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  • Russ Ramsey

American Classics

Since today is the last Sunday before American Independence Day, I’m devoting this Art Wednesday series to classic American paintings. Art captures history and comments on it. Much of American art from the last 150 years focuses on farming and immigration.


Lawrence, And the Migrants Kept Coming, 1941


Whistler’s Mother is by far the most famous American painting outside of US. This one came through Nashville a few years back and I went to see it. Art has a transcendence that made an old woman in a chair take my breath away. I’m not entirely sure why, but it did.


James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Whistler’s Mother, 1871


The Sugar Shack (1972) was painted by former NFL player, Ernie Barnes. Barnes said, “The Sugar Shack is a recall of a childhood experience. It was the first time my innocence met with the sins of dance. The painting transmits rhythm… re-created in the person viewing it.


Ernie Barnes, Sugar Shack, 1972


Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth, is one of my favorites. The subject of this painting, Andrew Wyeth’s friend Christina Olson, was paralyzed by polio. One day Wyeth saw her crawling across a field to her house. The mix of desperation and determination captivated him, yielding this painting. Christina modeled for many of Wyeth’s works.


Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, 1948


Say what you want about Pollock, but I’ve seen this one a few times, and every time I’m moved. I can’t say why, but I am. Pollock said, “when you’re working out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.”


Jackson Pollock, One-Number 31, 1950


Freedom from Want is one of 4 paintings Norman Rockwell did based on FDR’s Four Freedom’s State of the Union speech. The series is called “Four Freedoms.” The others in the series are freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom from fear.


Norman Rockwell, Freedom from Want, 1943


Many consider Grant Wood’s American Gothic to be America’s Mona Lisa. It’s both simple and sophisticated. The house, barn, and tool give the setting. Wood painted this during wartime, and the faces tell of lives filled with dignity and hard labor.


Grant Wood, American Gothic, 1930


In Winslow Homer’s The Veteran in a Field, the farmer plies his trade. We observe him at work. His back is to the viewer, giving his work a solitary quality. Though we know the labor is hard, it appears beautiful, satisfying, and serene.


Winslow Homer, The Veteran in a Field, 1865


Let’s end with Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. Here is a moment that could’ve happened anywhere at any time. We see people in a diner at night. They are together, but not really interacting. We are on the outside looking in. There is no door. A classic homage to the isolation so many Americans feel.

Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942



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