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

By Barbara Novak | Go to book overview

Epilogue
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

It seems obvious from the foregoing chapters that America brought into the twentieth century an art that exhibited specific tendencies and continuities. From the limners on, American artists had held, in one way or another, to the adamant control of idea. Enlisting measure, mechanics, and technology as aids toward a certainty that was often as ideal as it was real, American artists guarded the unbroken integrity of the objects or things of this world, which became, very often, vessels or carriers of metaphysical meaning. Tempered by the dual planar inclinations of a continuing folk tradition and a classic mensuration, matter, in American nineteenth-century art, was often stable, fixed, weighted, the pictorial parallel of an age still dominated by Newtonian physics. Dissolution of matter, when it occurred, was rarely scientific or analytical, but emotive and lyrical, becoming part of a quietistic tradition and reaching through memory to another area of Mind. Through it all, the thing dominated, amounting, in fact, to a preoccupation with things, amplified by concerns with light, space, weather, and time that were often additional routes to the character of an environment shaped by things, as well as extensions from the world at large to the thing.

All these properties were manifested in American art in various ways: threading through the sometimes linked and sometimes separate traditions of realism and idealism; ignoring--as, unfortunately, the historian with his necessity for labels often cannot--the art historical categories; grouping, so that sometimes all could be found in the art of a single artist; then spreading, to link, through isolated characteristics, artists of a totally different kind.

To this wealth of native diversity the twentieth century added the impact of an age of mechanized speed and power, in which the Newtonian world was, as we are so frequently reminded, replaced by Einsteinian relativity, and the world of the picture fundamentally changed by new attitudes to

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