Ask Jeremy Tessmer, curator of 19th- and 20th-century art with Sullivan Goss, for a guided tour of The Last New Century, and you’ll get a primer in American art history. For this show, Tessmer has drawn from among the gallery’s most significant works to give a picture of the dramatic shifts in representation that occurred in the 40 or so years spanning the dawn of the 20th century.
Two pieces face off across the gallery’s main space as if defending two competing ideologies. On the right as you enter the space, you’ll find Albert Bierstadt’s “Saint Anthony’s Falls” (c. 1887). The oil painting is a classic example of the Hudson River School style: It’s highly detailed, down to the fine strokes that capture each rivulet of water and each leaf on trees. This is an American landscape characterized by rugged, wild power—power that begs to be harnessed or conquered. By the late 19th century, this version of realism and its emphasis on human domination was fast fading, replaced with increasingly romantic visions.
One natural conclusion of this shift was a return to mythological and classical themes in the depiction of nature. At the opposite end of the room hangs a work that represents these shifts. This panoramic, neoclassical mural study by an unknown artist is a recent acquisition for the gallery. Thought to date from 1915, it is a sublime vision of the American landscape, where purple mountains settle into soft folds in the far distance, and a procession of figures in the foreground recalls classical figures—gods and goddesses, nymphs and maenads, some of them reminiscent of early modern dancer Isadora Duncan in their flowing garments and wild abandon.
In between these two extremes are fine examples of other styles as artists explored new ways to picture America. Edward Potthast’s “Santa Barbara Mission” from 1905 takes an impressionistic approach to its subject, as does George Gardner Symons’s “Fall Afternoon” (c. 1910), in which the artist captures the brilliant yellows and reds of turning leaves in loose, fluid strokes. Ransome Holdredge’s “Landscape with Cattle” from 1895 provides an interesting foil to Bierstadt’s vision: Here, nature is bucolic and serene, the water still beneath a moody sky, the tone emotionally evocative rather than rousing.
Among the other gems in this show are Nell Brooker Mayhew’s “Sycamores in a Mountain Landscape” (c. 1910), where patches of brilliant color against a dark ground push in the direction of fauvism, and John Duncan’s “Pensive” (c. 1920), a symbolist work in which a single female figure stands in profile on craggy seaside cliffs, her white gown and headdress suggesting her mythical status.