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The Philadelphia Museum of Art will present the first museum exhibition devoted to the bold and expressive vision of Thomas Chambers, the 19th-century artist who was once hailed as “America’s first modern.” Thomas Chambers (1808-1869), American Marine and Landscape Painter (Sept. 27 – Dec. 28, 2008) includes 45 of the artist’s works, approximately 15 paintings and prints by his contemporaries and a selection of decorative arts from the heyday of American “fancy” taste. Although much of his life has been a mystery until recently, Chambers played a pioneering role in the development of popular American landscape and maritime art in the mid-19th century. His distinctive style has been widely recognized since the 1940s, when he was rediscovered as a precursor to American modern artists. Chambers’ work has been included in numerous surveys of American art, but until now his paintings have never been assembled to consider the breadth of his career. The exhibition is drawn from public and private collections and will travel to three venues following its debut in Philadelphia.
“We are delighted to present this groundbreaking exhibition,” said Kathleen A. Foster, the Museum’s Robert L. McNeil Jr. Senior Curator of American Art and Director of the Center of American Art. “It is remarkable that such a captivating personality in American art history has been studied so little. The exhibition and catalogue that accompany the installation provide a wealth of previously unknown information about Chambers, whose story and achievements are far more complex than anyone previously realized.”
Foster began organizing the exhibition in 1998, soon after she encountered 29 Chambers paintings recently acquired by the Indiana University Art Museum. Provoked by the artist’s idiosyncratic style, she began to search for additional examples of his work and a richer context for his life. New research has linked the artist to the British marine painter George Chambers (1803-1842), and used period images to establish titles for many of Thomas Chambers’ paintings.
The exhibition explores Chambers’ marine and landscape paintings, which he produced in a romantic style that melds cosmopolitan and folk styles of the time. His patriotic and literary subjects — drawn from history, popular novels and current events — show Chambers’ entrepreneurial imagination and also reflect the tastes of his bourgeois urban and prosperous small-town and rural patrons in New York state and New England. This style-conscious, newly middle-class audience might have owned portraits by Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) or William Matthew Prior (1806-1873), and would also have displayed Chambers’ works in their bright, “fancy” interiors alongside painted furniture, bold textiles, and ceramics. The exhibition will include decorative arts in this spirit, including Tucker porcelain, reverse-painted mirrors and decorated chairs, all of which demonstrate the type of “fancy painting” services that Chambers advertised.
Like many early American artists, Chambers drew inspiration from etchings, engravings and lithographs of American scenery. Influential books illustrated by William H. Bartlett and Jacques Milbert will be displayed in the exhibition alongside paintings by Chambers based on such prints. These landscape works were not signed, but the variant versions that survive — including multiple images of West Point and Lake George — demonstrate the popularity of these views. Chambers often signed and dated his more ambitious and original compositions — a sign of his primary identity as a marine painter. Among his greatest efforts were naval battles, such as The Constitution and the Guerrière (c. 1840-50) and Capture of the H.B.M. Frigate Macedonian by U.S. Frigate United States, October 25, 1812 (1853). Although inspired by prints of the War of 1812, Chambers reworked these images with his unique flair.
While it is challenging to place Chambers in the context of his contemporaries since there were few painters like him, the exhibition will include works by a number of artists with whom his works share many qualities. Similar to artists trained as sign painters — including Phillips, Prior, Edward Hicks (1780-1849) and Sturtevant Hamblin (1817-1884) — Chambers demonstrated a use of flat color, strong value contrast and bold two-dimensional design that has been identified as key to the folk aesthetic. Chambers also learned from more naturalistic, academic painting by his contemporaries, such as Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), Thomas Birch (1779-1851) and Victor de Grailly (1804-1889).
Thomas Chambers (1808-1869), American Marine and Landscape Painter is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its Center for American Art, in association with the Indiana University Art Museum, with the support of Mr. and Mrs. William C. Buck. Exhibitions in the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries in 2008, including Thomas Chambers, are made possible by RBC Wealth Management.
