From its earliest beginnings, Mississippi has been a place of art and story. Residents as far back as the mound-builders of the Natchez tribe molded this earth – both physically and symbolically – into aesthetic form. With the arrival of European explorers, and later, as the country moved toward and into modernity, the myth of Mississippi captivated artists from across the globe. This Mississippi magnetism is rooted not only in what is known – the beautiful vistas, fertile soil, and powerful waters; but what is unknown and mysterious – like the wellspring of creativity that birthed Faulkner, Welty, and the blues. Coinciding with Mississippi’s Bicentennial, the Mississippi Museum of Art mounts an unprecedented exhibition of artwork by Mississippi artists and those from beyond its borders to illuminate the perception and depiction of Mississippi over more than two centuries. The museum invites visitors to see the state with fresh eyes, through the lenses of artists who help us better understand the places we call home. How did these artists, and how do we, picture Mississippi?

The 16th presentation in The Annie Laurie Swaim Hearin Memorial Exhibition Series, Picturing Mississippi, 1817-2017: Land of Plenty, Pain, and Promise includes more than 175 works by more than 100 different artists, many on loan from prestigious national institutions such as the Harvard University Art Museums; the National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.; and the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The exhibition features individual masterpieces by artists including James Audubon, Jean-Michel Basquiat (Natchez), Thomas Hart Benton, George Caleb Bingham, John Steuart Curry, Robert Indiana, Norman Rockwell, and Andy Warhol (Triple Elvis) – as well as a plethora of works by native Mississippians such as Sam Gilliam, William Dunlap, George Ohr, and Eudora Welty. “We were able to borrow many significant works that have never been exhibited in the state,” says exhibition curator Jochen Wierich.

Mississippi seems particularly enigmatic to me, particularly layered, complex, and elusive in its identity. Just when one understands one thread of this glorious tapestry, another strand leads to a contradictory image, and an equally compelling narrative picture. We hope the exhibition will inspire honest conversation about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we hope to be.

The exhibition is on view December 9, 2017 through July 8, 2018 at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. As a gift to Mississippi residents, and thanks to support from the Robert M. Hearin Support Foundation, the state of Mississippi, and a host of generous sponsors, the sprawling exhibition is free and open to the public.

“Mississippi seems particularly enigmatic to me, particularly layered, complex, and elusive in its identity,” says Betsy Bradley, Director of the Mississippi Museum of Art. “Just when one understands one thread of this glorious tapestry, another strand leads to a contradictory image, and an equally compelling narrative picture. We hope the exhibition will inspire honest conversation about where we’ve been, where we are, and where we hope to be.”

One exceptional example of the artwork in Picturing Mississippi is a 1988 portrait of Eudora Welty by the late Jackson artist Mildred Nungester Wolfe. Painted for the National Portrait Gallery, it was only briefly displayed in Mississippi before being shipped to Washington D.C., where Ms. Welty’s pensive gaze greets visitors from around the world. Elizabeth “Bebe” Wolfe, the daughter of Mildred Wolfe, recalls her mother making the landmark painting. “Eudora told my mother that if she was interested in painting a portrait, she thought the National Portrait Gallery might be interested in it,” recalls Bebe. Mildred Wolfe visited Eudora Welty at her home, took photographs and made sketches, and came back to Wolfe Studio to paint it. “They cooked [the idea] up amongst themselves,” says Bebe. “They cooked up the price, too. My mother had no idea what to charge.” Bebe varnished the painting for her mother, boxed it up, and sent it off. With the proceeds, mother and daughter took a trip to Europe, where they visited museums and made voluminous sketches before returning home. Always returning home.

Mississippi is both alike and apart from its territorial neighbors, a truth that led historian James Cobb to call the Mississippi Delta “the most Southern place on earth.” Its name is inseparable from its waterway, translated from the Ojibwe (Chippewa) language to mean the big river. Like the river, which resonates deep in the nation’s collective consciousness, the identity of the state and its people are core to the fabric of the human condition. Or, as William Faulkner famously put it, “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”