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Picturing the Banjo

December 10, 2005 - March 5, 2006


(above: William Sidney Mount [American, 1807-1868], The Banjo Player, 1856, oil on canvas, 35 3/4 x 28 3/4 inches. The Long Island Museum of American Art, History & Carriages, Stony Brook, New York. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Ward Melville, 1955)


The banjo is one of the most frequently encountered icons in American art. Historians and curators have amply documented the evolution of the instrument itself, yet its recurring imagery in paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture and decorative arts, has escaped prolonged scholarly engagement. Picturing the Banjo will be the first exhibition to underscore the banjo's symbolism in American art from the eighteenth century through the present day. Organized by the Palmer Museum of Art at The Pennsylvania State University, Picturing the Banjo will debut at the Corcoran where it will be on view from December 10, 2005 through March 5, 2006. (right: Frog in your Throat?, apothecary shop display, c. 1900, lithograph on cardboard, 20 x 30 x 14 inches. Collection of James F. Bollman}

"For more than two centuries, the banjo has played an integral role in American history and culture and has inspired an eclectic array of artists," said Sarah Cash, the Corcoran's Bechhoefer Curator of American Art. "A highlight of the Corcoran's own collection is Richard Norris Brooke's best-known work, A Pastoral Visit, which exemplifies the frequent presence of the banjo in visual representations of the African American community. The banjo bridges the aural and visual histories of America from its use by African Americans on antebellum plantations to its enjoyment by Anglo-Americans in their Gilded Age parlors."

From the stringed gourd instrument brought to this country by West African slaves in the eighteenth century, to its presence in the nineteenth-century minstrel show and the Gilded Age parlor, to its depiction in twentieth-century African American self-portraiture, the evolution of the banjo illuminates several national sagas and histories, including racial typing, minstrelsy and the rise and fall of vaudeville and other popular entertainments. Artists have seen the banjo as a Janus-faced cultural monument, capable of denoting such themes as simplicity, ridicule, nostalgia and authenticity.

Picturing the Banjo features 72 works on loan from 41 collections and examines the visual representation of the banjo, probing the icon's aesthetic and cultural usage in American paintings, drawings, photographs and other artifacts. Included are banjo images by such artists as Thomas Hart Benton, Mary Cassatt, Charles Demuth, Thomas Eakins, Eastman Johnson, William H. Johnson, William Sidney Mount, Norman Rockwell and Betye Saar. Also on display are equally important works by some lesser-known practitioners, including Helen Corson, Frances Benjamin Johnston, Clare Rojas, Thomas Hope, D. Morrill and William Henry Snyder. The exhibition also includes a handful of musical instruments, including several "presentation banjos," which were meant to be seen but not played. Other decorative art objects -- including a banjo "chair" and accompanying tambourine stool -- round out the exhibition.

The exhibition is divided into seven thematic categories. Early Artistic Prototypes explores the origin of the banjo's depiction in British and American art and its appearance in works dating from the early eighteenth century, including Hans Sloane's A Voyage to the islands Madera, Barbados, Neves, S. Christophers and Jamaica (1707-1725). (left: William Wegman [American, b. 1943], Blue Period with Banjo, 1980, Polaroid ER print, 24 x 20 inches. Collection of Emily Todd. Photo Rick Gardner, courtesy Contemporary Arts Museum Houston)

Performing Race and Type showcases a wide variety of images in which the banjo appears as a racially and ethnically charged symbol. From antebellum sheet-music covers, to Reconstruction-era Currier & Ives prints, to paintings by Eastman Johnson and Thomas Hovenden, the image of the banjo is used to classify and enforce racial and regional differences.

The works in the section entitled Self-Performance challenge the often denigrating typecasting exemplified by the previous grouping. Works by artists as disparate as nineteenth-century genre painter, William Sidney Mount, and twentieth-century illustrator, Miguel Covarrubias, portray the banjo player as a master of the instrument's manual and mental complexities. The subjects of these works evoke the themes of pedagogy, spirituality and intellectual engagement.

The objects grouped in the fourth section, Ambivalent Banjos, show how artists incorporated images of the banjo into works designed to neutralize -- and romanticize -- relations among people of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. The images in this category, such as William Ludlow Sheppard's wood engraving An Artist Selecting an Instrument (1874) and Norman Rockwell's painting The Banjo Player (1926), enlist the instrument to at once pay homage to and belittle its players.

Parlor Games and Objets d'Art explores the banjo's integral role in the Gilded Age domestic interior and in still-life paintings. Several presentation-grade instruments on display were in fact made for display rather than performance. Alongside paintings, prints and watercolors will be a number of rare historic instruments, including a six-bracket, scalloped-rim Boucher banjo (1845). Some of the other instruments on display feature elaborate carvings of gargoyles and idealized nudes, and fingerboards inlaid with photographs, Masonic devices and bejeweled designs.

