Vanderbilt University’s Fine Arts Gallery
WORDS Megan Kelley
For generations, the allure of Europe has stood as a cathedral to culture, and the Grand Tour, its pilgrimage. As an educational travel tour of Europe, undertaken by young nobles often accompanied by an artist, the Grand Tour served to develop tastes and refine young minds through the temper of history. American Artists and the Legacy of the Grand Tour, 1880–1960 pays respect to these traditions, following the footsteps of American artists as they pursued the precedents of artists past, creating bodies of work that praised this legacy.
Displaying gorgeous works by Joseph Pennell, Jonathan Janson, and Frank Crawford Penfold, the exhibition also includes several works by master printmaker John Taylor Arms. Arms’s sensitivity is breathtaking, the care in the work matched by his attention to details, many of which can best be viewed only through a magnifying glass. As a printmaker working during a social period in American history that preached morals, praised temperance, and questioned issues such as labor rights and women’s voting, Arms, too, used his work to highlight ideals: He believed that gothic architecture conveyed moral rectitude, and the vast cathedrals—built by generations over hundreds of years—stood as monuments to the vision of working together for something greater than oneself. “[Arms] saw himself as the last link in a long line of craftsmen,” explains curator Margaret Walker. “Creating and disseminating these prints as art allowed their messages to reach audiences who might not ever be able to visit otherwise.”
Buried in the corners of Arms’s prints are signs of modernity, eloquently included as a footnote to the times. Beside the sweeping buttresses are the notations of billboards, storefronts, and advertising signs. It’s a delightful and wistful contrast, juxtaposing Arms’s beautifully rendered awe of the architecture beside the smallness of contemporary life. For a country poised on the rise of Dada, his carefully wrought stones and towers are his last bastions of true beauty, forming a dialogue with the past pitted against the relentless march of the present.
The struggle between past and present, ideal and real echoes in the luscious works of A.C. Webb. Webb renders the weight of the crowd and foliage in thick and dark lines against the more delicate spiderwebbing of the architecture. Webb’s compositional choices seem to suggest a heaviness to humanity’s presence, the shapes of landscaping and figures creating blocks and obstacles to a clear view of sanctity and beauty. Light pours across the lines of balconies and buttresses, lifting them towards the viewer even as their occupants pin them down.
This attention to the past forms the basis of social commentary pulling through the exhibition. “We see people going to the French coast, flocking to see peasants in traditional clothing, living traditional lives. It’s a fascination with the old culture that has yet to modernize.” Walker notes that for the artists, even these scenes were steeped in the idea of cultural refinement and heritage. American Artists includes works by Nashville painter Willie Betty Newman, who studied the classical Academic Style in Paris even as French artists pursued new styles of Impressionism, and prints by Timothy Cole, whose engravings were done “after”—or as studies of—famous paintings held in European regard. Estates in Nashville were decorated in prints done in such styles. “They sought out studies of art,” Walker notes, because studies implied travel to observe the original and time invested in recreating it in detail. “It was a legacy, brought home.”
American Artists and the Legacy of the Grand Tour, 1880–1960 is on view through August 26 at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery, located within Cohen Hall at 1220 21st Avenue South. For more information and summer visiting hours, view www.vanderbilt.edu.