American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience

By Barbara Novak | Go to book overview

1.
Prolegomena to the Nineteenth Century

COPLEY AND THE AMERICAN TRADITION

The roots of an enduring American vision were first put down with the mature paintings of John Singleton Copley ( 1738-1815), from about 1765 to 1774. In Copley's art of this period, the unique relation of object to idea that characterizes so much American realism from colonial times to the present assumes forceful and explicit form (Ill. 1-1).

Behind it lies a long limner tradition distilled from national and international sources into a vocabulary relevant to the American experience. 1 That experience can only partly be explained by the lack of direct contact with academic traditions and teaching, for it also involved a need to grasp the idea behind reality, to outline an absolute in the wilderness of the new world.

Whatever the source, the translation into limner style tended to be the same, for the limner, as an untrained artist, presented reality conceptually, as idea, and pinned it down with two-dimensional surface patterns characterized by linear boundedness and equal emphasis of parts (Ill. 1-2). But unlike the American folk tradition (Ill. 1-3), which maintained fixed characteristics into the twentieth century, it could be said that the limner tradition, though generically primitive, was essentially archaic, having within it the potential for change and development. For the limner often tried to make drapery shine as it did in the available mezzotint examples of the English courtly tradition that made their way across the Atlantic. But he had not yet learned to accommodate idea and observation through nuances of tone and value, and the most frequent result was a summary reduction to flat patterns of light and dark (Ill. 1-4). Yet the intent to learn, to divine the mystery of academic formulae that more closely approximated the "appearance of reality," is precisely what made the limner tradition an archaic one.

The catalysts for change were to be found in the courtly tradition and in

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