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Last modified: Monday, March 1, 2010

IU Art Museum to present exhibition dedicated to Thomas Chambers, 'America's first modern' artist

Curator began organizing the exhibit in 1998

March 1, 2010

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- The Indiana University Art Museum will present the first major museum exhibition devoted to the vision of Thomas Chambers, the 19th-century artist once hailed as "America's first modern" artist.

"Thomas Chambers (1808-1869), American Marine and Landscape Painter," was curated by Kathleen A. Foster, a former curator at the IU Art Museum and now the Robert L. McNeil Jr. Senior Curator of American Art and director of the Center of American Art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The Chambers show opened at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and is currently on display in New York City. It will open at the IU Art Museum March 26 and will remain on display through May 30.

Capture of H.B.M. Frigate

Thomas Chambers, "Capture of H.B.M. Frigate Macedonian by U.S. Frigate United States, October 25, 1812, 1852 or 1853."

The exhibition includes 44 of the artist's works, approximately 15 paintings and prints by his contemporaries and a selection of decorative arts.

Although little was known about his life until recently, Chambers played a pioneering role in the development of popular American landscape and maritime art in the mid-19th century.

His distinctive "decorative" style -- neither realist nor romanticized -- has been widely recognized since the 1940s, when he was re-discovered as a precursor to American modern artists. Chambers' work has been included in numerous surveys of American art, but until this exhibit, his paintings have never been assembled to consider the breadth of his career.

The exhibition is drawn from private and public collections, including the Indiana University Art Museum.

"We are delighted to present this groundbreaking exhibition," said Foster. "It is remarkable that such a captivating personality in American art history has been studied so little. The exhibition and catalogue that accompany the installation provide a wealth of previously unknown information about Chambers, whose story and achievements are far more complex than anyone previously realized."

Foster began organizing the exhibition in 1998, soon after she encountered 29 Chambers paintings that had been recently acquired by the IU Art Museum. Provoked by the artist's idiosyncratic style, she began to search for additional examples of his work and a richer context for his life. New research has linked the artist to the British marine painter George Chambers (1803-1842), and used period images to establish titles for many of Thomas Chambers' paintings.

The exhibition explores Chambers' marine and landscape paintings, which he produced in a romantic style that melds cosmopolitan and folk styles of the time. His patriotic and literary subjects -- drawn from history, popular novels and current events -- show Chambers' entrepreneurial imagination and also reflect the tastes of his bourgeois urban and prosperous small-town and rural patrons in New York state and New England.

This style-conscious, newly middle-class audience might have owned portraits by Ammi Phillips (1788-1865) or William Matthew Prior (1806-1873), and would also have displayed Chambers' works in their bright, "fancy" interiors alongside painted furniture, bold textiles and ceramics. The exhibition will include decorative arts that include Tucker porcelain, reverse-painted mirrors and decorated chairs, all of which demonstrate the type of "fancy painting" services that Chambers advertised.

Like many early American artists, Chambers drew inspiration from etchings, engravings and lithographs of American scenery. Influential books illustrated by William H. Bartlett and Jacques Milbert will be displayed in the exhibition alongside paintings by Chambers based on such prints.

These landscape works were not signed, but the variant versions that survive -- including multiple images of West Point and Lake George -- demonstrate the popularity of these views. Chambers often signed and dated his more ambitious and original compositions, a sign of his primary identity as a marine painter. Among his most acclaimed efforts were naval battles: The Constitution and the Guerriére (c. 1840-50) and Capture of the H.B.M. Frigate Macedonian by U.S. Frigate United States, October 25, 1812 (1853). Although inspired by prints of the War of 1812, Chambers reworked these images with his signature style.

Placing Chambers in the context of contemporaries is challenging, as there were few painters like him, said Foster, but the exhibition will include works by a number of artists with whom his works share many qualities.

Similar to artists trained as sign painters -- including Phillips, Prior, Edward Hicks (1780-1849) and Sturtevant Hamblin (1817-1884) -- Chambers demonstrated a use of flat color, strong value contrast and bold two-dimensional design that has been identified as key to the folk aesthetic. Chambers also learned from more naturalistic, academic painting by his contemporaries, such as Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Thomas Doughty (1793-1856), Thomas Birch (1779-1851) and Victor de Grailly (1804-1889).

"Thomas Chambers (1808-1869), American Marine and Landscape Painter" is organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art and its Center for American Art, in association with the IU Art Museum. This exhibition was supported by a generous gift from Mr. and Mrs. William C. Buck. Additional support was provided by the Morton C. Bradley Jr. Fund at IU.

The presentation of the exhibition in Bloomington is supported by gifts from Gayl W. and Beverly Doster, Lucie and Larry Glaubinger, Bill and Nancy Hunt, and Sara and Bob LeBien, with additional support from Del and Letty Newkirk, and Richard Ford.

Following its premiere in Philadelphia, the exhibition was on view at the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, N.Y., from Feb. 8-April 29, 2009. It opened Sept. 29 at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and will remain there through March 7, 2010, before being installed at the IU Art Museum.

For more information about Thomas Chambers, see

Exhibition Catalogue

The Philadelphia Museum of Art, in association with Yale University Press, has published a 170-page catalogue with color illustrations of all works in the exhibition and many supplementary images. The texts include an introductory biographical and critical essay by organizing curator Kathleen A. Foster, the Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Senior Curator of American Art and Director of the Center of American Art. This catalogue was supported by the Davenport Family Foundation. It will be available in Angles Café and Gift Shop or by calling 812-855-4337.

About the Indiana University Art Museum

With collections ranging from ancient gold jewelry and African masks to paintings by Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso, the Indiana University Art Museum is located on Seventh Street in the heart of the Bloomington campus. The Indiana University Art Museum's galleries are open Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. The Angles Café and Gift Shop is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday noon to 5 p.m.

For additional information, contact the manager of External Relations for the IU Art Museum 812-856-3112. The IU Art Museum is located at 1133 E. 7th Street in Bloomington, Indiana. For general information, call 812-855-5445, or visit the Art Museum's Web site at