The 1851 Crystal Palace Exposition in London is considered the first exhibition of its kind to showcase manufactured products from all over the world, exposing visitors to everything from art to new technologies and the items that make every country distinct. It would set the tone for all future World’s Fairs—extravagant yet instructive, lively and fun.
The first such exhibition held on American soil was the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, celebrating the nation’s century of independence. This was followed in 1893 in Chicago with the World Columbian Exposition. It’s easy to forget today how important these expositions were for visitors who would have the chance to see and experience art from many other cultures—and for artists as well, being able to show their work to vast audiences. The selections for these shows were taken very seriously, and juries all over the country chose the paintings, drawings, prints, ceramics, and other artwork that would represent America.
Several works now in the Johnson’s permanent collection were shown in fairs: Gari Melchers’s The Communion and Elihu Vedder’s The Sorrowing Soul Between Doubt and Faith were both well-received by critics at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Prints were an important display in the Fine Arts buildings at the fairs. James Abbott McNeill Whistler was a frequent exhibitor, and many of those images are among the Johnson’s extensive collection of his prints. The 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco exhibited, for the first time, a large display of works by artists working in color woodcut, and many of them won prizes. These, too, are well represented in the Johnson’s collection.
We Went to the Fair offers visitors an opportunity to see just a few of the many artworks shown by American artists at the fairs, and captures the variety and range of their contributions, in conjunction with JapanAmerica: Points of Contact, 1876-1970.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website.