Wichita Art Museum

Wichita, Kansas

(316) 268-4921


Toward an American Identity:

Selections from the Wichita Art Museum

October 12, 1997 - January 25, 1998





Progressive American artists and cultural critics in the first half of this century sought to identify an American tradition in art, one uniquely rooted in national values and experience and independent of European taste and models.

During the same period, a small number of pioneering American institutions were established to collect exclusively art produced by the country's own artists. One of the earliest and most important of these is the Wichita Art Museum, which came into being through a trust left to the city of Wichita by Louise Caldwell Murdock in 1915. Mrs. Murdock's visionary gift was a fund to purchase American art: in return, the city was to build a museum to house the collection. Over the next decades, a daringly avant-garde collection was assembled by Elizabeth S. Navas, the first trustee of the Murdock Collection.

John Steuart Curry, Kansas Cornfield, oil on canvas, 1933, Roland P. Murdock Collection, Wichita Art Museum


Guided by, among others, Edith Halpert of the Downtown Gallery and Lloyd Goodrich, then director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, Navas purchased a wide cross section of American art, including important works by George Bellows, Charles Burchfield, Stuart Davis, Thomas Eakins, Robert Henri, Winslow Homer, Charles Sheeler, John Steuart Curry, and Mark Tobey.

Toward an American Identity marks the first time that major works from the collection--one of the finest groups of American painting in the United States--will be shared with audiences outside of Wichita.

Edward Hopper, Sunlight on Brownstones, oil on canvas, 1956, Roland P. Murdock Collection, Wichita Art Museum



Presenting a visual history of the culture of the United States, the AFA traveling exhibition will feature 76 oil paintings and works on paper. (91 works will be included in the installation at WAM). Drawn largely from the Murdock Collection, the selection also includes works collected subsequently by the museum and promised gifts.


Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, oil on canvas, c. 1890, Roland P. Murdock Collection, Wichita Art Museum



The exhibition will be organized into four sections, each considering a different aspect of what artists, critics and discerning collectors of the day debated in their search to define "what was American about American art."


Winslow Homer, In the Mowing, oil on canvas, 1874, Roland P. Murdock Collection, Wichita Art Museum

The introductory section, American Old Masters, will contrast the attitudes and aesthetics considered "American" with those deemed foreign and derivative through the juxtaposition of such works as Winslow Homer's In the Mowing, 1874, and Thomas Eakins' Portrait of Billy Smith, 1898, with William Merritt Chase's Portrait of Mrs. C., c. 1895, and Julian Alder Weir'sThe Connoisseur, 1889, among others.

Reflecting the cultural shift away from the glorification of the old world, The American City will focus on the celebration of America's progressive and pluralistic modern city. Images in this section will include Robert Henri's Eva Green, 1907, Georgia O'Keeffe"s East River No. 1, 1926, Edward Hopper's Sunlight on Brownstones, 1656, and Jack Levine's Medicine Show IV, 1958.

The American Continent will survey 20th-century painterly responses to the romantic notion that landscape shapes a nation's character and provide's its spiritual core, and the related exaltation of the people who made their living from these lands. The selection will encompass works by artists who extolled a sense of place in New England, such as Childe Hassam (Jelly Fish, 1912) and George Bellows (The Skeleton, 1916), in the Midwest, such as John Steuart Curry (Kansas Cornfield, 1933) and Russell Cowles (County Fair, 1944), and the West and Southwest, such as Randall Davey (Basket Dancer, n.d.) and Ernest Lawson (Colorado, c. 1927).


Jacob Lawrence, Concert, 1950


The American emphasis on individual freedom and self-reliance is echoed in Independent American Visions. Subjective and often autobiographical reflections, the pieces in this section freely combine elements of abstract, surrealist, expressionist, and primitivist styles to express highly personal responses to the American landscape and people. Works will include John Kane's Turtle Creek Valley, No. 2, 1932, Walt Kuhn's Acrobat in White and Silver, 1944, and Yasuo Kuniyoshi's Revelation, 1949.


Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Revelation, 1949



A fully illustrated catalogue will contribute to the growing literature about the issues of nationalism in American art and criticism of the early 20th century and to the literature about the significant role played by women in the founding of the nation's art institutions. Published by the Wichita Art Museum. 288-pages, 9 x12, 91 color plates and 40 black and white illustrations.


Paul R. Meitsner. Martha Graham Dance Class, 1939

Text and images courtesy of Wichita Art Museum

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 1997 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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