Exhibition explores the formation and evolution of an American business aesthetic.
The portrait collection of the New York Chamber of Commerce, assembled over a 200-year period beginning in 1772, captured with aesthetic and symbolic power the giants of American business—and became one of the most significant examples of institutional portraiture in the nation's history. Picturing Power: Capitalism, Democracy and American Portraiture, held exclusively at the Princeton University Art Museum from March 9 through June 30, 2013, gathers 50 of the best portraits from the now dispersed collection in a dense, Salon-style installation that evokes the collection’s original majestic setting in the Great Hall of the Chamber’s ornate Wall Street headquarters. Featuring images of business titans (J.P. Morgan, Cornelius Vanderbilt), military and political leaders (George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant) and great Americans such as Samuel F.B. Morse, the exhibition recreates the most impressive corporate display of portraits in American history while demonstrating the varied and fascinating uses to which portraiture has been put in the service of institutions.
Picturing Power draws attention to a fundamental predicament of American art: how to portray power in a democracy, where fundamental ideals of equality conflict with the inherently aggrandizing act of commissioning, posing for and collecting portraits. “Americans’ shifting and ambivalent relationship to commerce situates these portraits at the intersection of enduring and critical contests in American life—between self-interest and the greater good, between equality and the social hierarchies that wealth engenders,” said Karl Kusserow, curator of American art at the Princeton University Art Museum.
As a result of its unusually long history, the Chamber of Commerce portrait collection has produced a singularly rich legacy of uses and meanings. The exhibition offers a stimulating analysis of how the wealthy and powerful leaders of American commerce employed portraiture to fashion an identity that promoted their corporate, civic and ideological agendas—while reflecting their evolving concerns and those of the wider culture they inhabited.
Picturing Power departs from standard art-historical approaches in considering, for the first time, not only the growth of a large and important collection, but also the ways that the collection’s function and meaning changed over time, as the institution it served and the world around it also changed. Arranged in six parts throughout the Sterling Morton Gallery—the Museum’s central gallery and itself a public gathering place, akin to the Chamber’s Great Hall—the installation creates a narrative that charts the evolution of the Chamber from a young and struggling institution to a major civic (and ultimately national) force, as well as its subsequent decline and the portraits’ final revitalization, in a new setting, as iconic sources of power and prestige.
The exhibition is accompanied by Kusserow’s book Picturing Power: Portraiture and Its Uses in the New York Chamber of Commerce (Columbia University Press), which was the inspiration for the exhibition and will appear this spring. More than a decade in preparation, the 424-page volume features additional contributions by David L. Barquist (Philadelphia Museum of Art), Elizabeth Blackmar (Columbia University), Daniel Bluestone (University of Virginia) and Paul Staiti (Mt. Holyoke College).
About the Princeton University Art Museum
Founded in 1882, the Princeton University Art Museum is one of the leading university art museums in the country. From the founding gift of a collection of porcelain and pottery, the collections have grown to more than 72,000 works of art that range from ancient to contemporary art and concentrate geographically on the Mediterranean regions, Western Europe, China, the United States and Latin America.
Committed to advancing Princeton’s teaching and research missions, the Art Museum serves as a gateway to the University for visitors from around the world. The Museum is intimate in scale yet expansive in scope, offering a respite from the rush of daily life, a revitalizing experience of extraordinary works of art and an opportunity to delve deeply into the study of art and culture.
The Princeton University Art Museum is located at the heart of the Princeton campus, a short walk from the shops and restaurants of Nassau Street. Admission is free. Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and major holidays.
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