American Romantic Painting

By Edgar P. Richardson; Robert Freund | Go to book overview

AMERICAN ROMANTIC PAINTING

AN should have an eye to four things," said Palladio, "air, water, earth, and self-mastery; the first three are things of nature, the fourth of power and of the will." These words might be taken as a description of the great change in the imagination which began in American painting about the year 1800. Eighteenth-century American painting had been strong but narrow. Some eighteenth-century painters had worked in an admirable style, some like Copley showed an impressive strength of imaginative observation. But their interests and their knowledge of the language of painting had been limited very nearly to one subject and one form -- the portrait. When a new nation was formed by the military and political events of 1776 to 1789, a new consciousness was created. Painting had developed in our civilization as an art capable of dealing, in its own way, with the whole circle of inner and outer experience. There had been monumental and narrative pictures to embody the common faith of men and to decorate buildings with the inherited wealth of poetic thought; there were genre paintings which dealt with the interest of men's daily life; landscapes which expressed men's response to the life of nature; architectural painting which embodied men's delight in the setting they had created for themselves; portraits to express the individual's sense of his own dignity and the interest which men take in one another; still life and animal paintings which expressed men's reaction to the individual details of nature and to man's own craftsmanship. Portraiture alone, however excellent, was not enough to express the whole imaginative life of an awakening people. A time would surely come when the new national consciousness would create an art large enough in scope to express its growing awareness of itself and its world.

The first attempts to widen the range of painting were made by artists of the generation that fought the War for Independence. Benjamin West (born 1738) began in the 1760's to paint in a monumental narrative style closely related to the melodramatic theatre of his time which has considerable significance in the proto-romantic movement. John Singleton Copley (born 1737), one of the great portrait painters of the eighteenth century, began to experiment in middle life with large dramatic pictures, an adventure like Watson and the Shark ( Boston) or a poetic mood like The Red Cross Knight ( Washington, National Gallery). John Trumbull (born 1756) had the idea in the 1780's of painting the story of the struggle for independence, and began a series of brilliant, small narrative pictures filled with a sense of adventure, courage

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