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American Art

Rooted in Essex County, PEM’s American art collection tells stories of life across the United States.

PEM’s American Art collection is renowned for its expansive holdings of decorative arts and paintings that span four centuries of creative expression in the United States. Supported by historic works that celebrate the rich and diverse artistic and cultural heritage of Essex County, Massachusetts, the collection has continued to grow to embrace a broader representation of the art of this country. Together, these objects tell compelling stories of American life and the ongoing cultural exchanges between the people of the region, the country, and the wider world.

From its founding, the Essex Institute placed emphasis on collecting historical documents and portraits of prominent local figures, such as battle commander Sir William Pepperrell, whose monumental portrait by John Smibert arrived in Salem from Maine in 1821 on top of a stagecoach. The cornerstone of the institute’s portrait collection, it numbers among the museum’s some eight hundred likenesses in a variety of mediums by masters such as John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent and Salem’s Frank Weston Benson, as well as American artists working abroad.

Explore some highlights from the collection

Other notable works document people engaged in daily life on land and sea. In his 1808 masterpiece, local artist George Ropes, one of the earliest American genre painters, included detailed depictions of Black and white residents gathered together for Salem’s annual Training Day celebration. The sign for Salem's custom house, carved in 1805 by the architect and wood carver Samuel McIntire, a principal tastemaker in Salem for an entire generation.

The museum was among the first in the country to collect decorative arts, and its collection comprises a wide range of finely crafted furniture, interior furnishings, and everyday objects that reflect the material culture of New England. Since the merger of the Essex Institute and Peabody Museum in 1992, new initiatives have resulted in a wider representation of American art and culture. In 1999, the museum acquired its first example of contemporary American craft, a silver and rosewood coffee service by Michael and Maureen Banner. Gifts from The Carolyn and Peter S. Lynch Collection encompassed the first works by Childe Hassam and Georgia O’Keeffe to enter the museum as well as self-taught Marblehead artist J.O.J. Frost’s Civil War-themed masterpiece. Inspired by newspaper advertisements for fugitives from slavery, Hank Willis Thomas’s radically thin, life-size sculpture Rich Black Specimen #460 injects personhood into the otherwise anonymous form. Together, these works enable us to tell more complex stories of the intersection of life and art in the United States.

Learn more about the nation’s oldest collecting museum in the Peabody Essex Museum Guide. Available for purchase in the PEM Shop.

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