the American public knows about The Barnes. I guess abuse always happens in secret. Why should the abuse of the American cultural trust be any different?

        Also, access is only a pretextual issue. The Barnes Merion is quite easily accessible where it is – all you need to do is make a reservation like at any good restaurant.

        Once the American people realize what has been done to American cultural integrity by shortsighted rich people with The Barnes Move, I believe that they will resoundingly demand that the art be restored to Merion.

        The vain joke of a monstrosity in center city Philly could be left unfinished as an artistic monument to American arrogance. After all,The Barnes On The Parkway is being built with a committment of $107,000,000.00 in taxpayer money obtained with the key assistance of ex-Sen. Vinny Fumo, the disgraced Philly Senator who is doing 55 months for public corruption.

        The Barnes Move, brought to you by a jailed politician. Prison is for the living. The Barnes belongs in Merion.


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