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Scenes of American life: treasures from the Smithsonian American Institute
01 January 2002


The Dayton Art Institute, Dayton, Ohio is running until March 24th 2002 an exhibition titled “Scenes of American Life: Treasures from the Smithsonian American Art Museum”.

Scenes of American Life includes more than 60 important paintings and sculptures celebrating daily life in America during the first half of the 20th century.

As artists moved away from the elegance and formality of the Gilded Age, they began presenting everyday people at work and play. The energetic and often witty artworks symbolize what was the true strength of the nation. Rockwell Kent's “Snow Fields” (1909), the earliest work in the exhibition, portrays women, children and dogs playing on a sunny winter day and captures the new spirit of the time.
Likewise, paintings by William Glackens, Agnes Tait and Paul Cadmus give visual commentary - which is at times cynical - on family activities, social happenings and other daily occurrences.

During the early part of the 20th century, work and industry also inspired American artists, who were largely fascinated with heavy industry and factory production, especially during the Depression years of high unemployment. Works like Reginald Marsh's homage to the machine in “Locomotives, Jersey City” and the mural Automotive Industry by Marvin Beerbohm invite speculation about the work of common labourers, a subject not yet explored in any great depth. Similarly, the economic state of the country, as it affected and was affected by industry and incidents like the 1929 market crash, is the subject of O. Louis Guglielmi's “Relief Blues” - showing a welfare worker filling out relief paperwork - as well as William Gropper's “Construction of the Dam” and Moses Soyer's “Artists on the WPA”, looking at the influence of New Deal projects in society.

Of course, early 20th century artists, particularly those of African-American heritage, also examined life for non-white and immigrant Americans. In William H. Johnson's “Café and Early Morning Work”, as well as “The Library” by Jacob Lawrence, the artists worked within a Modernist framework to celebrate African-American culture, history and a common experience. But, while many artists took inspiration from America's daily social, political and economic developments, others stepped back to appreciate the rural beauty of their country's landscape. Works by Grant Wood, Alexandre Hogue, Andrew Wyeth and Thomas Hart Benton take heartfelt looks at the land and what it can symbolize. Finally, works by Edward Hopper, Harvey Dinnerstein and George Tooker contemplate other diverse aspects of American Life during an interesting and dynamic period in the country's history.

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