American Art, painting and sculpture in colonial America and then the United States, from the late 16th century to the present. Until the early 19th century, painting in America was confined largely to portraiture, sculpture to utilitarian objects. But in that century American artists took up the full range of subjects in painting—still lifes, landscapes, history paintings, and scenes of everyday life. Sculptors began to produce large-scale works in marble. In painting landscape emerged as the dominant subject. The earliest landscape painters in America, the Hudson River School, conceived of the land as wild and intractable, reinforcing America’s view of itself as something new, a kind of Garden of Eden. At first most artists in America lived along the Eastern seaboard, but starting in the 1830s and 1840s some artists from the East pushed westward, a move reflected in paintings of Native Americans by George Catlin and paintings of animals and Native Americans of the Rocky Mountain region by Albert Bierstadt. These painters helped Americans envision the vast land to the west.
A core of realism, a reluctance to depart from the facts of existence, continued in painting until the end of the 1800s, even when painters conveyed a somewhat romanticized view of nature. We can see this adherence to realism in unidealized portraits by colonial painters such as John Singleton Copley and in mid-19th-century landscapes by the so-called luminist painters, who explored the effects of light. And when Childe Hassam and other American painters turned to European impressionism in the late 1800s, they kept the figures and objects in their paintings fairly intact, in contrast to the Europeans who dissolved objects into patches of color. Opposing this realist mainstream were a few imaginative approaches, such as the mystical landscapes by Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock. In sculpture, neoclassicism—a revival of ancient Greek and Roman styles that was popular in Europe—became deeply ingrained, persisting into the late 1800s.
Until World War II (1939-1945), Americans saw their art as provincial compared to the best that Europe had to offer. In the 1950s the United States—New York City in particular—took the lead with its own movement, abstract expressionism, and American art remained dominant into the 21st century. In the last decades of the 20th century, art in America and elsewhere embraced new materials, including industrial metals; vinyl, cloth, and other soft materials; fluorescent lights; and even the earth itself. No one could have dreamed of these developments when American art was young.
For information about the history of architecture in the United States, see American Architecture. For a discussion of photography as an art form, see History of Photography. For information about the arts of Native Americans, see Native American Art. See also Folk Art and Decorative Arts, as well as articles on individual decorative arts such as Furniture and Metalwork.
The first works of art created in America after European arrival were probably watercolor drawings made by English artist John White from 1577 to 1590. They show the animals, plants, and Native Americans in and about English settlements in Virginia. Not until the last half of the 17th century did the American colonies produce a sizable body of paintings—all portraits. Sculpture in the round—sculpture meant to be seen from all sides—did not exist in the colonies in the 17th century. Carved gravestones were abundant, however, and their sculpted motifs of skulls or skeletons with scythes reminded of the inevitability of death.
|A||Portraiture and Other Painting|
The early colonial portraitists, known as limners (from the English word limn, meaning “to draw”), moved from town to town and supplemented their income through carpentry, sign painting, and other crafts. These traveling artists, who made their own paints and other supplies, had little status or honor. Their names, with very few exceptions, are unknown. Some of their portraits were crude, but masterpieces did appear, such as Mrs. Elizabeth Freake and Baby Mary (about 1674, Worcester Art Museum, Massachusetts), by an unknown artist from Massachusetts. The painting is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of maternal concern; its skillful arrangement of flat, patterned forms; and its harmony of grays, pale flesh tones, and greenish-yellows. The two chief regions of artistic activity in the colonies were eastern Massachusetts, where English models that emphasized the outline prevailed, and New York and surrounding regions, where a more realistic, Dutch-influenced tradition that sometimes included bits of landscape with the figure was evident.
As the population increased (by 1720 there were nearly half a million settlers in the colonies) and commerce spread, prosperity and the pursuit of fashion came to Boston, Massachusetts; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Williamsburg, Virginia; and other communities. In the decades preceding the American Revolution (1775-1783), painters such as Robert Feke from Oyster Bay, Long Island, caught the elegance of the wealthy merchants of Boston; Newport, Rhode Island; and Philadelphia. In Feke’s portraits, the men stand with their knee-length coats opened slightly to reveal their waistcoats, beneath which parts of their white shirts are tastefully displayed. Many of the men have protruding stomachs, indicating the prosperity that kept them well fed. The women show even less individuality than the men: All are in their prime, young, amply bosomed, and small of waist.
