The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

Editor's Preface

It would be impossible to overstate the debt of insight and inspiration that the Western world owes to Italian culture. Can we even begin to estimate how much our aesthetic and intellectual expectations have been nourished by the literature, the music, the painting, the sculpture, the architecture of Italy? The United States, as much as any nation in the world, has been enriched by the mysterious Italian genius, and indeed before we had achieved nationhood we had already found our way to the fountain. Cicero and Seneca were quoted with ease in the wilderness of the New World, and a boy growing up in the hinterlands of Pennsylvania, touched at his birth in 1738 by the muse of painting, determined that he would some day go to the land of Raphael. The day did in fact come, and Benjamin West arrived in Italy in 1760, the first of countless American artists who traveled to Rome, to Florence, to Venice, and to the many smaller treasure-filled cities and towns, to learn their art and to enrich their souls. They went with a sense of spiritual return.

Although it is well known that American artists from the time of Benjamin West on (and to the present day) went to Italy to study, a close examination of what that experience meant to them had never been undertaken. One of the rewards of reading the wide-ranging papers that make up this volume is the satisfaction of finding previously broad generalizations brought into sharp focus. Another is finding the recurrence of certain themes that bring a surprising coherence to the essays as a group, a phenomenon that testifies to the shared concerns of historians of American art today as much as it does to the shared experiences of our journeying artists and their fellow American cultural explorers in their first hundred years of European travel. The reversal of the current of traffic across the Atlantic should not pass unnoticed: Europeans had come to the New World not only to found a new Jerusalem but also in search of material riches. Now their descendants were returning from a Jerusalem that many lamented had been corrupted by materialism, in search of spiritual treasure.

First, perhaps, among those themes brought into high relief in the following pages is Italy as a visual feast and mythic presence. Italy was where spirit had actual form. But almost equally prominent is the ambivalence many Americans felt with regard to the cultural umbilical cord that held them to Europe despite the political independence that had been won. William Cullen Bryant had cautioned Thomas Cole that

Fair scenes shall greet thee where thou goest -- fair But different -- everywhere the trace of men, Paths, homes, graves, ruins, from the lowest glen

To where life shrinks from the fierce Alpine air. Gaze on them, till the tears shall dim thy sight, But keep that earlier, wilder image bright.

The need to create an American culture based on the American experience and American scenes was widely felt and often publicly expressed in nineteenth-century journals of opinion as well as privately in artists' letters and diaries. The problem was, or appeared to be, that there seemed so little of epic dimensions in the American past, and the Protestant majority were deeply hesitant about the other source of great art, the Bible, because they associated religious art with Roman Catholicism. Nevertheless, there were Americans who collected European painting and sculpture, especially toward the end of our period, and who were convinced, as Lillian Miller shows, that art of high quality had educational values for American viewers that would achieve the desired effect of raising the national level of aesthetic apprecia

-vii-

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