"The 'Father of Waters' has no peer among all the mighty rivers which furrow the surface of the globe." So wrote General Rufus King after a trip on the Mississippi River in 1855. America's great river begins as a stream at Lake Itasca in northern Minnesota and flows nearly twenty-five hundred miles south to Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. In the early 19th century, the Mississippi served as a channel to transport people and agricultural and mineral products throughout what was then the burgeoning "West"; by the 1850s it had also become the primary conduit for transmitting art, fashionable objects, and ideas about design.
The 1850s was a time of growth and optimism, when momentous changes took place in America. The steamboat era drew to a close with the advent of the railroad, and a mostly agrarian economy was transformed by industrialization. Lucrative lumber and flour milling brought prosperity to the Upper Mississippi, while along the southern reaches a golden age supported by flourishing sugar and cotton cultivation was coming to an end.
The vast fortunes accumulated from Minnesota to Louisiana financed a desire for portraits and furnishings comparable in quality to those found on the East Coast. Portraitists like James Reid Lambdin of Philadelphia and artisans like Alexander Roux of New York were in demand. At the same time, sublime images of the great river by such artists as George Caleb Bingham and Seth Eastman, and the epic poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, shared the Mississippi's grandeur, legends, and beauty with the world.
"Currents of Change" presents the artistic and cultural panorama of the Mississipi Valley in the critical decade before the Civil War. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue reveal the river's role in conveying the nation's ideas about art and design and illustrate the Mississippi's importance in forging the image of America.