In the decade before the Revolution, it was Boston-born John Singleton Copley who focused most on the character of his portrait subjects. While still retaining something of the linear (outline) approach of the Massachusetts limners, he gave his subjects a fuller three-dimensional reality. From his portraits we have come to recognize the faces of American political leaders who advocated separation from Britain, including Sam Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock. Because Copley himself opposed the separation, or at least did not strongly support independence, he settled in England. There he painted pieces dealing with English history, such as The Death of Major Peirson (1783, Tate Gallery, London). The work is an emotionalized re-creation of the death of the English commander who had fought against a French invasion of the English island of Jersey on January 5 and 6, 1781. While living in Boston, Copley valued history painting above portraiture. However, he found no market for such painting, because the colonists felt they had not undertaken any noteworthy exploits of their own, beyond fighting the battles on their soil started by the European powers.
American-born painter Benjamin West, who came from Delaware County near Philadelphia, spent most of his career in England as official painter to King George III. In England West’s scenes of historic events on American soil were viewed as part of British history, such as Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1771-1772, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts). Today, both the English and the Americans claim West as one of their own.
During the 1700s the colonists began creating sculpture apart from gravestones. Among the items that appeared were copper weather vanes, carved wooden figureheads for the fronts of ships, and wooden figures placed outside shop doors to identify the trade found inside. Woodcarvers generally based ship figureheads on mythical figures such as mermaids. The workshop of Simeon Skillin and his three sons in Boston turned out some of the best of these. Wooden shop figures included cigar store Indians to identify a tobacconist (Native Americans had introduced Europeans to tobacco) and sailors to identify a ships’ supplier. Woodcarvers continued to make these figures throughout the 19th century.
|III||FROM INDEPENDENCE TO CIVIL WAR: 1783-1861|
After the colonies won independence from Great Britain in 1783, the training of artists in the United States became more professional. Academies that offered art training also held exhibitions. In 1794 painter Charles Willson Peale organized the Columbianum, the first society of American artists, in Philadelphia, and the society held its first exhibition in 1795. In 1805 Peale became one of the founders of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the nation’s first art school as well as the repository of its first permanent public collection. In 1817 painter John Trumbull became the first head of the New York Academy of Arts (later American Academy of the Fine Arts). Despite the presence of Peale and Trumbull, businessmen rather than artists played the main role in founding and running both institutions.
|A||Painting: New Subjects, New Places|
The subject matter of painting broadened considerably after independence to include history scenes, landscape, still life, and genre (scenes of ordinary people partaking in everyday life), in addition to portraiture. The new nation was in the process of forging an identity, and artists helped in the process by portraying American heroes, depicting important events, and giving visual expression to unfamiliar landscapes. Yet Europeans still provided the models that American painters sought to equal. Peale, a far-ranging scientist and inventor as well as a painter, was among the most important figures of the post-revolutionary period. In 1786 he established a museum of natural history in Philadelphia, which featured stuffed animals and birds of the United States, set up in cages containing bits of their natural habitats. The museum also displayed relics of the land’s prehistoric past in the form of mastodon bones. In his Exhumation of the Mastodon (1806, Peale Museum, Baltimore), Peale depicted the digging up of two mastodon skeletons on an upstate New York farm. Peale also was a competent portraitist who had studied with West in London in 1767. He fathered 17 children, some of whom went on to become artists in their own right, notably Raphaelle Peale, who with his uncle James Peale became America’s first professional still-life painter.
After the American Revolution, George Washington, who had led American forces to victory, was the most celebrated man in the Western world. Gilbert Stuart, who ironically had avoided the war by fleeing to London and studying there with West, became the most noted portraitist of Washington upon his return. Having studied in London, Stuart used the then-current English approach of loosely applying paint in broad strokes, as opposed to the hard linear approach of Copley and other colonial painters. Stuart endowed Washington with a sense of noble imperturbability by glossing over small details of the face, giving his flesh a ruddy glow, and eliminating unattractive aspects such as the protuberance of his jaw misshapen by false teeth.
