EIGHTEEN EIGHTY-NINE was a great year for American art. It was the year American painters took Paris, if not exactly by storm, then certainly by surprise, with the largest exhibition of American paintings everseen in Europe until that time. The French saw it as a challenge, which, in a way, it was. They could afford to be philosophical, however, for they mounted their own ``blockbuster'' exhibition that year to celebrate a century of French art. It proved that French painting continued to reign supreme, and that it still set the standard by which all other styles - including those of the Americans - were measured.
Even so, the United States made its point. Europe, from that date on, would no longer be able to ignore American art.
The 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris - where all this occurred - was the largest, the most varied, and the most art-conscious exposition ever. (It was also the one for which the 986-foot Eiffel Tower was built.) It covered more than 200 acres along both banks of the Seine River, and drew 32 million visitors. Whether one viewed it from an architectural, artistic, or scientific vantage point, nothing quite like it had ever been seen before.
American art was displayed in the Palace of Fine Arts. Two juries of American artists, one in New York and one in Paris, made the final selection. By the time they finished, they had accepted 336 paintings by 189 artists.
A significant number of these, including many of the exhibition's outstanding pieces, have been re-assembled at The New York Historical Society for a partial recreation of the original show. ``Paris 1889: American Artists at the Universal Exposition'' was organized by Annette Blaugrund for The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her task, as she indicates in her preface to the exhibition catalog, was a formidable one: ``...some paintings were unavailable because of condition problems, some were subject to prior commitments, some had been deaccessioned, some were in collections that do not lend, and some had been destroyed....''
Even so, roughly 125 were located. Paintings not exhibited for many years were borrowed from museums and private collections in the US and abroad and were reunited for the first time since the 1889 exposition. Among the artists included are William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Eastman Johnson, George Inness, John Singer Sargent, J. Alden Weir, James McNeill Whistler, and Worthington Whittredge.
Probably the best-known, and certainly one of the most impressive paintings on view, is Johnson's ``Two Men.'' Large, simple and dignified, it dominates the gallery where it is hung - something it was not permitted to do at the 1889 exposition. According to photographs of the earlier installation, Johnson's magnificent oil was hung beneath two other very large canvases - neither of which came even close to matching it in quality - and was flanked by four others, only one of which, Robert Gifford's ``Near the Coast'' deserved the honor.
Fortunately, curators no longer feel obligated to cover every inch of wall space. And because they don't, superb but modest paintings such as Chase's ``The Park,'' Wier's ``Lengthening Shadows,'' Eakins' ``The Veteran,'' and Robert Vonnoh's ``Studio Comrade'' can receive the attention they deserve.
Vonnoh, in fact, is one of several artists whose names will almost certainly be unfamiliar to all but a handful of art professionals. And that's a pity, since a number of works produced by these little-known painters are excellent, and two or three (including Vonnoh's) are first-rate. I doubt, for instance, that the names of Otto Bacher, James Beckwith, Ruger Donoho, Alice De Wolff Kellogg, and John Patrick will ring a bell with 95 percent of those who visit this exhibition, and yet every one of these artists did remarkable work.
Alerting us to this fact may only be a side effect of this excellent exhibition, but it's a significant one. The names of such artists as Chase, Eakins, Johnson, Sargent, and Whistler may dominate this show, but the paintings by these famous artists don't necessarily follow suit. Two of Sargent's oils, for example, strike me as rather ordinary, and Whistler's ``Arrangement in Black, No. 7,'' is not up to the level achieved by several other artists of less distinguished reputations. On the basis of what I've seen here, I intend to be on the lookout for other canvases by Howard Butler, Julius Stewart, Walter MacEwan, and Vonnoh. They may be rated as ``losers'' in most American art history books, but they certainly aren't in mine.
A final but interesting fact. A substantial number of the American paintings exhibited in 1889 won prestigious medals; seven were bought by the French government for their national museums; many others were purchased by major Americans museums and important expositions.
Yes, indeed. Eighteen eighty-nine was a great year for American art!