A Different American Voice — American Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Minneapolis Institute of the ArtsIn some ways, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts is similar to the Brooklyn Museum. Both are encyclopedic, multi-cultured institutions founded in the gilded age. The original buildings were both designed by McKim Mead and White; yet neither eventually achieved the grandiosity of the Beaux-Arts that was planned. The Brooklyn Museum finished one sixth of the initial plan while MIA finished about one seventh. There is as much fame in the Egyptian Art in the Brooklyn Museum as in the Asian Art in MIA. Both have kept their period rooms and in one particular case, both have one room from the Joseph Russell house of Providence, Rhode Island.

Yet while the Brooklyn Museum’s American Galleries are arranged in a thematic approach, they are nevertheless mainstream. After all, the history of American Art is centered in the New York region. In Minneapolis, however, we hear a different voice — bold, refreshing and quintessentially American.

In our first visit to the museum which was only two and half hours long, we had hoped to go through the American Art galleries while at least glimpsing through the vast Asian art collection. And we failed. Partially because we didn’t expect there to be such strong focus in American decorative arts. (They do help relieve visual fatigue from pictures.) And what’s more interesting is how the regional art and art with local interests are coherently strung together. The result is a totally refreshing perception of American art with a flavor of Upper Mississippi and the Midwest.

Weathervanes at Minneapolis Institute of ArtsIn fact, its American art galleries are not chorologically arranged. One does not have to start touring American art with middle class merchants portraits by Duyckinck, Smibert or Copley. In the MIA, the American art galleries start with the weathervanes.  Having seen individual ones here and there at different antiques shows, it is revealing once different kinds (mostly roosters) of weathervanes are assembled together on one white wall. Some were by famous companies, while a few have unknown makers. They vary in material (wood, iron and mostly copper), regions and sometimes breed of chicken; yet the underlining theme is clear:  the marriage of expressive decoration and utilitarian purpose  is carried out through the veins of American decorative art.

If William Matthew Prior’s child portraiture is a natural extension from the first wall of weathervanes, a pair of early armoires from Illinois begins to bring in local history and interests into the presentation. The armoires demonstrate that the early settlement of upper Mississippi was more influenced by Canadian French than English. They are, however, not of the lightweighted country French style that is popular now in vintage markets – here, the moldings are strictly rectilinear;  the pine wood frames heavy; the construction solid with joiner work; and the pattern of diamonds motif painted in blue (against red)  is  vernacular of French high court style. There are no Chippendale or Federal furniture nearby for comparison; still, the absence of Anglo-American elements, in particular, neo-classical influence, is an interesting find.

Most of portraits from the colonial and federal periods are dispersed throughout period rooms; together with MIA’s emphasis on regional interests, they justify a leap in art history into the period pertinent to twin cities in the next galleries.

Seth Eastman Saint Anthony Falls Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Seth Eastman, Saint Anthony Falls, Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Saint Anthony Falls, the highest waterfall on the Mississippi and approximately two miles away, is the subject of a few paintings. Both Henry Lewis and Seth Eastman painted the scene  as it was in 1848, when little if any signs of hydropower accomplishment  could be seen. Eastman acutely captured the newly built dam by Franklin Steele, on the east side of Nicollet Island; but he scaled down the human intervention to almost being non-intrusive. Lewis painted the scene in the year of 1855, when more dams and mills were built around. In the picture, he willfully reversed the human progression and presented the falls in an idyllic landscape with a native Indian contemplating the power of nature’s wonder. The St. Paul native and the first Minnesota artist, Alexis Jean Fournier is popular in the gallery. He painted six views of Minneapolis in the summer of 1888, “Farnham’s Mill at St. Anthony Falls, Minneapolis” is the only one displayed directly related to the falls, out of which the city grew into a large metropolis in the late 19th century.

