The Power of Play

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Historically, artists have turned to leisure and play as subject matter in an effort to capture the everyday pleasures of American families and communities. This focus on leisure—rather than work—follows an artistic lineage that began with the Impressionists and their representations of cafés, boating, picnics, and ballet dancers. Into the 20th century, American artists continued to depict recreational scenes from parties, promenades, sports, and entertainment, quite literally painting a picture of the American cultural landscape. In response to war, economic turmoil, and other hardships, artists played the critical role of the attentive eyewitness—the illustrator of the everyday. Our selection of works demonstrates the wide array of pastimes and the universal experience of carefree play. In times of fear and containment, portraits of amusement provide relief and escape from the everyday—powerful reminders of the joyful possibilities that await us in the of play was recently the subject of an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. On view in early 2018, PlayTime surveyed the rapidly evolving role of play in contemporary art and culture. On the occasion of the exhibition, neuroscientist Sergio Pellis contributed an essay discussing the biological factors that make playfulness an innate trait and useful practice:


Now that we are spending more time at home, without the distraction of live sports, film, theater, and museums, activities of playtime have become more crucial, and more creative, than ever. We present a selection of works from the 20th century that portray familiar and celebratory moments of Americans at play.

All of these activities & more are part of our collective and shared American cultural experience.

Chess! Jump rope! Billiards! Football! Baseball! Cards! Make-believe!


“Humans have these two attributes—a very large prefrontal cortex and an exceptionally complex social system. As such, it may not be surprising that

Connections Detroit Institute of Arts—Family Art Project Learning Resources—Activities & Workbooks The Metropolitan Museum of Art—MetKids The Museum of Modern Art—Destination Modern Art National Geographic Kids


New York Times Crossword PBS TinkergartenKIDS at Home The Studio Museum in Harlem Whitney Museum of American Art Wishing you fun and solace through the power of play!

—Sergio Pellis, “ The (Neuro)Science Behind Play: An Essay ” PlayTime exhibition website, Peabody Essex Museum, 2018


American Museum of Natural History

The Cleveland of Art—Collection

From our house to yours, below is a list of selected resources from institutions— big and small—around the country that are supporting the power of play, providing the tools for creative endeavors at home:

Children’s Museum of Manhattan—CMOM at Home

humans are highly playful and play in more diverse ways than any other species. We have taken the heritage we have in common with bonobos and developed it to unanticipated dimensions. Art may be the quintessential expression of such playfulness. After all, much art repeats well-known themes, but artists can insert unexpected twists and turns into those themes. This unites the comfort of the familiar with the frisant of the unpredictable, tapping into the roots of what we find pleasurable in play: it is a way in which to explore the unknown while remaining anchored in the known.”

Benny Andrews (1930-2006)

Pool Hall, 1988 oil and canvas collage on canvas 28 x 32 inches 71.1 x 81.3 cm signed

Walter Henry Williams (1920-1998)

Untitled (Three Boys Playing Checkers), 1951 oil on canvas with painted strip frame 26 x 33 inches 66.0 x 83.8 cm signed

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) Untitled, 1977 mixed media collage of various papers and graphite on Masonite 17 1/4 x 13 7/8 inches 43.8 x 35.2 cm signed

Robert Gwathmey (1903-1988)

World Series #1, 1958 watercolor, gouache, ink and pencil on board 28 x 21 3/4 inches 71.1 x 55.2 cm signed

x 24 1/4 inches 71.8 x 61.6 cm signed

oil on canvas 28


Norman Lewis (1909-1979) Untitled (Card c.1940 1/4

George L.K. Morris (1905-1975) Monte Carlo, 1948 oil on printed fabric 33 x 26 3/4 inches 83.8 x 67.9 cm signed

Reginald Marsh (1898-1954)

George Tilyou’s Steeplechase, c.1942 oil

on Masonite 24 x 29 1/2 inches 61.0 x 74.9 cm

Wolff crayon and charcoal on Hi-Art artist illustration board 40 x 30 inches sheet size 101.6 x 76.2 cm sheet size 34 x 26 1/4 inches 86.4 x 66.7 cm signed

Charles White (1918-1979)

Skipping, 1960

A Piece of Chalk, 1952 egg tempera on Masonite 24 x 36 inches sheet size 61.0 x 91.4 cm sheet size 23 5/8 x 35 1/2 inches 60.0 x 90.2 cm signed

Robert Vickrey (1926-2011)

Pavel Tchelitchew (1898-1957) Untitled (Study for Hide and Seek), c.1940 gouache on paper 25 1/8 x 19 1/2 inches 63.8 x 49.5 cm signed

Hale Woodruff (1900-1980) Untitled, c.1945 oil on Masonite 18 inches 45.7 61.0 cm



x 24

Betye Saar (b.1926) Cowboys and Indians, 1973 mixed media box assemblage 13 3/8 x 11 1/8 x 1 inches 34.0 x 28.3 x 2.5 cm signed

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