Following its premiere in Philadelphia, the exhibition will be on view at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York (Feb. 8 – April 29, 2009), the American Folk Art Museum in New York City (Sept. 29 – March 7, 2010) and the Indiana University Art Museum (March 26 – May 30, 2010).
The Chambers exhibition will coincide at the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Gee's Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt (September 16 - December 14, 2008) and James Castle: A Retrospective (October 14, 2008 - January 4, 2009). The Chambers and Castle exhibitions are both organized by the Museum and share with Chambers a focus on self-taught or vernacular art.
About Thomas Chambers
Until recently, little was known about Chambers’ life and work, and even now he remains an elusive figure. Since signed and dated paintings are few, and documents scarcer still, scholars have tracked his career through U.S. census data and entries in various city directories. New research suggests that Chambers was born in 1808 in Whitby, England, to a merchant sailor father and a laundress mother. He probably learned to paint from his older brother, George (1803-1842) — a self-taught artist who advanced from painting trunks and buckets to ship portraits, theatrical scenery, panoramas, and eventually “fine art” marine paintings for the King William IV and the Royal Academy. Thomas may well have tagged along on these endeavors, since their influence is evident in the signature style he later developed.
Chambers left London for New Orleans in 1832 to pursue his painting career. He was in New York two years later and listed himself in city directories and newspaper advertisements as a marine, landscape, and “fancy” painter from 1834 to 1840. Over the next two decades, he worked in Baltimore, Boston, Albany and New York. While his prolific output suggests a strong base of patrons, Chambers lived on the fringe of academic art communities and did not exhibit with any official art organizations of his time. He did, however, sell his works at auction, as evidenced by a recently recovered Newport, R.I. auction list from 1845. Chambers disappeared from American city directories and census records after 1866; evidently, he returned to Whitby, penniless and disabled, as suggested by the newly-discovered record of his death in the city’s poorhouse in 1869.
As an artist, Chambers was obscure in his own day and was likely frowned upon for his connection to sign and decorative painting and for his habit of working from print sources. His imaginative style was further eclipsed by the mid-19th-century passion for realism and his newly-built market for inexpensive popular art was revolutionized by chromolithography. Long consigned to barns and attics, his work was rediscovered in the 1930s when American folk art caught the attention of modern artists and antique collectors. Chambers’ distinctive hand was identified by name in 1942 when collectors uncovered a signed painting, The Constitution and the Guerrière (c. 1840-50). The same year, an exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York heralded the arrival of “T. Chambers, First American Modern,” and highlighted Chambers’ use of color, pattern, and decorative design that appealed to many 20th-century curators and collectors. Thomas Chambers, the first gathering of the artist’s work since 1942, revisits the perspective of champions of American folk art who recognized the roots of national culture and modernism in the work of Chambers and his contemporaries. The course of Chambers’ critical fortunes, from popular or lowbrow status to highbrow acclaim a century later also tells a fascinating story of American cultural history.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art, in association with Yale University Press, has published a 170-page catalogue with color illustrations of all works in the exhibition and many supplementary images. The texts include an introductory biographical and critical essay by organizing curator Kathleen A. Foster, the Museum’s Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Senior Curator of American Art and Director of the Center of American Art. This catalogue was supported by the Davenport Family Foundation. It will be available in the Museum Store ($50 cloth; $39.95 paper) or by calling 800-329-4856 or online at www.philamuseum.org.
Chambers in Context
A related installation is on view in the ground-floor Director’s Gallery. American Folk Painting from the Collection (Through Oct. 26, 2008) highlights approximately 30 northeastern American paintings that date from the late 18th through 19th centuries, including Judd’s Hotel, Philadelphia (c. 1820), Washington Crossing the Delaware (after 1851), and Charles Sidney Raleigh’s Chilly Observation (1889). The exhibition illustrates the diversity of what is recognized as American folk art, which includes amateur painters as well as professionals. Like Chambers’ paintings, these works were generally intended for display in middle-class homes. The installation is organized by Kathleen A. Foster, Robert L. McNeil Jr. Senior Curator of American Art and Director of the Center of American Art, and Mark Mitchell, Assistant Curator and Manager in the Center for American Art.