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Art review: Great American art is now on permanent display in Arkansas

Visitors are flocking to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
BY JOHN BRANDENBURG Modified: July 27, 2012 at 12:06 am •  Published: July 29, 2012

— A superb short course in United States art history — from portraits of George Washington to Andy Warhol's “Dolly Parton” — is offered by the permanent collection at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Opened last November and user-friendly due to free admission to its permanent collection, the fishlike forms of the museum, designed by Moshe Safdie, integrate it into the green landscape beautifully.

Charles Willson Peale's portrait of Washington, standing and looking vigorous in a blue uniform, offers a nice contrast to Gilbert Stuart's more thoughtful oil of the same subject, seated and dressed in black.

A silvery gown rivals the visual appeal of the pale skin of “Mrs. Theodore Atkinson Jr. (Frances Deering Wentworth),” coolly looking back at us, in a 1765 colonial portrait by John Singleton Copley.

John Vanderlyn supplies us with a skinny, horizontal view of “Niagara and the Rapids,” and Francis Guy gives us an early, evocative, 1820 glimpse of a “Winter Scene in Brooklyn.” Both works have been borrowed from the museum's permanent collection, and are on view in the temporary, fee-based, “Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision” show at the museum through Sept. 3.

Grabbing our attention, too, are the dramatically crossed tail feather of one of two exotic birds in “The Gems of Brazil” by Martin Johnson Heade, who is well represented in the museum's permanent collection.

Stooped and anonymous Nantucket “Cranberry Pickers” emerge from the tall grass in a low-key but very effective oil by Eastman Johnson, done in about 1879. Equally convincing visually is “The Return of the Gleaner,” an oil by Winslow Homer that captures the sharp look to her left of a woman with a hayfork on her shoulder.

Childe Hassam communicates the magic of “Paris at Twilight” in a small 1887 oil, and John Henry Twachtman relies on “September Sunshine” to partly dematerialize the back of his house in Connecticut.

Other outstanding impressionistic works include William Merritt Chase's oil of women and children in white picking “Seaside Flowers,” and Maurice Brazil Prendergast's watercolor of people at a Boston area beach.

Mary Cassatt relies on bravura brushwork and shades of white to convey the pleasure of “The Reader,” and Thomas Wilmer Dewing draws us into the intimacy between “The Fortune Teller” and her subject.

Making a solitary, nearly life-size standing figure, emerging from the darkness, work for them, brilliantly, are Robert Henri and Alfred Henry Maurer, in giant oils done in the early 20th century. Henri depicts the redheaded “Jessica Penn in Black with White Plumes,” and Maurer portrays “Jeanne,” wearing a long white dress, as she peers at us under the brim of a raffish, bird-adorned straw hat.

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