Modern Art USA: Men, Rebellion, Conquest, 1900-1956

By Rudi Blesh | Go to book overview

2. Home Life on the Other Side of the Moon

The general isolation of America at the beginning of the twentieth century is difficult to imagine today, when we are potentially involved by events in almost any corner of the globe. Politically and culturally, this country lived in a virtual vacuum frequently called provincialism. The term is historically inaccurate, for when Americawas a province (in other words, still a British colony), it was far more receptive to cultural ideas from abroad than it was as a free and sovereign nation almost two centuries later.

In 1750 American architects were building after the latest Georgian modes; American cabinetmakers were working in the latest "modern" style of Thomas Chippendale; American composers were adapting the advanced contrapuntal and scalar innovations that the great baroque musicians had left as their legacy to the world; and American painters were following the newest concepts of Gainsborough. It was no one-way line, either, like calf at udder: the American scene, the wonder of the great, green new continent, the magic myth of the Noble Redskin, was firing the imaginations of Europeans. So, too, were the deeds of our frontiersmen, the courage of whose daily lives--it might have been foreseen--would inevitably make a free nation of us. We did not just import culture in design books; we participated creatively, altered, extended, adapted. The Georgian house in Virginia or New England became unmistakably an American house. In John Singleton Copley, Gainsborough found a strength and forthrightness he never knew.

And it should never be forgotten that these forefathers of ours had broad, humane, elastic minds. In this same eighteenth century they were absorbing the new philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau to such effect that they would start

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