Enfilade

Exhibition | American Adversaries: West and Copley

Posted in books, catalogues, conferences (to attend), exhibitions by Editor on September 7, 2013

Press release (19 June 2013) from the MFAH:

American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World
Museum of Fine Art, Houston, 6 October 2013 — 5 January 2014

9780300196467This October, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World, an extensive exhibition charting the rise and spectacular success of contemporary history painting in the 18th century through the lives and experiences of two colonial American innovators: Benjamin West (1738–1820) and John Singleton Copley (1738–1815). West and Copley—initially friends and eventually bitter rivals—gained phenomenal fame from their theatrical paintings that romanticized current events and captured the imaginations of the art-viewing public. American Adversaries is on view from October 6, 2013, to January 20, 2014.

American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World traces the ambitious, competitive and highly successful lives of West and Copley through oil paintings, works on paper, sculptures and artifacts. At the core of the exhibition are two paintings that catapulted West and Copley into international fame: West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770; 1779 version) and Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778). The paintings have not been presented together in more than 60 years and never before in this context.

“This is a remarkable opportunity for Museum visitors to see in the same exhibition these two iconic paintings in the history of art, The Death of General Wolfe and Watson and the Shark,” said MFAH director Gary Tinterow. “Painted nearly 250 years ago and considered strikingly modern in their day, the issues addressed with such dramatic flair have the power to still resonate with viewers today.”

“Long before Jackson Pollock drew international acclaim for his innovative Abstract Expressionist paintings in the mid-twentieth century, West and Copley held center stage in the international art world of the 18th century centered in London,” said Emily Ballew Neff, MFAH curator of American painting and sculpture. “The exhibition addresses how it is that these two colonial artists on the margins of empire come to have such phenomenal success.”

Both born in the same year (1738) in the American Colonies of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts, Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of international fame and fortune. London, the cultural and political capital of the empire, attracted and swayed both artists to stay to develop their careers as history painters and neither returned home to America.

West and Copley established a new genre of painting known as contemporary history painting with The Death of General Wolfe and Watson and the Shark. These dramatic large-scale canvases featured compositional elements derived from antique and Old Master sources, yet instead of portraying biblical, mythological or literary heroes, they depicted real people from contemporary life. This exhibition examines these paintings and the period in which they were painted to animate a past that is unfamiliar to many today. It restores the dynamism and modernity of this particular artistic moment as it happened, rather than through the lens of what we later have come to know. These works point to a world informed by the powerful agency of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) Confederacy in the Great Lakes region; the scientific and imperial exploration of the seas; the rising role of the media and its relationship to history painting; and the stagecraft involved in managing the perception of a successful artistic career in 18th-century London. In the exhibition, the two key paintings are joined by works of art from all over the Atlantic World, which give them greater context and meaning.

A fully illustrated catalogue, published by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, distributed by Yale University Press and designed by Studio Blue, accompanies the exhibition and features essays by international scholars. The catalogue for this exhibition receives generous funding from Furthermore: a program of the J. M. Kaplan Fund.

American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. An indemnity has been granted by the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The exhibition is made possible through support from the Terra Foundation for American Art.

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38th Annual Ruth K. Shartle Symposium
American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World
Museum of Fine Art, Houston, 5 October 2013

This one-day symposium includes talks by prominent scholars addressing themes developed in the exhibition. Following the symposium, guests are invited to a reception and a viewing of the exhibition. More information is forthcoming. Visit www.mfah.org/calendar for updates.

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From Yale UP:

Emily Ballew Neff with Kaylin H. Weber, American Adversaries: West and Copley in a Transatlantic World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 272 pages, ISBN: 978-0300196467, $75.

American artists and innovators Benjamin West (1738–1820) and John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) changed the way history was recorded in the 18th century and became America’s first transatlantic art superstars. Initially friends but eventually bitter rivals, the artists painted contemporary events as they happened, illustrating the transformation of imperial power through diplomacy between British Americans and the Iroquois, and through transatlantic trade, exploration, and the natural history of the West Indies.

Focusing on two iconic works, West’s The Death of General Wolfe (1770) and Copley’s Watson and the Shark (1778), American Adversaries charts the rise of contemporary history painting, and offers a compelling examination of American history and New World exploration. Featuring more than two hundred color reproductions of paintings, works on paper, and objects that informed the artists, this handsome volume also includes essays that shed new light on, among other subjects, West and Copley within the context of the Royal Academy and the use of Western and Native American objects in cultural diplomacy.

Emily Ballew Neff is curator of American painting and sculpture, and Kaylin H. Weber is assistant curator of American painting and sculpture, both at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.