The United States, a sovereign nation after the Revolution, finally had its own history distinct from that of the European powers. It fell to painter John Trumbull to leave a visual record of the tumultuous events in the fight for independence. Trumbull had served as Washington’s aide-de-camp before resigning because of a perceived slight, and he traveled from New Hampshire to North Carolina to observe the topographies of battlegrounds and to visit participants. His battle scenes are filled with action and his surrender scenes have the stamp of authenticity. The observer comprehends the events as having been set in motion by shared resolve rather than by the decision of a single authoritative figure. Trumbull’s approach can be seen in his Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga (1817, U.S. Capitol Rotunda). The painting shows the red-coated Burgoyne approaching the tent of American major general Horatio Gates, with a number of American officers amassed in front of the tent. In another spirit is Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851, Metropolitan Museum of Art) by German American artist Emanuel Leutze, which was painted in Düsseldorf and shipped to the United States. Like an actor in a stage melodrama, the general stands erect and resolute in his flimsy craft.
Americans were aware that their country marked something new in the Western experience—a political entity born free, entirely removed from the dynastic struggles of the European powers. Painters represented this vision of America in different ways. In their landscapes American painters showed nature untouched by human beings, as a kind of Garden of Eden. In Kindred Spirits (1849, New York Public Library), Asher B. Durand portrays painter Thomas Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant, dressed in their Sunday best, on a ledge in a gorge in the Catskill Mountains as they commune reverently with the grandeur before them. Durand belonged to the Hudson River School—so-called because its members started out by painting the Catskills and other sites along the Hudson. Thomas Cole, an accomplished landscape painter who had emigrated from England to America, settled in Catskill, New York, and his fame drew others to the area. The painters of the Hudson River School held an almost religious view of nature’s majestic grandeur, in which craggy mountains and lofty trees overwhelm humankind and human concerns.
Another approach to landscape and to seascape avoided the portrayal of dramatic beauty in nature favored by Durand and others of the Hudson River School. A group of painters called luminists, whose scenes featured large areas of light-filled sky, favored instead a calm and reassuring nature. In paintings by luminist Fitz Hugh Lane, such as Gloucester Harbor (1848, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond), everything in the scene seems frozen in time.
Genre paintings were plentiful before the Civil War. William Sidney Mount, George Caleb Bingham, and other genre painters of this period typically placed figures out-of-doors, energetically engaged in some group activity. Bingham specialized in scenes of frontier life, such as Fur Traders on the Missouri (1845, Metropolitan Museum of Art). This painting depicts an old trader, his son, and a bear cub tied to their boat—all bathed in a diffuse, poetic light.
Some artists held the idea that history moved in cycles marked by the rise and fall of empires, cycles they believed—or at least hoped—would not control America’s destiny. Landscape painter Thomas Cole painted a series called The Course of Empire that deals with this imagined historical process. The work consisted of five canvases: The Savage State, The Pastoral State, The Consummation of Empire, Destruction, and Desolation. In Cole’s view, America with its largely untouched wilderness presented a sharp contrast to Europe, home to many ruins. Washington Allston, who spent much of his life as a painter in Italy and England, was also interested in the idea of youthful and aging civilizations. He labored for years on Belshazzar’s Feast (1817-1843, Detroit Institute of Arts). This painting is based on a story in the biblical book of Daniel that tells of a feast given by the Babylonian king, during which a disembodied hand writes on the palace wall a message foretelling the end of his kingdom.
In the decades before the American Civil War, European settlers and their descendants continued to push westward, displacing Native Americans. The West offered artists new subjects, with its dramatic landscapes and unfamiliar inhabitants. Some painters and sculptors presented Native Americans as dangerous marauders; others, as undeveloped peoples standing in the way of civilization’s progress. George Catlin, however, whose mother had been briefly kidnapped by Native Americans when he was a child, lamented the imminent disappearance of native folkways and wished to preserve a record of them through his art. Closely studying the Native Americans of the Great Plains during the eight years he spent among them, he recorded their dances, hunting expeditions, and other activities as a kind of visual anthropologist.
