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Ariadne: The Great American Nude

June 04, 2009 - April 28, 2010

John Vanderlyn was among the first American painters to spend significant time studying in Paris, and while abroad around 1812 he created his masterpiece, "Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos" (Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). The painting was admitted to the Paris Salon that year—a triumph for a young American artist. But triumph turned to despair when Vanderlyn exhibited Ariadne back in the United States in 1815, where audiences considered the nude a shocking subject, and it failed to garner the public acclaim it deserved.

John Vanderlyn, Ariadne Asleep on the Island of Naxos, 1809–14, oil on canvas

Many artists and critics, however, realized Vanderlyn's great achievement, among them the engraver and aspiring painter Asher B. Durand. In 1831 Durand purchased Vanderlyn's great work, along with an unfinished copy that is now in the Historical Society collection. Durand created an engraving of Vanderlyn's unappreciated masterpiece that was hailed by some as a great achievement, but the American public was still unprepared to accept a nude figure as a subject for art, so the print met a fate similar to the painting that inspired it. But there the two artists' fates diverged: while Vanderlyn became embittered and eventually died in poverty, Durand went on to become an accomplished portraitist and a highly acclaimed landscape painter.

Creative: Tronvig Group