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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Tracing the Trajectory of Americanness:
Paris to Buffalo, 1900–1901

In a review of the United States’ fine arts exhibit at the 1900 Paris Universal Exposition, notably entitled “National Expression in American Art,” artistcritic Will Low characterized the display as follows: “In this vast, cosmopolitan family of art, the section of the United States, the child of yesterday, has been given a man’s share of the honors bestowed; and though our representation was far from complete the progress which we have made in the last twenty years, and the prospects of the immediate future would seem to indicate that in art, as in other directions, the march of empire tends westward.”1 Low imposed a biological model on his trajectory of American progress as defined by the world’s fairs of the late nineteenth century, invoking childhood and adolescence, respectively, for the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, in contrast to the United States’ manly presence and accomplishments in Paris in 1900.

Low was not alone in embracing evolutionary logic and Social Darwinian discourse to describe America’s apparently inevitable ascent to the apex of western civilization at the turn of the twentieth century or in defining culture as a primary agent of that civilization. The reference to the march of empire resonated with current assumptions of American progress and referred, both practically and ideologically, to America’s recently acquired stature as an imperial power on the international stage following the 1898 Spanish-American War. In fact, the discourse of colonialism that implicitly informed critical discussions of American art at the international exhibitions at the turn of the twentieth century became an explicit defining feature of the 1901 Pan-American Exposition, which opened shortly after Low’s article appeared in print. Finally, Low’s location of national expression in American art within an international and cosmopolitan context underscores the shifting and uncertain boundaries of American arts’ Americanness at the turn of the twentieth century.

Perhaps nowhere is the cultural construction of meaning and identity clearer than at the international expositions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Performing the role of great summarizer of culture, the world’s fairs functioned as “signifiers of order” and molded the world into a “coherent symbolic universe, confirming and extending the authority of the [host] country’s leadership.”2 As a structure of legitimization and a producer of meaning, the world’s fairs had a didactic mission while evoking an “imagined community” in which national and cultural profiles and boundaries were fixed.3 As many contemporary scholars have noted, “almost without exception the major international exhibitions were sponsored by nations with colonial dependencies. Each displayed its colonies, or its internally colonized peoples, to its home population, to its rivals, and to the world at large.”4 The displays of colonial possessions in particular and the expositions in general were informed by a kind of ideological mapping in which boundaries and identities became essentialized and authoritative so as to require no definition other than self-assertion. The fine arts played a prominent role in the world’s fairs and positioned culture hierarchically, paralleling the assumption of an evolutionary trajectory of progress and civilization that informed the international exhibitions in general. Ideas of national difference and distinctions informed critical discussions of the fine arts displays and were of particular relevance to writers engaged in American art’s definition of a national profile.

The American art displays at the 1900 and 1901


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


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