In the Gold Gallery, Floor 2L
During the nineteenth century, the experience of viewing artwork was very different from that found in most museum and gallery installations today.
In the United States, entrepreneurs would set up showplaces where a major painting would be displayed within a room or small alcove, with curtains draped on both sides to emphasize the theatricality of the setting. It was an atmosphere meant to inspire both awe and appreciation for the virtuosic talents of the artist, while also creating an intimate viewing relationship with the painting. Admission would be a nickel or a dime, and thousands flocked to these events which were held all over the country.
This experiential presentation was capable of transporting a viewer at a time before most cities could offer a museum venue, and the idea of staging art in a gallery space became increasingly significant. In turn, the emphasis on making unique experiences for the viewer influenced both what subjects and which artists rose in popularity.
Evening in Arcady by Thomas Cole (American, 1801–1848), now in the collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, would have been the type of painting shown at such a venue. One of the most popular artists in the early decades of the nineteenth century, he painted luminous landscapes both real and imagined. An entrepreneur staging the event would know that Cole’s name would be a draw for a wide range of visitors. When Cole made this painting in 1843, he had just returned to his studio in Catskill, New York, from a long trip abroad, mostly traveling through England and Italy. The enchantment of the evening light and the title of Arcady attest to the influence of a Mediterranean sojourn. The name of Arcadia has come to mean an idyllic place of unspoiled loveliness, but it is also a real place on the Peloponnese peninsula in Greece, noted for its unspoiled and secluded beauty. Cole melds the natural elements with softly glowing light and creates a serenely engaging masterpiece of a paradise lost.
This exhibition was curated by Nancy E. Green, the Gale and Ira Drukier Curator of European and American Art, Prints & Drawings, 1800–1945, at the Johnson, and supported in part by the Donald and Maria Cox Exhibition Endowment.