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Four Centuries of American Art

Art 1 John Wilmerding, chairman, Art & Archeology Dept, Princeton University, served as chief consultant for the American Art stamps.

"I think this is a dazzling group of images that should make us all proud and make our envelopes look even better," he told the Virtual Stamp Club.

"It was tough, but it was also great fun, and I learned a number of things in the process. First of all, of course, because it's a set of stamps, it means these images are going to be seen on a fairly small scale, and so the design element of fitting it all together was, in a curious way, or at least an unexpected way for me, as important, so to speak, as the art historical significance."

Art 2 Wilmerding says there may be future collections of American Art on stamps similar to the 1998 pane. "If this set is a success, the idea is to come out with subsequent sets on particular themes, like children in American art or Americans at work."

He admits the 1998 stamps won't include all his top 20 choices: Some of the works had been used on stamps before. "We wanted to have something by Georgia O'Keeffe, but in the end, decided not to, because (on May 23, 1996) the Postal Service released a hugely successful O'Keeffe stamp, The Red Poppy."

Art 4 Winslow Homer's "Breezing Up" was considered, but it was on Sc. 1207 in 1962. "I think everybody agreed it would be wiser to have a different Winslow Homer," and that painting is "Fog Warning". (Interestingly, the initial press release listed "Breezing Up" as the Homer.)

"There's a perfectly good case to be made, since it's been used before. Let's use something else that looks just as good."

However, Wilmerding tells the Virtual Stamp Club the American Art series also won a few. "There was a good deal of argument over the famous Grant Wood American Gothic (the one with the farm couple and pitchfork), because I know the Postal Service was eager to use it for a different series."

Art 3 Four centuries of art in 20 stamps means some artists and styles were left out. "There are a couple of artists who come to mind that we weren't able to include, like John Singleton Copley, the Colonial portraitist, or Thomas Eakins, our great realist at the end of the 19th Century. They are not included in this series, but we hope might appear on a future set."

"In one sense, you want to have broad coverage. On the other hand, with 20 stamps, you can't cover everything in the American field," he says. "We tried to bring together a kind of balance of chronology. We also tried to suggest some of the diversity of region, both landscapes and figure pieces. We tried to balance different kinds of artists - portraitists, still life painters, landscape painters, and some artists who were born abroad but became Americans such as Audubon and Harnett, and some who were born here and left, such as Mary Cassatt." He adds that the issue of who was an American artist was one of the more difficult to decide.

"We tried at least to be conscious of making selections from a variety of, to the extent possible, different American museums, so we weren't just drawing from the mainline collections of the Metropolitan Museum or the National Gallery in Washington, although they're represented." Instead, he and the Postal Service tried "to suggest at least some of the richness of American art collections and holdings in various parts of the country. We did stick, of course, with works that were in public collections as opposed to private hands, so that there was a sense that these were accessible."

Wilmerding cautions that none of the images are the full work, but sections or "details" from the paintings.

"The sheet as a whole, I think, is absolutely dazzling."

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