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

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

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

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

Excerpt

I am pleased that ideas and issues defined in the original edition of American Painting of the Nineteenth Century have proved durable through the vicissitudes of the vigorous scholarship and expanded modes of inquiry of the past thirty-eight years. Defining—or attempting to define—the art produced by any particular culture is an ongoing process and ours is no exception.

In his public lectures and essays, Emerson emphasized the optimism of the early nineteenth century. He raises, in retrospect, the question of how a culture subscribes to and builds its national ideal and the degree to which quotas of reality are incorporated and/or suppressed. In an extraordinary consonance, the optimistic ideal dominated the culture of which the artists were a part. They, in turn, reflected and shaped its optimistic profile. