Art History

Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw is an art historian, curator, and professor of American art at the University of Pennsylvania. She has curated major exhibitions and published several books on African American art. She joins us on Kids Corner monthly to spotlight some artists that we might know - but definitely should know!




 View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts,
after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow / 
Thomas Cole 1836

Long known as "The Oxbow," this work is a masterpiece of American landscape painting, laden with possible interpretations. In the midst of painting "The Course of Empire" (New-York Historical Society), Cole mentioned in a letter dated March 2, 1836, to his patron Luman Reed that he was executing a large version of this subject expressly for exhibition and sale.

Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park

A work of monumental architectural sculpture, the Watts Towers are constructed of a structural steel core, wrapped in wire mesh which has been covered with mortar, and inlaid with tile, glass, shell, pottery, and rocks. Set in only a fourteen-inch foundation, the tallest of the towers is ninety-nine and a half feet tall. The west tower, begun in 1921, contained the longest reinforced concrete columns in the world upon its completion, an important record in the history of architecture. The stability of the entire monument is ensured by its innovative architectural design embodying universal structural principles found in nature.

This integrated series of works, combining artistic elements of sculpture and architecture, is an unparalleled example of an art environment constructed by a single, self-taught artist. Since coming to the world’s attention in 1959, the site has become the focus of cultural and aesthetic movements addressing issues of social and economic justice. To this day, the Watts Towers serve as a symbol of freedom, creativity, and initiative for the local African-American and Latino community and beyond.

Snap the Whip / Winslow Homer 1872

Snap the Whip celebrates the pleasures of childhood in a rough-and-tumble game. Homer’s barefoot boys are in and of nature—determined, rugged, and exuberant—an optimistic symbol of the nation’s future. The teamwork and coordination involved in their pursuit were seen as essential qualities for reuniting the country after war, though Homer hints at the challenges ahead through the child at the end, flung from the chain. The scene is infused with nostalgia, immortalizing the little red rural schoolhouse just as the nation was shifting away from its agrarian past toward a future of increased urbanization.

Yoko Ono / The Wish Tree

Every summer through Labor Day, visitors are invited to the sculpture garden to tie their written wishes to the branches of Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree for Washington, DC. For most of the year, visitors may whisper their wishes to its branches, but during warmer months, the tree ‘blooms’ with thousands of paper tags, an archive of the hopes and ambitions of visitors from around the world. Hirshhorn staff ‘harvest’ the wishes throughout the summer, and send them to join more than 1 million others at Ono’s “Imagine Peace Tower” in Reykjavik, Iceland as part of her global art installation. A gift from the artist in 2007, the Hirshhorn’s tree has collected more than 100,000 wishes over the past fifteen years.