The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

Editor's Preface

Like a magic potion, Italianità has seeped through the stream of American aesthetic consciousness ever since Benjamin West stepped onto Italian soil in 1760. That moment became my natural starting point when, in 1987, acting for the Istituto della Enciclopedia and Fordham University, I organized the symposium "Insight and Inspiration: The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860."

Two things were clear at the end of that first meeting: the fine papers presented had to be given permanence in book form, and the story of the "Italian Presence" had to be continued. Happily, both determinations were realized. The book was published on the day when the second meeting, "Insight and Inspiration: The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920," was convened.

The book at hand, therefore, has two aspects. Comprising papers presented at that second meeting, it is a single, independent volume of essays dealing with American art from 1860 to 1920, the period between the Civil War, which almost sundered the problematic political unity of the United States, and World War I, which, following on the disappearance of the last frontier, brought to a climax our growing sense of continental nationhood. It is also Volume II of what is now projected as a three-volume study of the Italian presence in American art: the story will be brought up-to-date in 1991 with the third symposium covering the decades 1920-1990, the papers of which will be published as Volume III.

In these essays it will be noticed how very closely American art mirrors the American Experience. While all art reflects the cultural context in which it is created, the nature of American art, which the late John I. H. Baur defined as predominantly Romantic-Realist, makes the link between idea and image especially visible. Thus, the ongoing struggle for national cultural identity that was central to the American Experience particularly as the country recovered from the Civil War and expanded physically, demographically, and economically, emerges again and again in our art, in many guises. Often the conflict appears in terms of the artists' efforts to come to terms with the European past, which they recognized as their own, and their sense of living in the American present, with the vast ocean cutting them off from and yet connecting them with the sources of Western Civilization.

As a major or minor theme, this issue makes its presence felt throughout the book. Nicolai Cikovsky writes of Americans haunted by the "lingering aroma" of Rome--ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque--and then, in an especially resonant passage in his paper on George Inness, he shows how the artist found in the contemporary American scene a visual and expressive analogy between the railroad roundhouse "secular and utilitarian, a shrine of . . . American progress and enterprise" and St. Peter's in Rome, another shrine, "the symbol . . . of what evoked and exemplified for Americans . . . the past." The reader may appreciate with special pleasure this as well as other acute insights in these essays into the non-verbal world of the artistic imagination.

In quite a different way, Paul Baker, too, sees how Stanford White used images of the past to parallel the present. Sorting out the various kinds of attractions that Italy held for the architect, and for his patrons, Baker shows how White perceived in the expressive serenity of Renaissance architecture, its "order, balance, and restraint," a shield that provided a sense of stability and identity to those who saw themselves as the new American

-vii-

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