Another artist to take an interest in colorful and unfamiliar aspects of America was John James Audubon, who was fascinated with birds. Born in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) and educated in France, Audubon came to the United States at the age of 18 and unsuccessfully operated general stores in Kentucky, where he began drawing American birds. In his drawings of birds, the great naturalist combined a sense of design with detailed observation of the characteristics of the various species. After living in poverty and receiving rejections from American publishers, his four-volume Birds of America, from Original Drawings, with 435 plates showing 1,065 figures of birds, was published in England from 1827 to 1838.
|B||Sculpture: Classical Models|
American sculptors became more ambitious in style and subject matter as they moved beyond the utilitarian pieces of the crafts tradition to what they considered a higher artistic level. In the early 1800s they began to carve large pieces in marble that carried associations with classical culture. The loftiness of the subject matter was of paramount importance. Many of these high-minded sculptors worked in Italy where they could see for themselves examples of the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome, which they used as prototypes for their own art. In Italy they could also associate with classically oriented European artists, locate quarries of the finest marble, and find teachers and assistants competent in marble carving. Like other Americans of their time, these sculptors found a fitting model for their own young republic in ancient Greece and Rome, civilizations in which all citizens shared equally in the rights conferred by the state.
The man generally considered America’s first professional sculptor, Horatio Greenough, was born in Boston but settled in Florence, Italy. He carved for the Capitol in Washington, D.C., an enormous seated George Washington (Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1832-1840). (If standing, the figure would be 3.7 m (12 ft) tall.) Washington, who is shown draped in a Roman toga and wearing Roman sandals, has the pose of an ancient Greek statue of the god Zeus. Though greeted with derision in America for its portrayal of Washington half-naked and as a mythological god, the work was significant in being the first major sculptural commission given to an American. Previous commissions for large-scale statues of Washington had gone to French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon and Italian sculptor Antonio Canova.
Hiram Powers, a sculptor from Vermont, also settled in Florence. His Greek Slave (modeled 1841-1843, Smithsonian Institution) was the most admired American sculpture produced before the Civil War. The nude manacled woman has the posture of a classical Roman sculpture of Venus and represents virtue or chastity. Nudity was acceptable in art if it represented a higher ideal rather than a specific woman. In this case the figure represented a Greek woman taken captive by the Turks, thus calling attention to widespread fear of Ottoman (hence non-European) victory in the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s.
|IV||CIVIL WAR TO THE 20TH CENTURY|
The Civil War (1861-1865) marked a major turning point in American painting and sculpture. The mood of optimism and assurance that had prevailed in America earlier in the century became for the most part a thing of the past. Artists no longer considered it sufficient to achieve a likeness; they began to probe into the national or individual psyche.
The landscapes of the Hudson River School, such as Durand’s Kindred Spirits, carried religious connotations, a sense that the blessings and goodness of God are discernible through the contemplation of nature. Nature became far grander in the vast earthscapes of Frederick E. Church, who was a pupil of Cole’s. In Church’s painting Cotopaxi, Ecuador (1863, Reading Public Museum and Art Garden, Pennsylvania), the vista is so overwhelming that the viewer feels utterly lost within it. One senses the beginnings of Earth’s formation through awesome geological processes beyond human comprehension. Church traveled the world in search of spectacular natural phenomena: erupting volcanoes in the Andes, icebergs off the coast of Labrador, great mountains of the Bavarian Alps, and the aurora borealis near the Arctic Circle. Historians have linked Church’s canvases with Manifest Destiny, the belief that it was the inherent right of the United States to expand to the Pacific Ocean. Astute spectators would have understood these scenes as resembling some of their own country’s natural wonders. And Americans were indeed pushing westward, following exploratory expeditions commissioned by the federal government.
