American Couples Exhibition
December 31, 2011
American Couples: How Do We Look? now on view in the Museum of Art, was conceived to complement the Museums special exhibition, Wedded Perfection: Two Centuries of Wedding Gowns. The nearly 50 artworks displayed in Fountain Elms' Otto Meyer Galleries, drawn from the rich resources of the Museums permanent collection, include a diverse selection of historical paintings, miniatures, silhouettes, works on paper, furniture and sculpture.
All the works depict men and women in portraits that were made to be seen together as a pair and portray, or are presumed to show, a husband and wife. A number of these paired portraits are rarely on view and have entered the Museums collection as a set despite the vagaries of time and circumstance. Other couple portraits will be familiar to regular Museum visitors, but are included in this exhibition so they can be presented in the broader artistic and cultural context of the issues this exhibition addresses. Collectively these works demonstrate the range of compositional and narrative conventions found in 19th-century American paired portraiture.
The interpretative label for each set of portraits is interrogative in tone. Rather than providing biographical or art historical information about the artworks, visitors are invited to draw conclusions from the visual rhetoric encoded in each set. Couple portraits easily lend themselves to this kind of interpretative reading because they use stock motifs, gestures and compositional devices to convey information about identity, as well as class consciousness, social relationships, generational continuity and heraldry, as well as insights about how a couple wanted to be represented for posterity. Whatever information the viewer intuits about the sitters is achieved through a thoughtful study of their poses, costumes and accessory details. Meaning does not reside in the portraits themselves but is discovered through thoughtful looking. Through this investigative process, the couple portraits provide a complex set of answers to the question posed by the exhibitions subtitle, How do we look?