The American Dream – part 1

The American Dream, Drents Museum Assen

Drents Museum Drents Museum, Assen – the Netherlands & the Kunsthalle, Emden – Germany 19-11-2017 – 27 May 2018

There seems to be a revival of interest in the art world for the artistic scene in the United States. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum is currently staging a retrospective of works by the 19th century realist landscape painter Thomas Cole and the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, UK will be showing an exhibition entitled America’s Cool Modernism featuring works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper and Charles Sheeler. Moreover, a show of the realist paintings of Andrew Wyeth has just been completed at the Seattle Art Museum in Seattle, Washington.The Drents Museum in the Netherlands, in cooperation with the Kunsthalle in Emden, Germany is presenting an overview of American realist paintings dating from 1945 through 2017, entitled The American Dream. We visited the Assen exhibition first.

This exhibition is a wonderful opportunity for Europeans to become more aware of what has been going on in the USA, partially in protest against the dominant abstract expressionism movement, best exemplified by Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning.

The introduction to realism in American art works depends in part on the historical context in which artists found themselves relative to art in America as such. For example, Thomas Cole was instrumental, along with Frederic Edwin Church and John Frederick Kensett in stimulating a new generation of 19th painters who opposed so-called academic realism.

At the same time, many artists in the States were confronted with a new style of painting emanating from Europe. The American reaction to European art was an attempt to create an ‘artistic language’ of their own. A ‘new academism’, initiated by Robert Henri, emerged in favor of a more realistic style.

Later, Henri became a teacher at the Art Students League of New York, one of his students being Edward Hopper who is one of the stars of the Assen exhibition. As a consequence of Henri’s influence, Hopper retained the realistic style with an impressionistic flavor. He went to Paris to see for himself what was going on and was influenced by the works of Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas. In his Burlington Magazine article on Hopper, David Anfam says that in the face of cubism, surrealism and abstract expressionism, Hopper was ‘bellweather of 20th-century culture’ and that he ‘concentrated on the relationship between the self and reality, the watchers and the watched’.

Every-day American life

Hopper, however, never wanted to join the group of American realist painters, depicting every day American life in rural areas and in urban centers. Artists belonging to this rural landscape style, also shown in the Assen exhibition are the early 20th century artists, Charles Burchfield, the brothers Moses and Raphael Soyer, Norman Rockwell, Andrew Wyeth and Thomas Hart Benton.

The last-named was probably the most famous of these early 20th century realist artists. His ‘Homestead’, shown in Assen, is a strong semblance of loneliness in rural America.  The picture consists of a farmer sitting on the edge of a brick well, three hogs eating their meal and in the distance an old-fashioned windmill next to a shed with an isolated tree in the background.

We can also see Charles E. Burchfield’s ‘November Railroad Mood’, a magical realistic depiction of a gathering storm in the background and a railroad line in the foreground. The watercolor is done in black and white with shades of grey.

Meanwhile, the realist painter with the longest longevity in this genre, Andrew Wyeth, is represented here by several paintings including ‘McVey’s Barn’ and ‘Toll Rope’. These works were done with tempera, or egg yolk and oil, which provide intimate detail and great clarity, showing his great love for his surroundings, for what we would assume to be everyday common objects. His most famous and mysterious work, ‘Christine’s World’, is not included in the exhibition, but there is his ‘Barraccon’ which shows his model and secret lover Helga Testorf lying on a couch with her back towards the viewer.The work is done as if she were the black maid who worked at his neighbor’s farm. That it was of Helga remained a secret.

Abstract Expressionism

A great majority of the American artists being shown in this exhibition were born before 1945. Only a few of these, however, were able to withstand the influence of the dominant style, abstract expressionism. Both Andrew Wyeth and Edward Hopper did retain their respective styles throughout their career. The brothers Moses and Ralph Soyer stuck decidedly to their version of social realism, otherwise called urban realism.

Artists such as Fairfield Porter, John McCoy, Charles Burchfield (1893-1967) and Robert Mirmelin are known primarily for their concentration on specific themes, domestic scenes in the case of Porter, and landscapes in the cases of McCoy and Burchfield.

Porter’s ‘A Day Indoors’ is typically a relaxed domestic scene, but in colors not encountered in most homes at the time. John McCoy’s ‘Four O’clock Train’ and ‘Brandywine at Twin Bridges’, both in tempera, are unusually precise in a display of nature at its best. Mirmelin stresses urban landscapes ranging from ‘A Subway Experience’ to ‘Landscape Homage to C.D. Friedrich’ and the ‘Metaphysical Rock Group’.

Alice Neel, Alex Katz  and Will Barnet express an obvious movement from figurative representation to abstract expressionism. Neel, for example, moves from the detailed portrait ‘Portrait of Raphael Soyer’ to the still life ‘Black Bottles’ where form is emphasized at the cost of detail.  Katz, for his part, has managed to incorporate both realism and abstract expressionism in the portrait of his wife, entitled ’Ade’. This development in style is also exhibited by Will Barnet’s more abstract ‘Woman Reading’ as against ‘Upstairs’, both of which show a rather abstract look wherein the first may evoke a smile and the last – possibly – a tear.


In the latter part of the 20th century, the Assen exhibition shows us that photography enters the art scene thereby enhancing realism as the choice of style rather than abstract expressionism. Especially Brunelli establishes photo realism as an art form in his work ‘Court Chenage’. He is applying the method of photo realism, whereby the content shown in a photograph is the source which is then reproduced piecemeal by using oils applied to canvas. His photo realism follows Andy Warhol’s pop art. This style coincides with methods also used by Richard Estes in his work ‘The Candy Store’ and by Ralph Goings in his ‘A1Saiuce’.

In addition to a stunning show in a compact space, there are associated life-sized photographs of major events and historically-important persons in the period as if to demonstrate the relationship between artistic content and reality in the United States.

The work of Chuck Close stands out among the realist artists mentioned above, because his portraits are constructed out of hundreds of pieces taken from photographs. However, one of his planned exhibitions was cancelled in May this year because of sexual abuse allegations made as part of the #Me Too movement. Mr. Close denies the allegations.


Mr. Harry Tupan of the Drents Museum and Mr. Stefan Borchardt of Kunsthalle in Emden, directors of the respective museums, in the introduction to the very useful catalogue say that The American Dream is ‘the first presentation of American realist art in Europe’.

The catalogue consists of a preface, a brief overview of American realism from 1945 to the present, and five chapters devoted to specific themes such as portraits, urban social realism, landscapes, daily life and still lifes. It also provides an overview of the artists in the show including pictures, but one artist, Charles Burchfield is overlooked. In addition, it would be helpful if the catalogue included an index wherein page references would be made to the works of the artists shown.

We are looking forward to our visit to Emden to see the other part of The American Dream.