The Art Gallery of NSW welcomes a diplomatic visual invasion from the USA.

In the most expansive historical survey of American art ever presented in Australia, America: Painting a Nation boldly traverses a visual narrative from the pioneering spirit of the Atlantic colonies to the gritty realism of the modern-day city. From the Declaration of Independence to the mid-20th century, a diverse range of works explore the evolving and varied America experience over the last 200 years. Featured artists include James Whistler, Edward Hopper, Mark Rothko, Georgia O’Keeffe and Jackson Pollock.

Laid out chronologically, the exhibition opens with reflections of the mercantile wealth of colonial America. A portrait from 1772 by Philadelphian Charles Willson Peale depicts significant art patrons John and Elizabeth Cadwalader with their daughter Anne – a rigid reflection of wealth, ambition and lingering connection to an aristocratic British culture.

A number of more modest paintings from subsequent decades depict the life of everyday Americans. In works such as A Temperance Meeting by self-taught figurative painter Winslow Homer, a boy and girl share a drink of well water. Such simple narratives reflect a move away from status and prestige in favour of republican virtue, honest labour and community values.

The nation’s natural landscape is another focus of the exhibition. Thomas Moran’s panoramic oil painting of the Grand Canyon from 1892 is expansive in scale, capturing the overwhelming scope of unchartered terrains encountered by western-bound migrants. More recent works by Georgia O’Keeffe shed light on America’s unrelenting desert environments. Inspired by her location in New Mexico, O’Keeffe’s paintings explore concept of beauty within death, with her most striking series depicting horse skulls in the desert adorned with pink roses.

Other 20th century highlights include Edward Hopper’s painting House at Dusk from 1935 – a depiction of a lone woman seated at a window of a Georgian-style building – with Hooper’s characteristic experimentation with light and shadow evoking a sense of the unknown.

Forays into abstract expressionism from Jackson Pollock are also on display, with works such as No 22 distinctive of the artist’s chaotic style. Such works will be particularly notable to Australian audiences for their marked resemblance in tone and composition to Blue Poles, painted two years later. Another example of American Abstraction, Stuart Davis’s Something on the Eight Ball conjures a scene of traffic lights, shopping malls, skyscrapers and jazz music in a vibrant celebration of city life.

America: Painting a Nation is an exhibition that revels in its extremes. From colonial beginnings to the cityscape of the bustling metropolis, it is a personally-told narrative of a country whose tumultuous diversity and rich history is strongly reflected in its artistic output.

America: Painting a Nation runs at the Art Gallery of NSW until February 9