John White Alexander and the Construction of National Identity: Cosmopolitan American Art, 1880-1915

By Sarah J. Moore | Go to book overview
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In 1889 the distinguished critic and champion of American expatriate artists, Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, noted:

Thirty years ago there was scarcely an American
artist who could have been fairly judged without
constant reference to the fact of his nationality. Our
art was to a great extent an isolated development with
rather arbitrary standards of its own…. Of late years,
however, our art has grown to maturer stature, and
is now amenable to the severest test of merit …,
appeal[ing] to European criticism and cosmopolitan
standards of success.1

By contrast, just short of two decades later, critic, writer, and editor of The Craftsman, Mary Fanton Roberts, writing under the pseudonym Giles Edgerton, declared the dissolution of American art’s internationalism and cosmopolitanism as irrefutable testimony of its coming of age and national relevance. She wrote:

We dare to proclaim a man an artist even if he has
never crossed the Atlantic or studied at Julien [sic]
nor starved in the Latin Quarter. Our artists have
come to study American conditions and scenery and
have recklessly proclaimed them picturesque It is
not unnatural that Europe should resent a little the
fact that America has ceased, or is beginning to cease,
her ardent occupation of copying the works of their
great men.2

These two startlingly different definitions of American art and valuations of the impact of nationalism on cultural production bracket the decades immediately before and after the turn of the twentieth century and suggest a fundamental shift in many of the priorities in and direction of American art. That Roberts’ comments were part of a review of the Carnegie Institute’s 1908 annual exhibition— the Carnegie Institute Internationals began in 1896 as a showcase for American art within an international arena—underscore the changing topography and fluctuating definition of American art’s national profile during this period.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, internationalism and cosmopolitanism were among American art’s most defining features. Informed by a generation of artists who sought foreign training and who self-consciously aligned themselves with international art ideals and practices, American art largely redefined itself and in fact reveled in its very lack of “Americanness.” As Henry James wrote in 1887, “It sounds like a paradox, but it is a very simple truth, that when today we look for ‘American art’ we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it.”3 During this period, unprecedented numbers of American artists traveled to Europe and returned from their studies abroad with new styles and a familiarity with both the acclaimed art of the past and internationally current trends. The increased attention to art making and formal issues, in contrast with antebellum concern with native subject matter and narrative, characterized the work of foreign-trained, cosmopolitan artists, many of whose careers were distinguished by international honors and critical approbation in the foreign and American press. Exhibitions on both sides of the Atlantic displayed internationally current styles that emphasized the primacy of formal concerns and decorative aesthetics with little regard to subject matter, realism, or national expression.

After 1900, by contrast, American artists’ participation in international exhibitions, particularly in Europe, slackened in proportion to the growing number of American artists who repatriated by the turn of the twentieth century. With the desire to imprint their art with a distinctly national rather than cosmopolitan profile, however difficult that was to clearly define, many artists looked not to Europe but rather their own cities and landscape for aesthetic sustenance and national identity. Although foreign training was de rigueur for most American artists in the 1870s and 1880s to learn academic techniques, find exotic and artistic subject matter, and become fluent with internationally current art practices in order to compete with


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