James J. Hill, Tiffany Tray, Minneapolis Institute of ArtsBy the time Fournier painted Lowry Hill and Saint Anthony Falls, the twin cities could almost be coined by one person’s name —  James J. Hill, the empire builder. The Great Northern Railroad was the first transcontinental built without public money and just a few land grants and was one of the few transcontinental railroads not to go bankrupt. James Hill was an avid art collector. Although his taste can be better reflected in the European collection, we did, later, spot an early William Trost Richards’ seascape painting (dated 1883) from Hill’s collection. A special presentation tray, made by Tiffany & Co. in 1884, was commissioned by local businessmen to honor Hill’s achievement and also to commemorate the completion of the Stone Arch Railroad Bridge. Yet a few years later, when his house was built on 240 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, he rejected the design firm’s proposal of installing Tiffany stained-glass window and proclaimed they were “anything but what I want.” Practical, efficient, and extremely self discipline, Hill commented he did not care about building a railroad to Rocky mountain scenery and all he wanted was of shortest distance, lowest grade and least curves. What would he think if he knew that the Stone Arch Bridge would eventually become a pedestrian bridge with great tourism attraction?

Edwin Dawes, Minneapolis Institute of ArtsThe mills scenes extend from the tray into the next gallery where Edwin M. Dawes’ “Channels to the Mills” really captivated me. I had never heard of this painter before. Largely self-taught, he was once a sign painter in Minneapolis before moving to southern California. Painted in a rhythmic combination of emerald green, mauve and lavender , Channels to Mills is a romantic view of industrial scenes: Along a nearly frozen riverbed, the water leads to mill factories, looming  large under back light. Against the wintry stillness, smoke from chimneys and trains, injects vitality into the dark masses of urban buildings.

The milling industry dominated Minneapolis economy in the early decades. Among many mills Dawes saw when he painted the picture, there may include the plant of Cream of Wheat. Between 1903 and 1928, the company took the building at the First Ave and Fifth Street. It is during this period that the company commissioned many original artworks for innovative campaigns with full-page advertisement in magazines. In 1906 the marketing genius Emery Mapes chose N. C. Wyeth  (along with many other well-known painters) for the illustration and the result image “Rural Delivery” still resonates today.

N.C. Wyeth, Rural Delivery, Cream of Wheat, Minneapolis Institute of ArtsFormerly named as “Where the Mail Goes, ‘Cream of Wheat’ Goes”, the painting epitomizes the hardship of frontier living : Even full lit under the full moon, the land looks barren and maybe hostile. Yet the sight of a postman at a mailbox is an embodiment of home and humanity. If mails never fail to bring news of families and friends afar and thus nourishing souls with warmth and comfort, then the picture suggests that Cream of Wheat may nourish bodies with equal delight.

The same theme of exemplary works by great artists with subjects of regional interests is carried out thoroughly. In particular the Prairie school led by Louis Henri Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright is centered in one large space echoed with a grand view of the city skyline. The Purcell Cutts House, located less than two miles away is owned by the institution, but a model of Wright’s Frank W. Little house helps illustrate how the surrounding architectural elements (and in some way fragments) could be used coherently within one space. My favorite, however, are terracotta lunette panels designed by Louis Henri Sullivan for the exterior of the Scoville Building in Chicago. The stylistic ferns unfurl in such a way that they seem to propel a tendency of growing endlessly in various forms, had the genius had an unrestricted space. It was meant to be used between the fourth and fifth story windows. How many of us would even bother look one floor up nowadays when wandering around modern skyscrapers?

We became overwhelmed from there and meandered through the European galleries and some period rooms before getting back to see the rest of American art galleries. It was there, I was greeted by another surprise – Arthur Davie’s Night’s Overture of 1907. It must be extraordinary air and light in the western states; Davies’ trip to Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California in 1905 proved to be revelatory. The painting was one astounding fruit from the western trip.  To me, the cloud has such a fierce vitality against a near sinister blue sky that the moody landscape almost evokes some peculiar narratives. Deviating away from the naturalistic rules, Davies forcefully created patterns of directional curves (in clouds and trees) that abstract the human emotions into the essential elements (lines, forms and mass) of landscape. It is a powerful image that I will not forget.

Although we did browse the Chinese collection quickly, thirty minutes will not do justice for a collection of this depth and breadth. We will find our way to visit the Minneapolis Institute of Arts again, hopefully before the winter.


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