Construction delays scuttled the original plan to open the Centennial in April 1876, in time for the 100th anniversary of the battles at Lexington and Concord. Just as well. The nation’s first world’s fair wasn’t looking to the past so much as the American present and, even more, its future.
On May 10, 1876—139 years ago yesterday—the bell at Independence Hall signaled the opening of the Centennial. Four miles from the city’s historic center more than 186,000 gathered for a heady celebration of stuff in a temporary Centennial City in West Fairmount Park. In all, more than 9.8 million visitors would visit over the summer months to celebrate the growth of America from idea to flourishing nation.
At its symbolic and ceremonial center, Centennial planners built a place where America would be represented by the nation’s artists. Inside, surrounded by an array of other galleries filled with art from around the world, was America’s “Grand Salon,” aka “Gallery C,” the place for the nation’s artists to be and be seen. Here would be the best of the best in American art, works expressive of what this nation had become, or as Kimberly Orcutt put it: “…the first officially sanctioned, full-scale reckoning of the nation’s art.”
It wouldn’t be easy to present what the organizers hoped for: “a unified ‘American school.’” As it turned out, by the 1870s, America’s artists were more divided than united. New York landscapists conflicted with European-trained cosmopolitans from Philadelphia and Boston. And Philadelphia artist John Sartain, appointed chief of the Art Advisory Committee only eight months before opening day, created a top-heavy bureaucracy, a Committee on Selection and a Committee on Arrangement, to “help.” The ever-political Sartain, Orcutt writes, “was careful not to place himself on the Committee on Selection” but after the committee reviewed more than 1,000 works of art in early April, rejecting some interesting newcomers like the still-young and little-known Thomas Eakins and others who also trained abroad, Sartain carried out a notorious series of end runs around his committees, soliciting works he thought merited display, particularly from artists who were longtime friends and allies, including Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran.
In all, Sartain and his committee assembled far more than could possibly fit in Gallery C. Americans would be hung in the long, narrow connecting gallery at Memorial Hall as well as in a handful of small, square rooms in the one-story, wooden annex built directly behind Memorial Hall to accommodate overflow.
Installed, “Gallery C” spoke more to the contested state of American art than anything like a hoped-for American School. In the center stood two sculptures by P.F. Connelly’s, Ophelia and Death and Honor and another by Howard Roberts Le Premier Pose, now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Visitors witnessed John Vanderlyn’s Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, now at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and Albert Bierstadt’s Entrance into Monterey (The Settlement of California, Bay of Monterey, 1777), now in the U. S. House of Representatives. They saw Eastman Johnson, Catching the Bee, 1872 and Winslow Homer’s Snap the Whip. They took in Peter Rothermel’s gigantic (16’ x 32’), bloodless, Battle of Gettysburg, and Thomas Eakins’ Portrait of Dr. Rand, now the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Of course, they didn’t see Eakins’ very bloody Portrait of Dr. Samuel Gross which the Selection Committee passed on. That refusée made an appearance in the far-flung Army Medical Department Exhibition.
Eakins’ Gross Clinic, according to Sylvan Schendler, had been been dumped for a cow painting entitled The Return of the Herd by Peter Moran, Thomas Moran’s younger brother. (In a twist of history, the Peter Moran recently sold for sum of $38,025, minuscule compared to the $68,000,000 sale price for The Gross Clinic in 2006.)
In 1914, nearly four decades after doing his best to define an American art, the mature Eakins, who embodied the best of the conflicting approaches, reflected on the American art dilemma that had shaped his entire career: “If America is to produce great painters and if young artists wish to assume a place in the history of the art of their country, their first desire should be to remain in America to peer deeper into the heart of American life, rather than spend their time abroad obtaining a superficial view of the art of the Old World.”
When Eakins was in his early 30s in 1875 and painted The Gross Clinic, American artists were nowhere near ready to speak in one clear, creative voice that might be considered an “American School.” Many decades later, the dust still hadn’t settled. If anything, the international influences on American art were stirred up even more by the Armory Show in 1913 and collector Albert Barnes, who focused intensely on what made good art, rather than what made good American art.
It could be the impossible search for a pure, distinctive and exclusively American art is what stymied success at the Centennial’s “Gallery C.”