The pristine stone facade and wrought iron gates might make you think you’re entering yet another of Newport’s historic mansions on Bellevue Avenue. But inside is the carefully curated world of the National Museum of American Illustration, the only museum dedicated to American illustrators in the country.
The restored bones of the old mansion now house a famous and nationally recognized permanent collection, including works by Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell, as well as rotating exhibits. Two of these are of particular interest: the soon-to-close American Muse and the recently debuted Howard Pyle, His Students & The Golden Age of American Illustration.
American Muse honors the strength, beauty and independent spirit of American women and the early-twentieth-century illustrators who portrayed them, including Walter Granville Smith and Charles Dana Gibson. The famous pen-and-ink illustration of The Gibson Girl, for example, defined feminine beauty at the time. It is these types of illustrations, says Judy Goffman Cutler, co-founder of the NMAI with her husband, Laurence, that have helped form and reinforce societal constructs in the U.S., particularly definitions of gender.
Despite having been dubbed the “Father of Illustration,” Howard Pyle and “his impact on generations of artists and American illustration” are still relatively unknown, says Judy. The museum’s Pyle exhibit provides “a first-hand and close-up look at the marvelous original paintings that most people have only seen in reproduction form.”
American Muse runs through September 3 and will make a special return in 2020 to commemorate 100 years since women won the right to vote, with additional artists and an exploration of the theme of gender identity. Howard Pyle’s exhibit runs through December. Shows like these, Judy says, give visitors insight into not only these artists but American history as well. “You understand more about where we came from,” she says, “and help shape where we’re going.”