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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Reluctant Cosmopolitan: New York in the 1880s

If the quest for foreign training animated much of American art in the 1870s and in considerable ways determined its future course, the pursuit of aesthetic unity was a dominant direction in American art in the 1880s. In the post-Civil War period, American art experienced fundamental changes brought about by, among other things, academically trained artists who returned from periods of study in Europe with new styles and a familiarity with both the art of the past and internationally current trends. This foreign training provided American artists with professional attitudes about the making of art as well as a fluency in technique. In contrast to the discourse of nationalism that during the antebellum era was celebratory, selfconfident, and declared independence from foreign influences, the definition of a national profile in American art at the end of the nineteenth century was largely muted in favor of internationalism and cosmopolitanism.1

By 1880, much of American art’s realignment with international art ideals and practices led critic and championof the new generationofcosmopolitan artists William Cary Brownell to declare confidently, “We are beginning to paint as other people paint.” In a series of articles on the “younger painters of America,” Brownell discussed the birth of a new American school of painting led by young artists who, through exposure to foreign training and internationally current art practices, released American art from the bonds of realism and instead championed aestheticism. Brownell identified the strength of technique and the genuine impulse toward what he called “picture-making” as the most striking and distinctive aspect of these young artists’ work and noted, “Almost without exception, nature is to them a material rather than a model; they lean toward feeling rather than toward logic; toward beauty, or at least artistic impressiveness rather than toward literalness, toward illusion rather than toward representation.”2

Critical discussions of the new trends in American art, particularly its internationalism and cosmopolitanism, characterized much of the writing in the 1880s. For example, three lavishly illustrated portfolios were published in the second half of the 1880s—Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, Book of American Figure Painters, 1886; Alfred Trumble, Representative Works of Contemporary American Artists, ca. 1887; and George William Sheldon, Recent Ideals in American Art, ca. 1890—that championed the internationalism of contemporary American art and documented the largely cosmopolitan quality of late nineteenth-century American art, holding up foreign-trained artists as the ideal. In fact, American artists increasingly exhibited works at the annual Paris Salon throughout the decade, thereby competing in an international arena and submitting their works to what was considered by many the highest standard of judgment.

The shift toward cosmopolitanism in American art was consistent with and indeed paralleled changing tastes in American art patronage. The overwhelming preference among American patrons in the post-Civil War period for contemporary European painting rather than native works is well documented in Earl Shinn’s Art Treasures in America, published in three volumes between 1879 and 1882. Shinn’s lavishly illustrated volumes reveal a particular preference among American patrons for French Barbizon and academic painting. Significantly, not a single American work of art was reproduced. To compete for patronage with foreign artists, American painters sought training abroad and aligned their artistic practice with internationally current ideals and trends.

The origins of aestheticism, as practiced by American artists in the 1880s, can be traced to sources other than foreign training and can be considered as part of a larger trend in both American and European art away from issues of national identity and from traditional representational


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


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