The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

15.Rome and the American Academy Art Mecca or Artistic Backwater?

SUSAN RATHER, The University of Texas at Austin

For much of the nineteenth century, Italy was an art mecca, a place to which American painters and sculptors willingly gravitated and a source of inspiration to the architects and cultural cognoscenti of the American Renaissance. Among the many who succumbed to Italy's ancient and seductive charms, few did so with greater passion or sense of purpose than the men behind the American Academy in Rome (Plate 125). They regarded themselves as cultural missionaries, and their establishment of the Academy in 1894 was the period's most concrete testament to the belief that there should be an Italian presence in American art. It was also the ultimate statement of that belief, which won few converts among a generation of artists coming to maturity with the start of the new century. These younger Americans considered Italy an artistic backwater and the Academy an anachronism that could only impede, not aid, personal artistic development. Simply put, they found the heavy mantle of the past incompatible with the modernist quest for individual authority, immediate origins, and self-expression. But the determined men behind the Academy did not give up. This essay explores the struggle between the Academy's founders, who sought to re-establish Rome's artistic authority, and the very group they intended the institution to benefit: young American art students on the threshold of independent careers (Plates 126, 127). 1

The nature of the problem is not a mystery. Rome, notwithstanding its unparalleled artistic riches, could no longer compete with the lure of Paris. Mid-nineteenth-century American artists (and especially sculptors) had flocked to the Eternal City for its inspiring milieu, inexpensive lifestyle, abundant supply of labor and materials,

125. William Rutherford Mead and Charles Follen McKim (left and right), ca. 1896-1897 (photo: Charles Moore Papers, Library of Congress).

-214-

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