Advanced Plus Field Trip: Learning about the United States through Its Art

By Cathy Sunshine

On May 22, the Advanced Plus PM class took a field trip to the Phillips Collection, an art museum just a few blocks from Washington English Center. We saw “Made in the USA: American Masters from The Phillips Collection, 1850–1970,” a special exhibition covering three floors of the museum. Ten students and two teachers enjoyed the artwork, with complimentary admission provided by the Phillips.

Students and teachers from the Advanced Plus PM class visited the Phillips Gallery to see American artists.

Our group included students from Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, France/Algeria, Germany, Korea, Mexico, Spain, and Sudan, plus two teachers.

The exhibition, which includes nearly 120 artists, begins with iconic American artists of the late nineteenth century and concludes with the abstract expressionists of the late twentieth century. Along the way, it reflects a society being reshaped by industrialization, urbanization, and immigration from abroad. Our students noticed that many of the American artists featured were born in other countries or were the children of immigrants from Europe, Russia, and other parts of the world.

“For me, it was a great opportunity to know American art, because I’ve never seen American paintings before,” said a Brazilian student. A student from Spain agreed: “I had always visited galleries with European art. I have to say that I was impressed by the American art.” A Sudanese student liked seeing “American scenes and social realism.” He commented, “I learned that United States society is a place that supports its inventors to draw the image of the country in their own way. The vision of expression of one day will not do for the next day.”

We asked each student to choose a picture that they would like to hang on the wall of their house or apartment. An Argentine student picked out Arthur G. Dove’s Red Sun: “I like Red Sun to hang on the living room wall. I like the color combination, simplicity, and realism. It’s like you have a sunset inside of your house. Very optimistic painting.”

Arthur G. Dove, "Red Sun" (1935)

Arthur G. Dove, “Red Sun” (1935)

A German student liked the pictures of New York, a city she enjoys. A painting by the German-born modernist artist Stefan Hirsch shows the Lower Manhattan skyline in 1921.

Stefan Hirsch, "New York, Lower Manhattan" (1921)

Stefan Hirsch, “New York, Lower Manhattan” (1921)

A Mexican student appreciated the Migration Series by African American painter Jacob Lawrence, which shows the mass movement of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between World War I and World War II.

Panel 1 from the Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (1940–41)

Panel 1 from the Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (1940–41)

Our Sudanese classmate chose the earthy paintings of Georgia O’Keefe. Ranchos Church, No. II shows an early adobe church in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico.

Georgia O’Keefe, "Ranchos Church, No. II" (1929)

Georgia O’Keefe, “Ranchos Church, No. II” (1929)

Just for fun, we also asked students to name a picture that they would not want to hang on the wall. Portraits of individuals and abstract works turned out to be least popular. “Abstract expressionism style confuses me. I feel puzzled. I cannot find meanings in the paintings, only a combination of colors,” remarked one student.

After spending time in the American exhibit, some students dipped into the European section of the Phillips, where they saw paintings by Renoir, Miró, Kandinsky, and Van Gogh, among others. Later in class, we talked about how the Americans were influenced by European art styles of their time, yet also departed from them.

All in all, a most enjoyable and educational visit!

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