Painters such as Albert Bierstadt helped people living in the Eastern states envision U.S. territory in the West. Bierstadt was part of an expedition sent in 1858 to explore the North Platte River, in the west-central United States, and the Wyoming Territory. In 1863 he made a second trip to the West, visiting the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Nevada in California. His painting Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868, Smithsonian American Art Museum) shows a group of deer grazing at the edge of a lake in the foreground, with the peaks beyond so grand that Easterners could not have imagined them.
Another painter to turn the West into a colorful spectacle was Thomas Moran. Although he started out as a member of the Hudson River School, Moran traveled West and produced dozens of watercolors of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon that he later used as the basis for paintings. Yet he also satisfied the desire of Easterners for paintings of landscapes familiar to them. As did many other landscape artists, Moran chose times of day with dramatic light—sunrises, sunsets, and twilight—as in Sunset (1901).
In his Sundown (1894, Smithsonian American Art Museum), landscape painter George Inness also departed from the reassurance provided by Durand’s Kindred Spirits, although Inness was influenced by the Hudson River School. The scene in Sundown is not an attractive gorge in the Catskills or a grand mountain vista, but a rundown farm. The mood that prevails is one of stillness, even sadness, a response to the devastation and social disruption brought about by the Civil War. This mood was found in much American painting at the end of the 19th century. Inness was a follower of the religious philosophy of Swedish scientist and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who taught that God was present throughout nature. The mystical aspects of Swedenborg’s beliefs may have contributed to the quiet, poetic tenor of Inness’s late work.
During the last three decades of the 19th century, American portraitists aimed for more than the mere recording of likenesses. Thomas Eakins of Philadelphia, who had studied anatomy with medical students, depicted the distinguished surgeon Dr. Samuel David Gross as he directed an operation before onlookers in the surgical amphitheater of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia (The Gross Clinic, 1875, Jefferson Medical College). Gross appears as the great leader of a team of healers. All action occurs around him as he stands at the center, unperturbed. Light appears to flow from his brightly lit, high forehead, expressing the surgeon’s wisdom and kindness as well as his scientific knowledge.
The artist John Singer Sargent received many portrait commissions from wealthy patrons, and he also portrayed social climbers. His portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau (1884, Metropolitan Museum of Art) reveals to the viewer the vanity and self-indulgence of its subject, Virginie Avegno Gautreau. Gautreau, from New Orleans, Louisiana, married a wealthy French businessman and aspired to advance in European society. Her haughty bearing and shockingly low-cut gown made the painting so scandalous that it came to be known simply as Madame X. The extreme whiteness of the skin is accurate, for Gautreau covered her body with a lavender powder to make it look whiter, and hardly ever exposed her skin to the sun. In the Sargent portrait Madame Gautreau Drinking a Toast (1882-1883; Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston), Gautreau’s shoulders are covered by chiffon but her haughty demeanor remains.
Another American painter, who like Sargent worked mainly in Europe, was Mary Cassatt. An independent woman who came from a wealthy Pennsylvania family, Cassatt settled in Paris, became a close friend of French painter Edgar Degas, and exhibited with the French impressionists, whose style she adopted. She often portrayed her sister Lydia and other members of her family on outings, in theaters, and in quiet domestic situations. Cassatt did not depart from the actual colors of objects or dissolve form as much as Claude Monet and other French impressionists did. But like them she showed figures in a moment of time, apparently caught off-guard, as in Mrs. Cassatt Reading to Her Grandchildren (1880, private collection).
Of the variety of approaches to portraiture, none in this period was more advanced than that of James Abbott McNeill Whistler. He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, but denied it because he felt it lacked distinction. Most of his life was spent in Europe, where he adopted the slogan “art for art’s sake.” By this Whistler meant that art need have no other purpose than to please through its beauty. Art, according to Whistler, need not have an instructive or morally elevating subject matter, as most painters before and during his lifetime believed. Whistler called his paintings by the musical terms symphony, nocturne, arrangement, and composition because he claimed that “as music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight, and the subject matter has nothing to do with harmony of sound or of color.” The primary title of the portrait of his mother, Anne Matilda McNeill Whistler, which he painted when she visited him in London, was An Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871, Musée d’Orsay, Paris). It is a nearly monochromatic (single-color) composition of rectangles—the baseboard, the curtain, the picture frames, the rug—that is broken by the asymmetrical profile of the woman. Whistler’s adherence to basic geometric forms in this painting anticipated the minimal art of the 1960s. It is ironic that the portrait of Whistler’s mother, noted in its day for its lack of sentimentality, is regarded today as a glorification of motherhood.
