The two centuries from 1700 to 1900 in America were marked by great religious activity. Denominations were being transplanted to America as Scotch Presbyterians, German Lutherans, English Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, and a host of other immigrants arrived with church traditions intact.
Joseph Smith founded the Mormon church, one of America’s indigenous religions, while Unitarianism was beginning its stealthy and surprisingly successful attack on Protestant orthodoxy. Roman Catholicism grew quickly through the surge of Continental emigration, and there were riots and intemperate press attacks on the newly arriving “papists.”
George Whitefield, Charles G. Finney, and Dwight L. Moody were among the great preachers who brought new vitality to American Christianity. Revivalism spread rapidly.
Midway in this period the American early missionary enterprise began. In the early 1800s Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Episcopalians founded missionary boards.
During these two centuries Christians were instrumental in founding the American Bible Society, the American Sunday School Union, the American Tract Society, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Abolitionist movement.
Slavery was a heated question, and white Christians lined up on both sides while black Christians poured out their frustrations in spirituals like “Deep River.”
And as the period drew to a close, fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan won the Democratic nomination for the presidency on the strength of his “Cross of Gold” speech.
Curiously, this religious hurly-burly is not reflected by the religious fine art of the period—if the collection put together under the auspices of the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley is representative.
The exhibit, which had a recent stand at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington, D. C., is the brainchild of Jane Dillenberger, the union’s associate professor of theology and the arts.
We might have hoped the artists would leave us a record of religious profession and practice that would help us better to stand in the brogans of our spiritual forebears. Something to help us feel the frenzy that sometimes characterized the revival meetings—some Daumier-like insights into the inconsistencies between profession and practice that characterize every age of the Church.
And how refreshing it would have been to find the collection something that would strengthen the faith of the twentieth-century viewer.
Instead, we are presented with an exhibit of biblical scenes that tell us little of the religion of that period and that generally fail to speak across the age gap.
The most striking pieces in the collection are the works of Robert Loftin Newman (1827–1912), Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), and Edward Hicks (1780–1849).
Madonna and Child in a Landscape and The Good Samaritan, two small oils, are Newman’s best works. Both have a dim-lit, nebulous quality reminiscent of the paintings of Albert Ryder, yet they are more life-like than some of the more photographic representations in the exhibit. In Madonna a real woman holds a real child who gestures in typical childlike abandon.
Newman heightens the contrasts in the story of the Good Samaritan by making the injured man young and the Samaritan old. The old man leans over the prone figure of the victim apparently holding a cloth to one of his wounds while his donkey hovers disinterestedly in the background. Newman has drawn attention to the act by making the cloth the only white element in a murky twilight scene. He effectively conveys that this is an act of great compassion.
Sadly, the painter of these two moving paintings died an apparent suicide in New York in 1912, an unknown pauper.
Henry Tanner, a fourth-generation American of Negro extraction, offers an annunciation scene in which a frightened and puzzled young Jewish girl dressed in an oversized gown sits on the side of a ragged bed. The viewer, too, is puzzled, and afraid of such reality.
The exhibit includes three paintings from the charming Peaceable Kingdom series of Edward Hicks. In each, Hicks, a devout Quaker, shows the Quaker fathers landing on the shore of a peaceable kingdom inhabited by nonferocious leopards and lions fraternizing with placid sheep and cattle—a land governed by small children.
Hicks thought the art of painting was of little importance, “one of those trifling, insignificant arts which has never been of substantial advantage to mankind.” C. S. Lewis reflects this same thought when he says, “I think we can still believe culture to be innocent after we have read the New Testament; I cannot see that we are encouraged to think it important.”
Perhaps because art is in the right perspective, Hicks’s peaceable kingdom, like the kingdom of Narnia, is an inviting place.
Thomas Eakins, whose Crucifixion is cited in the notes on the exhibit as the most important American crucifixion painting, presents an unmarked Christ peacefully asleep on the cross.
America’s first professional sculptor, Horatio Greenough, is represented by three competent but uninspired works. His bust of Christ shows a heroic Apollo with well brushed locks and neatly trimmed beard.
Naturally, most of the work in the exhibit seems dated. No modern viewer is likely to respond to Washington Allston’s slick, stagey Prophet Jeremiah Dictating to his Scribe Baruch as a contemporary commentator did: “I wish I felt at liberty to tell Mr. Allston how grateful I am to him for having shown me one of the prophets of old, and for having sent me away a more thoughtful and religious man.” The melodramatic, theatrical look vaguely embarrasses the modern viewer.
The failure of most of these works to speak to the viewer today should remind us of how culturally conditioned we are and how restrained our judgment of Christians in other times and places should be.
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