Titled "The Bash Bish," the painting is of a small waterfall in the Bash Bish River in western Massachusetts, painted in 1855 by John Frederick Kensett.
The subject matter and style — a romanticized landscape of the Hudson River Valley and surrounding area — is regarded as the country's first distinctive American look.
The work is one of about 100 in the exhibit titled "For America: 200 Years of Painting from the National Academy of Design," covering the time period from 1809 to 2013.
The exhibit opens to the public on Tuesday, Feb. 23, and continues to May 16. To allow for social distancing, the works are spread out across three of the museum's four floors, providing not only safety but a "VIP experience" in that visitors should not feel rushed or crowded because of gallery capacity limits, Michelle Hargrave, the Figge's executive director and CEO, said.
The exhibition explores how artists have represented themselves and their country, including its shifting diversity, and the complexities of what it means to be an American. Portraits are a key component.
Asked to pick a work and explain how it reflects America, Hargrave cites a self-portrait done in 1964 by Hughie Lee-Smith, the second African American artist to be admitted to the highest level of the academy.
"It's a beautiful work," Hargrave said. "It shows this self-assured, serious man in a dress shirt and tie with a penetrating, attentive look. It's almost an upward image, as though he is looking down, studying us. One can speculate that he's making a point; he could be challenging the established racial stereotypes."
For context, 1964 was the year in which President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act making segregation in public facilities and discrimination in employment illegal. Also, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize.
"For America" is the Figge's second "blockbuster"; the first was "French Moderns: Monet to Matisse 1850-1950" that was on display during the fall of 2018 to January 2019, drawing 36,112 visitors.
While many Americans may recognize the names of Monet and Matisse more readily than William Merritt Chase or Cecilia Beaux, "For America" offers an opportunity to become acquainted with American artists and art.
And the Figge will help further that understanding with programs, both online and in-person.
"This is an unprecedented look at the history of American painting — written by its makers," Hargrave says in a news release. "We've never seen anything like this before, and we're honored to be hosting such an extraordinary exhibition."
At a time when the United States is so divided, the exhibit explores "our commonalities as well as our differences" and provides an opportunity to talk about what we have in common: our country, Hargrave said.
The works are organized into five sections, representing different time periods.
After the initial "Founding an American School" comes "New Internationalism" in which American artists traveled to Europe and were influenced by what was happening there, primarily the development of the Impressionistic style.
Third is "Painting America" in which artists depict more everyday scenes, such as streetscapes, and include the work of the first African-American artist admitted into the National Academy, Henry Ossawa Tanner.
Fourth is "Postwar Realisms," including the growth of abstractionism and "For America," featuring contemporary works.
The traveling exhibit was organized by the American Federation of Arts and the national academy. It is being made possible by the Major Exhibitions Endowment that was started by individuals, families, businesses and organizations in the Quad-Cities. The endowment is also sponsoring the exhibit, along with Estes Construction, the Harris Family Charitable Gift Fund, US Bank, Alan and Julie Renken, Mark and Rita Bawden and BITCO Insurance Cos.