Bo Bartlett’s The Promised Land, offered in American Art and Pennsylvania Impressionists Featuring the Collection of Charles and Virginia Bowden on December 4, is one of the standout works of Freeman’s American Art Week. Here, learn more about Bartlett’s decades-long career and his unexpected twists on American realism.
12/02/2022 Latest News, News and Film, American Art
Bo Bartlett often takes to the open sea. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, given that the Georgia-born painter spends his summers on Wheaton Island, a small island off the coast of Maine. His sweeping canvases are quintessentially American, influenced by such giants of American art as Winslow Homer and Andrew Wyeth, both of whom often portrayed boats or the sea in their works.
Bartlett works within the scope of the American art tradition in his unique take on marine painting, portraying the boat and its passengers as both portents of death or destruction, as well as Romantic symbols of the relationship between man and nature. These themes are on full display in works like Lifeboat (1998), in which a lone rower faces both enormous waves and ominous shadows lurking below them, or Assumption (2001), an ambiguous mother-and-child portrait where the subjects sit in a boat that’s held several feet above the sea by a crane.
Both of these works precede Bartlett’s The Promised Land, arguably one of the painter’s most accomplished works to date, and appearing at auction for the first time in Freeman’s December 4 American Art and Pennsylvania Impressionists auction (Lot 39). Here, Bartlett tells a story in a single frame: in the artist’s own words, “A threesome rows a small skiff out over the open seas. They crest and sway awaiting the next trough. They are alert as they survey every direction.”
This masterfully executed canvas is not only indicative of Bartlett’s lifelong interest in the open sea and the complex thematic presence of boats; it also tells a story that reaches well beyond American shores. At the time Bartlett painted this work, in 2015, the European migrant crisis was at a fever pitch, most acutely as it related to Syrian refugees seeking asylum in Europe. As American media outlets published countless images of Syrian refugees risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in dangerous, overcrowded vessels, Bartlett took to canvas to work through these themes in The Promised Land.
Across subject matter, Bartlett often probes such difficult motifs, carefully contemplating the American dream to see what complicated underbelly it might contain. Many of these explorations stray from the ocean to land: Bartlett’s Car Crash (2005) subverts classically romanticized American tropes of sleek cars, open highways, and vast landscapes to depict a couple clinging to one another as their overturned car rests against the guardrail in the background. Canvases from his “Heartland” series take explicitly political turns, like 2002’s History Lesson, in which a young girl stands in front of her classroom’s chalkboard that’s inscribed with the death tolls of American conflict, from the Revolutionary War to the Gulf War.
No matter what Bartlett chooses to portray, the human figure is always at the center of his work. Whether depicting schoolchildren, women in repose, fathers and sons, or crowds of workers, Bartlett maintains an acute curiosity about and empathy for his subjects. Even when these subjects appear in works that can be read as political allegory—as is the case in The Promised Land—they are never merely symbols; each maintains their own complex interiority, sometimes making unbroken eye contact with the viewer. By bringing unexpected, sometimes unsettling imagery to classic American scenes, Bartlett defines American realism for himself, leaving a monumental body of work in his wake.