In the opening decades of the twentieth century, many artists began to employ banjo iconography in works that posed deliberate challenges to the stereotypical images of the previous 200 years. Artists represented in Banjo-Wielding Women and Instruments of Activism mobilize banjo imagery in an effort to transcend and confront racial barriers. Among the highlights of this section are Mary Cassatt's drypoint The Banjo Lesson (c. 1893), Robert Gwathmey's Non-Fiction (1943) and Betye Saar's incisive mixed media work Let Me Entertain You (1972). (right: Richard Norris Brooke [American, 1847 -1920], A Pastoral Visit, 1881, oil on canvas, 47-3/4 x 65-3/4 inches. Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund)

From the Badlands paintings of Thomas Eakins to the hybrid instruments of William T. Wiley, artists have long explored the expressive potential of vernacular banjo symbolism. A final category, Picturing the Vernacular, examines the manner in which these and other artists understood the instrument as an emblem of folk authenticity and identity.

"Using the banjo as a means to explore American history from the pre-Civil War area to today creates a unique narrative never before assembled in an exhibition," said Leo G. Mazow, Curator of American Art at the Palmer Museum of Art and Affiliate Professor of Art History at The Pennsylvania State University. "Given the Corcoran's significant American art collection, as well as the museum's location near the heart of bluegrass country, it is an ideal location in which to premiere this exhibition."

Complementing the exhibition, a 200-page book with seven essays and color illustrations has been published by Penn State Press in association with the Palmer Museum of Art. The publication will contain critical essays on the topic, written by Leo Mazow; Sarah Burns, Ruth N. Halls Professor of Fine Arts, Indiana University ­ Bloomington; John Davis, Alice Pratt Brown Professor and Chair of the Art Department, Smith College; Michael D. Harris, Professor of Art History, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; Joyce Henri Robinson, curator, Palmer Museum of Art; and Cecelia Tichi, William R. Kenan Professor of English, Vanderbilt University. The catalogue also contains several 350-word sidebars by social historians, musicologists, folklorists, and musicians, as well as a checklist, bibliography and index.

Leo G. Mazow, Curator of American Art at the Palmer Museum of Art and Affiliate Professor of Art History at The Pennsylvania State University, is curator of the exhibition. Coordinating curator at the Corcoran Gallery of Art is Sarah Cash, Bechhoefer Curator of American Art, with the collaboration of Emily Shapiro, Assistant Curator of American Art.


About Sarah Cash

As the Corcoran Gallery of Art's Curator of American art, Sarah Cash is responsible for the museum's collection of American paintings and sculpture from 1740 through 1945. She has organized numerous exhibitions from the Corcoran's permanent collection and four major traveling exhibitions of American art. A scholar of late 19th century American paintings, Ms. Cash focuses on the work of Thomas Eakins and Martin Johnson Heade.

Ms. Cash has also co-authored American Treasures of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, A Capital Collection: Masterworks from the Corcoran Gallery of Art and edited several publications. Currently she is working on a major scholarly catalogue of the Corcoran's collection of American paintings and sculpture. She is also preparing a series of exhibitions and catalogues focusing on such Corcoran masterpieces as Albert Bierstadt's painting Last of the Buffalo and Hiram Powers' sculpture The Greek Slave.

Ms. Cash received her M.A. from the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art and a B.A. in Art History from Smith College. Additionally, she is a graduate of the Museum Management Institute in Berkeley, California, a program of the J. Paul Getty Trust administered by the American Federation of Arts.


The Curator's Journal's Project

The Corcoran Gallery of Art is currently working on a project to transcribe, annotate, index, and publish the Journals of the Gallery's first director/curator, William MacLeod (1811-1892).

The Journals are a unique and valuable series of volumes that are not only important to the history of American art, but also to Washington history, museum studies, administrative history, and American studies. Comprised of 2,300 handwritten pages, they offer a detailed look at the day-to-day administration of the Gallery from 1876 to 1884 and during 1886. Their breadth of detail on non-administrative subjects -- such as historical events and Washington society -- make them an invaluable resource for researchers investigating the development of cultural institutions, the role of art education, the status of women in the arts, and various topics beyond the field of art history.

The Journals provide a daily record of MacLeod's administration of the Gallery, one of the three oldest continuously operating art museums in the United States (after the Wadsworth Athenaeum and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts). MacLeod's entries contain his comments on a wide variety of subjects related to the Gallery's operation, including the artists, patrons, and art dealers who visited the building, acquisitions, the formation of the Corcoran School of Art, correspondence, and Washington society MacLeod also, however, recorded personal observations.

The breadth of commentary offered in the entries makes the Journals an invaluable source of information on 19th-century American art and artists. MacLeod mentions nearly every painter of note active before 1900, including Albert Bierstadt, Richard Norris Brooke, Gilbert Stuart, John Singleton Copley, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Sully, Thomas Cole, William Trost Richards, Charles Willson Peale, Titian Peale, George P. A. Healy, Emmanuel Leutze, Robert Swain Gifford, Daniel Huntington, Frederick Kensett, and Thomas Moran.

Publishing the Journals as a book that provides context and explanatory texts will make this exhaustive resource more widely available to scholars, students, and others researchers in a multitude of disciplines. The annotations, appendices, illustrations, and editorial matter will add new dimensions to their utility. Using the published edition, researchers will be able to: consult a biographical directory for information on someone mentioned in the text or find his or her birth dates in the appropriate index entry; examine an illustration of a painting described in an entry; or consult the subject index and consult the next entry on a similar topic.

The Curator's Journals project was begun with a grant from the National Historical Records and Publications Commission and private donors.


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