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The reinstalled nineteenth-century galleries examine two major themes: Native and settler histories in the Americas and the influence of the French Barbizon school on American art. Important works from the Kemper Art Museum’s collection—including George Caleb Bingham’s Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap (1851–52) and Eastman Johnson’s The Cranberry Pickers (A Study) (1876)—will appear alongside long-term loans from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art by artists such as Thomas Cole, Winslow Homer, and Edward Mitchell Bannister. This new reframing of the Museum’s collection aims to foreground more inclusive narratives of nineteenth-century artistic production. 

During the early 1800s, US history paintings and landscapes often presented settler colonialism as a divinely sanctioned practice, legitimizing the expropriation of Native land by the government and settlers. For instance, Charles Ferdinand Wimar’s scenes of the West have been interpreted as perpetuating myths about the inevitable vanishing of Native peoples. In order to counteract the visual and physical erasure of Native Americans from the land in many of these artworks, wall texts emphasize narratives of Indigenous survival and resistance. The inclusion of a contemporary landscape by the Native artist James Lavadour (Walla Walla) also complicates traditional Euro-American understandings of land as an object to be possessed. Lavadour’s painting Like Rain—on loan from the John and Susan Horseman Collection—instead presents land as a living entity manifested through the natural materials of painting, such as mineral pigments and wooden panels. Over the coming months, this gallery will be refreshed to include nineteenth-century collection works by Native American artists and artisans, based on ongoing consultation with Tribal Nations. 

Focusing on the late 1800s, the second gallery demonstrates how earlier political ideologies of Manifest Destiny and ideals of American unity were undermined by the Civil War (1861–1865), leading to new artistic approaches. US artists turned to the French Barbizon style—the first to consider the natural world a worthy artistic subject—as a poetic alternative to earlier nationalistic landscapes. They adopted the Barbizon’s loose brushstrokes, rustic subjects, and plein air technique, exemplified by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot’s Le chemin des vieux, Luzancy, Seine-et-Marne (The Path of the Old People) (1871–72). The installation explores the political implications of depicting romanticized agricultural labor in the US following the Emancipation Proclamation (1863). Central to the display is a harvest scene by Edward Mitchell Bannister, an African American landscape painter who achieved success working in the Barbizon style. Agricultural scenes by Bannister, Homer, Johnson, and George Inness served to extol the modest, generational, Northern farming model over the Southern sharecropping system, which replaced enslavement with debt servitude during the Reconstruction era (1863–1877). 

This display is curated by Dana Ostrander, assistant curator, with Hannah Wier, PhD student in the Department of Art History & Archaeology in Arts & Sciences, as part of the Mentored Professional Experiences program. 

All works come from the permanent collection of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum unless otherwise noted. Long-term loans are generously lent by Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art as part of Art Bridges’ Partner Loan Network, the John and Susan Horseman Collection, and the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections, Washington University Libraries.

Selected works