Lake Basin in the High Sierra

Lake Basin in the High Sierra by Chiura Obata

When have you experienced transcendence?

This painting, inspired by a 1927 trip, depicts a lake in a valley beneath Yosemite’s Johnson Peak, south of Tuolumne Meadows. Describing the scene, Obata recalled, “Countless streams run down the frozen mountainside, lending a sublime melody. Man’s very soul and body seem to melt away into the singular silence and tranquility of the surrounding air.” Although Obata’s composition was inspired by a specific site, the generic title leaves space for the viewer’s imagination.

Mother Earth

Mother Earth by Chiura Obata

What is the value of nature in your life?

Obata’s Mother Earth depicts the artist’s young wife during her pregnancy. She stands in a grove of redwood trees, her long dark hair covering her body. The title evokes nature, fertility, maternity, and the cycles and seasons of life. Although his Japanese wife served as his model, Obata transformed this personal subject into a universal ode to nature, once observing: “Above the border line of nationality everybody must feel a deep appreciation toward Mother Earth.”

Prometheus Bound

Prometheus Bound by Thomas Cole

How does scale help to tell a story?

Cole took the narrative for this painting from Prometheus Bound, the classical tragedy. Prometheus was a Titan, a race of immortal giants. Jupiter charged him to create human beings, whom he fashioned out of mud and water in the image of the gods. Prometheus then stole fire from the gods to help the humans. The theft angered Jupiter, who had Prometheus chained to a rock; he was condemned to have his liver devoured by a vulture, only to have it regrow and be devoured again the next day.


Petunias by Georgia O'Keeffe

What is extraordinary in the ordinary?

The year she and the photographer Alfred Stieglitz were married, O’Keeffe planted a patch of flowers at the Stieglitz family summer home in upstate New York. Petunias is one of a dozen works she would paint from those plants over the next two years. She once declared, “Whether the flower or the color is the focus I do not know. I do know that the flower is painted large to convey to you my experience of the flower—and what is my experience of the flower if not color?”

Albert Post (1843–1872)

Albert Post (1843-1972) by Winslow Homer

How do images shape our understanding of war?

While Homer based the majority of his Civil War paintings and illustrations on sketches, this portrait is based on a tintype photograph. Commercial portrait photography flourished during the war, and portraits of soldiers were treasured by the families who might lose their sons and brothers in battle. This portrait shows Albert Kintzing Post in a Union camp. A second lieutenant in the 45th Regiment of Massachusetts Infantry, Post survived the war but died a few years later at the age of twenty-nine while trying to save a boy from drowning.

Haig Patigian

Haig Patigian was born in Van, Armenia. His father was forced to flee Armenia for political reasons, and in 1891 the family was reunited. They settled in Fresno, California; Patigian worked as a day laborer in the surrounding vineyards until he secured a position as a sign painter in 1893. In 1899 he moved to San Francisco and enrolled in the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art. In 1906 he traveled to Paris to study sculpture. He later became one of the most prominent sculptors on the West Coast.

Hiram Powers

Hiram Powers is perhaps the most famous American neoclassical sculptor. Born near Woodstock, Vermont, he moved to Cincinnati, where he modeled waxworks for Joseph Dorfeuille’s Western Museum. His naturalistic portrait bust of Andrew Jackson (1834–1835, Metropolitan Museum of Art) earned him a national reputation and the support of the American sculptor Horatio Greenough, who funded Powers’s travel abroad in 1837; Powers lived and worked in Florence, Italy, from 1837 until his death in 1873.

Amedeo Modigliani

The Italian-born Amedeo Modigliani moved to Paris’s Left Bank in 1906 and began to paint the local bohemian personalities. An avid draftsman, he often sketched throughout the day, even using drawings to barter with neighborhood merchants. Modigliani’s only solo exhibition in 1917 shocked Parisian authorities; the series of female nudes on view are now among the artist’s most famous compositions and fetch record auction prices, an ironic fate given he died penniless at age 35 of tuberculosis.