Television programs like PBS' "History Detectives" and "Antiques Roadshow" have increased the public's awareness that objects and places can be fascinating not only for their inherent qualities, but also for the stories and history behind them. Learning about the cultural context behind things can deepen our understanding and appreciation. So many objects, whether modest or opulent, have rich stories to tell.
A new exhibition at the Wisconsin Historical Museum looks at paintings with this sort of eye on context. "Framed! Investigating the Painted Past," an exhibit of 16 paintings selected from the museum's collection of more than 400 pieces, opens Friday, Aug. 15, at the museum, 30 N. Carroll St., on Madison's Capitol Square. The exhibit explores the stories behind the paintings to reveal clues to the inspiration and influences affecting each artist's work. The exhibit runs through July 24, 2004.
"The intent of the exhibit is to inspire people to think of historical paintings as more than mere illustrations and to find meaning in them that goes beyond their aesthetic qualities," says exhibit curator Joe Kapler. "'Framed!' seeks to look beyond the face value of each piece through historical investigation so that each painting is seen as a window to the past," says Kapler.
Each painting will be exhibited along with a flip book of pages containing historical photographs, maps, newspaper articles, period illustrations and other elements that provide context for the painting. Some of the paintings will be exhibited along with three-dimensional artifacts, a few of which appear in the paintings themselves.
The exhibit also marks an important milestone in the history of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which owns and operates the museum. "Framed!" will span the 150th anniversary of the Society's collecting of historical paintings, which began in earnest in 1854 under the leadership of the Society's first director, Lyman Copeland Draper. He set about securing "reliable portraits" of "conspicuous men of the age" and landscapes that memorialized significant historical events.
Two prominent and prolific Milwaukee artists, Samuel Marsden Brookes and his partner Thomas Stevenson, were among the artists commissioned by the Society to begin that work, and four of their paintings included in the exhibit illustrate Draper's vision. Two are oil portraits of Morgan L. Martin of Green Bay and James H. Lockwood of Prairie du Chien, both prominent leaders in territorial and early state government.
Two others show the breadth of the early collecting done at Draper's behest: an oil portrait of Iometah, a prominent Menomonee chief who served in the War of 1812; and an oil landscape of the Pecatonica Battleground, one of a trio of Black Hawk War sites painted by Brookes and Stevenson.
Other paintings included in the exhibit span a range from 1838 to 1998. The earliest is an oil portrait of Florantha Thompson Sproat, wife of an Apostle Islands missionary. The most recent is a painting titled "Trabajando En El Campo (Working in the Fields)" done from memory by Seferina Contreras Klinger, which depicts the artist's grandmother and uncle picking cucumbers in a Wautoma field in the 1960s.
Momentous events in Wisconsin history are also represented, including Edwin Willard Deming's 1904 "Landfall of Jean Nicolet," depicting the French explorer's arrival on Wisconsin soil in 1634, and Mel Kishner's dramatic representation of the 1871 Peshtigo Fire. His 1968 painting, "Peshtigo Fire I: Refuge in a Field," shows a family huddled together in an open field with flames from the devastating fire surrounding them.
An 1876 oil portrait of Madison native Vinnie Ream by George Caleb Bingham best demonstrates how "Framed!" uses artifacts from the museum's collections to give deeper meaning to the paintings. Ream stirred controversy when, as a young 18-year-old female, she was selected to receive the federal commission to sculpt the full-length statue of President Abraham Lincoln that still stands in the U.S. Capitol rotunda today.
Her portrait shows the young sculptor, with the Capitol dome in the distant background, posed with a harp she bought in Paris in 1869. Exhibited along with her portrait is that very harp, one of several artifacts in the museum's holdings relating to the life and career of the celebrated sculptor, including three of her sculptures.
"Framed!" was researched and planned by curatorial staff of the Wisconsin Historical Museum with the assistance of a panel of experts in the arts and humanities. The exhibit includes an activity wall for children and a digital tour of the museum's entire painting collection.
Exhibit hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday between Aug. 15, 2003, and July 24, 2004. Admission is by donation: $4 for adults, $3 for children under 18 or $10 for a family. The museum is closed Sundays, Mondays and major holidays.