Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness

Whether the new president is Obama or Reagan or Jackson, America has always been a place for renewal. Culled from Yale’s permanent collection, the traveling show "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" is inescapably a history lesson. Over 200 paintings, photographs, and objects represent the years between (circa) 1600 and 1893, from colonial days through Reconstruction. Big names include Paul Revere, John Trumbull, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Remington, and (into the photographic era) Eadweard Muybridge. It’s a lot to take in, perhaps too much, grouped into galleries by theme, not strict chronology. I’d suggest you bring your own theme to this counterclockwise immersion in Americana. For instance: During nearly 300 years, the means of artistic production advance from commissioned oil paintings and pewter pieces for the very rich, to lithographs and engravings for a literate, emerging middle class (hello, Currier & Ives), to Daguerreotypes, photographs, and newspaper cartoons (including Thomas Nast) for the general public. Democracy, as we know, was proceeding in parallel to the arts and technology. Though America hardly seems a perfect union after you’ve walked these few hundred paces. Midway through the pageant, one of the objects that grabbed me is a small wooden chair, handmade circa 1870 by a former slave named Dick Poyner. You wouldn’t give it a second glance at Ikea. But here it’s something remarkable and enduring: a seat, a platform, a beginning. (Closed Mon.) BRIAN MILLER

Feb. 26-May 24, 10 a.m., 2009

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