The pre-Civil War American genre painters, such as Bingham, were more concerned with portraying a way of life than with exploring the inner life of their subjects. But after the war a moodiness appeared in some genre paintings, as it had in the late landscapes of Inness. This meditative atmosphere surrounds the disconnected figures in dimly lit, largely empty interiors painted by African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner, as in Interior with Woman Spinning (private collection). From Pittsburgh, the son of a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Tanner also painted religious subjects, such as the otherworldly Angels Appearing Before the Shepherds (about 1910, Smithsonian American Art Museum). He studied under Thomas Eakins from 1880 to 1882, and in 1891 went to live in Europe, where he felt people would accept an artist of his color more easily.
Winslow Homer is best known for his seascapes, such as High Cliff, Coast of Maine (1894, Smithsonian American Art Museum), and his scenes of men struggling against the sea, which emphasize the power of the sea. But he also worked as a genre painter from the end of the Civil War to 1881. During the war he had made illustrations from the battlefield for the magazine Harper’s Weekly. His Veteran in a New Field (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1866), painted just after the war, is full of meaning. An ex-soldier, now a farmer, harvests his wheat with a scythe. But unlike the reaper with a scythe who typically signifies death, the farmer brings forth life and renewal. The painting suggests that swords have been beaten into plowshares. A reaper painted by Homer 12 years later (Reaper, 1878, private collection) is far sunnier in mood and without the symbolic overtones, like the many farm scenes Homer created during the 1870s.
As the frontier began to disappear toward the end of the 19th century, scenes and sagas of the Old West became more popular than ever. But nostalgia had set in. Where Catlin, in paintings of the 1840s and 1850s, had sought to record a way of life, Frederic Remington, who hailed from Canton, New York, revealed a different interest in the West about 50 years later. Remington had gone West and worked as a clerk, then a cowboy and a ranch hand. But he ignored in his art the suffering and hardship undergone by settlers and Native Americans, even at a time when most Native Americans were being sent to reservations. Instead, Remington evoked for people in the Eastern states the sense of a West that never fully existed, a place of never-ceasing romantic excitement.
Childe Hassam from Dorchester, Massachusetts, became known as the American Monet because his sensitivity to the effects of light was reminiscent of the French impressionist. Hassam studied in Paris in 1883 and 1884 and lived there from 1886 to 1889, yet his impressionism was really home-grown. He painted primarily American subjects and, unlike European impressionists, stuck to descriptive color, although he borrowed the impressionist technique of cutting off figures and objects by the edge of the painting, much as a snapshot might. After returning to the United States, Hassam helped found an American impressionist group called The Ten. Summers spent on the Isles of Shoals, a group of small rugged islands just off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire, provided subjects for many of his paintings. He was drawn especially to tiny Appledore Island, where well-known figures in the arts and literature came to stay. Among those who visited the island were American writers James Russell Lowell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, and James Whitcomb Riley, and actor Edwin Booth. They stayed at a hotel maintained by Celia Thaxter, whose greatest pride was her garden, a plot planted with hollyhocks, poppies, larkspur, crimson phlox, and many other flowers. Hassam painted her as an ample figure in white confidently surveying her garden next to the sea, before a hazy but unbroken sky (Celia Thaxter in her Garden, 1892, Smithsonian American Art Museum). The bright colors, the loose brush strokes used to paint the flowers, and the dappled light display Hassam’s impressionist manner.
Other noted impressionists in America were William Merritt Chase and John Twachtman. Chase favored dark tones and a loose, almost slap-dash application of paint. This approach contrasted with the muted palette of whites and grays of Twachtman. In Fishing Boats at Gloucester (1901, Smithsonian American Art Museum), Twachtman represented the sky, water, boats, and buildings along the harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in silvery-blue and soft pink tones, unlike the bright colors favored by Monet and other Europeans.