How “America: Painting a Nation” Has Inspired Me


© Photograph by Lucy Chen

I left the kids home with their dad, and went to visit the Art Gallery of NSW last Saturday by myself.  What an inspiring day!  Along with the Gallery’s permanent collection, I was fortunate to see the “America: Painting a Nation” exhibition.

After treating myself with a roasted pumpkin sandwich, a cup of soy flat white, and a chapter in “The Signature of All Things” in the gallery cafe, I bought a $20 ticket and went downstairs to experience the national development of America through the eyes and hands of American artists.

You can read reviews of the exhibitions all over the Internet (such as here and here).  I’m not an art critic to review anything.  But I’m an artist, and I shall share with you which paintings have touched and inspired me the most and how.

There were Two Original John Singer Sargent

Among all the beautiful portraits and landscapes, there were two original John Singer Sargent Paintings!  I almost fell to my knees when I saw them!

Dennis-Miller-Bunker-Painting-at-Calcot, john singer sargent

One was a small outdoor painting titled “Dennis Miller Bunker Painting at Calcot”.  Isn’t it amazing how these loose brush strokes could make such a splendid painting?  My nose was almost touching the canvas as I examined it, and I soon realized that my right index finger was ticking this and that way as my eyes followed the direction of his brush strokes.

Images of Australian moms pushing a pram, strolling in a park, followed by one or two small toddlers keep appearing in my mind.  Perhaps I will paint that one day, once I have the control with my brushes and paint to make such confident loose-looking paintings.

Mrs.-Edward-L.-Davis-and-Her-Son-Livingston, john singer sargent

Then there was the large “Mrs. Edwards L. Davis and Her Son Livingston”.  It was life-size.  Larger than life.  At 86 inches high, it seemed to go fro floor to ceiling.  Standing in front of this painting, I suddenly understood why some people would pour millions and millions into acquiring a single canvas with nothing but paint on it.  I would if I had the money.

You can’t possibly finish looking at it when it is exhibited.  It takes a life time.  It takes a life time to look at it as a whole, and then examine it inch by inch, then back as a whole, then inch by inch, then back again…  Though the people look like they are going to walk out from the wall to haunt you, especially at night, that’s what is so thrilling about having such a magnificent life-size portrait in your home, isn’t it?  You’re haunted by it, and you’re possessed, and you’re obsessed!

Now I start to consider the possibility of John Singer Sargent having a deal with the devil.  Do you think he did?  For what other Muses could be as powerful?

How to Paint Hope?


The Promised Land, 1850, by William Smith Jewett

I was almost unable to move myself away from “The Promised Land” by William Smith Jewett.  The photograph failed to do it due justice.  You really have to see it in person when you can.  Oh the eyes of the man!

How can eyes be painted with so much hope?  How can you paint hope?  How can you paint so much hope into eyes?

Of course, the “warm” colors of the painting like red and yellow (as opposed to blue for example) can convey a sense of just that, warmth, and therefore it is a more hopeful color.  The techniques, skills, composition and execution are all brilliant, but all that is just the beginning, isn’t it?  There is much more.  What is it?  Some kind of Creative Genius of Hope and Promise working alongside the artist?

Bones and Flowers, Death and Sex

America-Painting-a-Nation, georgia o'keeffe

Left: Horse’s Skull with Pink Rose
Right: Two Alla Lilies on Pink
Both by Georgia O’Keeffe

Then these two paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe struck me.  They resonate with me at a very personal level and I know why.

Flowers have always been a symbol of beauty, youth and sometimes sex.  I know Georgia O’Keeffe has insisted that the exotic imagery in her work was not her intention, but rather it was in the eye of the beholder.  This may be exactly what I behold — a lack of something can make you see more of it in such imagery.

When you see a skull, death or the idea of it enters your mind.  I admit that I’ve played with the idea of suicide and hurting myself from time to time, and the cruelty of humans to animals has always been on my mind, too (I regularly donate to WWF, and I try to be a vegan but we still have seafood occasionally).  So I immediately fell in love with the idea of painting skulls!

Now I feel an urge to paint skulls with flowers.  I think this will make me less dangerous to myself if I can get my feelings out on the canvas rather than letting them fill my head.  I would love to travel to the desert to collect bones, but this is unlikely to happen given my current situation.  Do you know where I can acquire some real animal skulls?

Lucy Chen Fine Art
Lucy Chen Fine Art

It's good that we like different things. It's boring if we're all the same, isn't it?

Lucy Chen Fine Art
Lucy Chen Fine Art

They are beautiful! Except I really don't like things like Pollock's.


Found this... there area lot of sites actually. But Boy, they are expensive. (Should be, right?)

I was lucky enough to go to Georgia's museum in Santa Fe a couple of years ago. OH my God! It was packed, and all I wanted to do was just stand in front of each one and study them. Some of them are so much smaller than I had imagined. I bought as many postcards as I could, and a book, and calendar.

I loved reading about your enthusiasm. Obsession! It seemed to me that some of those observers in the O'Keefe museum were too nonchalant about her art. Probably because it would not fit their decor. I was in awe!

Happy for you to get a day away to yourself! 

Stephanie Guimond
Stephanie Guimond

What a beautiful write-up Lucy, I felt I was right there with you! How fortunate we are to be able to see such beautiful pieces.


Lucy I had the same experience the moment I saw a Rembrandt self portrait at the Met in New York city. I swear that time stood still looking at it and just looking into the eyes. I also swear that a part of me wanted to risk getting kicked out just because I wanted to just touch the frame!!! It would have been worth it!!


the fertile ground for our art and life is in between the opposites

hope and trepidation

darkness and light

life and death

thank you for sharing the image of the young family, hope, the promised land

it is a difficult journey, well worth taking

i wish you well


I continually re-live the sensuous impressions filling every cell of my being when, several years ago, I enjoyed the Gaugin exhibit at the Smithsonian.  The size, color, EVERYTHING about those paintings will remain with me forever!

LucyChenFineArt moderator

@shemar67 OH I would love to see more of her paintings! They carry some thing that feels both strong and sensual at the same time.

LucyChenFineArt moderator

@martin I've read some novels about that period in American history, about the people coming to America, mainly from Europe, and certainly some from China (given my background), all full of hope for a bright future filled with possibilities.

LucyChenFineArt moderator

@granny007 I've never seen an original Gauguin.  I like many of his work, but I feel that he's a "dark character".  To me, I always feel like his friend Vincent van Gogh is on the light side, and Gauguin the dark.