5 minute read

The story of a nation and a society is not only told through words and stories. Possibly even more than by historical accounts, the story of a nation is told through art. History can be tracked just by looking at the subjects of artworks, at the styles and methods used, and, more than anything else, by looking at the people making the art.

This concept is the foundation of “For America,” a new temporary exhibit at Oklahoma City Museum of Art comprised of more than 90 individual paintings from the National Academy of Design that will be on display at the museum from November 6th to January 30th.

National Academy of Design

Formed officially in 1825, the National Academy of Design was founded from the idea that the best way to learn art is by studying and observing the artworks of your predecessors, and the belief that art should be available for study and should be preserved not just for value, but also for posterity.

The founders of the Academy all were students originally in the American Academy of the Fine Arts. With that organization run and controlled mainly by financial investors and business-minded men, the students grew increasingly frustrated at the policies preventing them from seeing and studying many of the artworks that the school had locked away. In 1825, they broke away and launched the National Academy of Design as a way to encourage not just the collection of fine artworks, but their observation and open study as well.

100 paintings

The nearly 100 paintings on display now at OKCMOA are pulled from that staggering and ever-growing collection.

These remarkable works of art are arranged and presented carefully to show the progression through artists and styles over time. Pieces from the Academy’s early days in the 1800’s focus heavily on landscapes and scenery. Practically all of them are painted in rich, vibrant oils. Later pieces begin breaking out into much more expressionistic styles, showcasing dreamlike perspectives or overt social and political imagery.

A walk through this exhibit is a walk through the changing artistic landscape of America itself.

But there is another element to the exhibit and the selection of paintings on display that is arguably more important than any other, and that sets this show well apart from being just a collection of beautiful paintings.

Artists’ self portraits

We get to see the artists, too, and we get to see how they evolved over time.

In 1839, the Academy began requiring their students to not only present the Academy with a “diploma work” for them to keep in the school’s archive, but also with a “diploma portrait” of themselves to be archived alongside it. These portraits, which could be self-painted or the work of a fellow artist, were required to show the artists as they were, or at least how they wanted to be seen, in order to preserve a view into the evolving and changing face of American art itself.

“For America” presents these portraits of the artists directly beside their works, giving us a clearer view than ever before of the human figures behind the artworks that we’re viewing.

Unsurprisingly, a majority of the early portraits are men, all stoic, emotionless, and properly dressed. Walking through the exhibit, you begin to notice the gradual addition of women, then of non-white faces. The progression of portraits creates a timeline of social acceptance in America.

Eventually, even the concept of the “diploma portrait” itself gets deconstructed. In the final room, where the most recent pieces are displayed, you’re confronted by a massive self-portrait of artist Peter Saul painted in an exaggerated, cartoonish style that would have been unheard of at the Academy’s creation.

Artist Charles White’s submitted portrait hangs beside his unforgettable piece “Mother Courage.” His portrait is not of himself, but of his great aunt, born into American slavery many decades earlier. His portrait stands as one of the most striking statements that an artist’s own image of themselves is formed more from their inspirations than from their own face.

Some works are shown outside the chronology of the exhibit to better highlight the techniques and subjects that have both endured and grown over the years. Some paintings created up to 150 years apart are displayed beside one another to show the lasting influence of a simple American landscape or of the eternal artistic inspiration of the nation’s multi-colored scenery.


The preservation of the works is a beauty in itself as well.

These are almost guaranteed to be some of the best-preserved oil paintings you’ve ever seen. The vibrancy and depth of even the Academy’s earliest works are so perfectly intact that when hung beside an oil work from no more than 20 years ago, a 200-year-old painting may look no older and no more time-worn.

Some of these pieces, in particular some of the artists’ portraits, have actually never been displayed publicly before this exhibit was created. Instead, they’ve been kept perfectly preserved by the Academy, an institution founded heavily on the belief that artworks should be collected and preserved for future generations, and above all else, to teach and inspire future artists.

That belief has paid off. The National Academy of Design is still providing education and inspiration for today’s emerging artists, and “For America” stands as a breathtaking journey through the entirety of American art, and through the inextricable shadows of American history that have influenced it.

“For America: Paintings from the National Academy of Design” is showing at Oklahoma City Museum of Art from November 6th through January 30th. For tickets, information, and a schedule of the numerous events the museum is offering alongside the exhibit, from guided tours to seminars, visit okcmoa.com.

Last Updated November 5, 2021, 9:36 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor