With independence and westward expansion, the immense landscape caught the attention of American artists. Beginning in the 1820s through the 1860s, there was the widespread belief that nature was “the visible expression of the divine” and that “to study nature would bring one closer to God’s handiwork and so to God’s revelation.” These beliefs were rendered in art. Although American artists could be trained in major cities, many ventured to Europe, with its established museums, to learn to become part of that artistic tradition. This continued throughout the entire nineteenth century.
After a time, artists hailing from America and Europe saw what they considered modern life as worthy of art. In the middle of the nineteenth century, American landscape artists started to weave into their work African Americans and Native Americans, and there was a shift expressed – a movement to depict the stress of modern urban life. With the Great Depression, came an interest in conveying the difficulties of the period realistically. At the same time, some artists began to favor European Modernism – Cubism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Dada, and abstraction – which made a strong showing in 1913 at New York City’s Armory Show. Yet, even as stylistic and intellectual trends of the 1920s and 1930s were influenced by Europe and those artists who came to the United States because of World War II, art maintained an American bias. That American flavor would lead artists to convey their own modernist art and influence the schools of abstraction.
In the Mary and Charles Rodning Gallery, visitors will see the museum’s long tradition of connections with Asia. Asian goods did indeed pass through its port, while the camellias and azaleas that one sees in Mobile originated in Japan and China. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many travelers, like Christian missionaries, used Mobile as a base for making their way to the Far East and returning from it.
One exceptional resident of Mobile – for his connection to Asian Art – was Ernest Fenollosa, who lived from 1853-1908. He is credited for spearheading the nation’s interest in Japanese and Chinese art. He was born in Massachusetts and educated at Harvard, and for a few years, he made Spring Hill his home, with Mary McNeil Scott, his second wife. The pair established a Japanese garden, that is not in existence any longer, but the Charles Wood Japanese Garden pays him tribute. Fenollosa’s posthumous two-volume “Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art,” was published in 1912.
Asian art comes from many sources. Early examples, like the bronzes and ceramics, were buried to accompany the deceased in the afterlife. Frescoes and sculptures and hanging scrolls come from temples, sanctuaries, and private home altars where they were used as part of Buddhist worship. The privileged classes enjoyed exquisitely crafted ceramics, bronzes, enamels, and textiles.
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