From the signing of the Declaration of Independence in the summer of 1776 to the arrival of the Democratic National Convention in July of 2016, the City of Brotherly Love has been at the epicenter of American politics. Happiness, Liberty, Life?: American Art and Politics explores themes of humor, protest, and portraiture in American art and politics from the 18th century to today.
The issues raised during this contentious election year connect to a long heritage of political discord and imagery. This exhibition draws attention to the icons and issues of importance to artists throughout the great American experiment, opening a dialogue about identity, freedom and the power of symbols. Three organizing concepts structure the exhibition: Cult of Presidential Personality; Red, White, and Blue; and Forming a More Perfect Union.
A central nucleus of the exhibition, the “Wall of Washington,” offers a rare look at over 25 representations of George and Martha Washington from idealized views of George’s childhood days to the founding father’s sepulcher at Mount Vernon. In looking at these images together, who the “real” Washington is becomes a complex question. Newly restored, massive cardboard characters of George and Martha Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin from Red Grooms’ 1982 Philadelphia Cornucopia installation will inhabit PAFA’s 7,000-square-foot Fisher Brooks Gallery.
In addition, an installation in the Historic Landmark Building's Washington Foyer called “Commanders in Chief: Portraits of Power in the Washington Foyer” places contemporary artist Brian Tolle’s sculptural portraits of George Washington in conversation with PAFA’s Grand Manner portraits of Washington and King George III. In honor of the Democratic National Convention, the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has lent to PAFA Elaine de Kooning’s iconic portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr. All of these works will be on display in PAFA’s newly restored Washington Foyer
A constellation of works on display in the galleries address American artists’ often explosive engagement with the political process. Artists include Julius Bloch, Elizabeth Catlett, Colin Campbell Cooper, Sue Coe, Chitra Ganesh, Jacob Lawrence, Alice Neel, Rembrandt Peale, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Faith Ringgold, William Sartain, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Gilbert Stuart, Kara Walker, and Andrew Wyeth, among many others.