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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A “Salon of America”?: Defining Nationalism
at the National Academy of Design, 1909–1915

In the spring of 1909, John White Alexander was unanimously elected president of the National Academy of Design, succeeding Frederick Dielman, who had been the president of the Academy from 1900 to 1909.1 Alexander’s election was widely applauded in art circles in the United States as a ray of hope for the revitalization of the flagging institution into a genuinely national center for American art. For example, fellow artist Leon Dabo wrote:

You have it in your power to make the National
Academy of Design really national, to remove the
stigma that rightly or wrongly attached itself to Art
societies—and most important of all you, your per-
sonality—your great talent should impress the art
world of our country that there is no need for a
“Secession”—for a rival institution in our midst but
that the Academy will admit that there are many ex-
pressions of beauty—that “art” is not in the keeping of
a few men, no matter how refined their tastes, nor how
profound their learning…. A new era should begin
for this historic society, and under your guidance, I
am sure a new era will begin for American art.2

Alexander assumed his role as president of the National Academy of Design (hereafter NAD) in 1909 with a clear and motivating nationalist agenda. His commitment to constructing a national identity in American art paralleled broader artistic trends and critical concerns in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century, including the gradual erosion of the internationalism of American art and the radical decline of the expatriate movement. Moreover, Alexander’s relationship to and expression of this fundamental shift in much of American art from internationalism and cosmopolitanism to nationalism is paradigmatic of the complicated movement as a whole. For example, Alexander’s repatriation, after what was widely recognized as a brilliant expatriate career in Paris, was championed by many as proof of American art’s triumph over international influences. While acknowledging the importance of Alexander’s expatriate experience, one critic assured his readers that Alexander had “returned in his middle years to identity himself with the ideals and interests of America;” another critic remarked, “Now that this nomad period of his [Alexander’s] career is over, it is significant that it is on this side of the water that he has permanently pitched his tent.”3

In fact, this accommodation of the works and accomplishments by cosmopolitan artists within the purview of nationalism characterized much of the critical and historical discourse on American art during the first decade of the twentieth century. There were the intransigent few who clamored for an American art that bore no trace of European influence. Most critics, artists, and exhibition organizers, however, recognized that there was no possibility of such a clean break with the past nor was there the need for one. With the resurgence of nationalism in the early twentieth century, the international and cosmopolitan spirit that animated much of American art in the 1890s was redefined as the backdrop on which to cast new light on national traits and distinctions between American art and that of all other nations. Moreover, the newly won sense of freedom from foreign influences depended in large part upon the accomplishments of the cosmopolitan artists of the post–Civil War generation who, in their desire to participate in the international art arena, significantly raised the level of American art to the point where it could identify a national tradition and thus declare “independence.”

Locating and acquiring a site for a new building to adequately house the National Academy of Design and its exhibitions became Alexander’s prime


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