Modern Art in America

By Martha Candler Cheney | Go to book overview
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3. AMERICAN BACKGROUNDS

IN the coastal frontier settlements of the still savage New World of the seventeenth century, there were American artists at work producing what has become to the twentieth-century American a priceless gallery of "ancestors." Scores if not hundreds of these portraits were painted, all the way from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to Carolina. Most of their significance went unnoted by the wider art public until recently when, in the general reappraisal of all art, they began to stand out as representing a distinguished primitivism as well as a quality that is distinctively American.

Artists had come to America with the earliest pioneers, and continued to come, bringing some acquaintance with the prevailing art practices of Western Europe--Flemish, Dutch, and French--and there are reminiscences of various masters and schools in much of the early American portraiture. The Madam Freake and Baby Mary, of 1675, now in the Worcester Art Museum, is curiously reminiscent of certain medieval French sculptures even while achieving a fresh expressiveness that has caused one critic to call it the "American Mother and Child." Some of the earliest and most familiar portraits are in the style of Van Dyck.

Their factualism is the quality achieved by artists whenever they are obliged by new environments and new demands to strike out for the straightest and most economical and most vigorous accounts they are capable of producing of what they see and feel of the sitters' characters. The most striking characteristic of all such work is the uncompromising integrity of the "likeness"--the countenance and the features. The second is the stiff, hard-edged composition in which the

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