Virtue, Vice, Wisdom & Folly: The Moralizing Tradition in American Art

Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing Gallery

A child takes his first steps under the watchful eyes of his parents and grandfather. A husband struggles home in the rain from a trip to the market. Two men play a game of cards, a young  woman awaits the arrival of a suitor, and a group of townspeople enjoy a holiday parade. These might be snapshots from our own time, but they are also genre images from the nineteenth century. Genre paintings and prints depict scenes from everyday life: chores, social gatherings, political rallies, holidays, and street life. But rather than recording specific incidents from the lives of real people, these images are intended to provide moral instruction while appealing to the sympathies and experiences of a growing middle-class audience.

Featuring paintings and prints by William Sidney Mount, Lilly Martin Spencer, Winslow Homer, Eastman Johnson, and others, this exhibition explores the themes of virtue, vice, wisdom, and folly that dominated nineteenth-century American genre art. Artists focused on subjects ranging from country and city life to gender, politics, and race. Their images were shaped by historical phenomena such as the Civil War, industrialization, and immigration, and were marked by a desire to communicate moral principles such as diligence, self-reliance, and piety. By exploring the ways that American values became codified in the nineteenth century, we can better understand how moral traditions informed notions of a national character that continue to reverberate through our own society today.

A section of the exhibition gallery will be reserved for interactive experiences for children and adults. Visitors will learn more about the artists, look for “clues” or specific images depicted in the paintings, and listen to music that corresponds to the paintings.

Moralizing in the Age of Rembrandt: Dutch Prints from the Ackland Art Museum

Moralizing in art was far from a nineteenth-century invention. A complementary exhibition of seventeenth-century Dutch prints installed in the gallery with Virtue, Vice, Wisdom & Folly historicizes this tradition, enabling viewers to consider the connections between morality and emerging market economies in seventeenth-century Holland and nineteenth-century America. This exhibition includes prints by Rembrandt, Adriaen van Ostade, and Jacob van Ruisdael.