Modern Art in America

By Martha Candler Cheney | Go to book overview

2. BACKGROUNDS IN EUROPEAN ART

THE CLUE to a comprehension of all that is implied in American modernism is to be found in the conception of form, as divined by Cézanne and furthered variously by his followers and successors. Cézanne begins to appear as a focal point at which the survival values from the revolts and experiments of the preceding half century of European art were gathered up and projected towards the twentieth century and its broadened and reilluminated technical synthesis.

Official art and popular taste, meantime, prolonging conventional and stereotyped practices out of the more creative centuries that had produced them, sank together to the nadir; and it is against this background that the successive pioneers of a new European tradition must be seen. Nineteenth-century artists of the greatest repute, as a brilliant historian reminds us, were of two kinds, "respectably futile conservatives and vulgar but highly successful would-be-chromophotographers"; and together they presented solid opposition to new men and new movements (and together survived conspicuously as the producers of a superficial subject art which was still a strong influence in America at the coming of the Armory Show).

Compilations of nineteenth-century critical writing contain Ruskin's analysis of one of the popular English masterpieces of the sixties and seventies, Landseer The Old Shepherd's Chief Mourner. Both the picture and the criticism illustrate the extent to which life- likeness, literary fancy, and sentiment were glorified at the expense of a painting's intrinsic values in Victorian England (and in other European countries and America). Calling this one of the most perfect poems or pictures the modern world has seen, Ruskin said:

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