Picturing American History, 1770-1930

By Lemiski, Karen | The Historian, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Picturing American History, 1770-1930


Lemiski, Karen, The Historian


The European IDEA that cast the painting of historical characters and events as the highest form of artistic expression came to the United States during the late eighteenth century. Establishing pictorial traditions where none had previously existed, history painters created an ethos with a distinctive pantheon of heroes. A collective sense of nationhood and identity was fashioned as history painters created a visual U.S. heritage. A recent traveling exhibition, "Picturing History: American Painting, 1770-1930," followed the development and alteration of historical paintings against a background of changing social and cultural contexts.(1)

Four periods of history painting in the United States have been identified, according to style, subject matter, and imagery. The initial grand manner depicted characters and events heroically in order to instill patriotism by depicting them according to Renaissance and Baroque compositional conventions. The emphasis was on glory, heroic stance, and the commemoration of pivotal events. Influenced by the growing popularity of genre paintings in the mid-nineteenth century, the genrefication period closely equated national heroes and events with the experiences of ordinary citizens, while military scenes associated with the country's formative years remained within the grand style. …

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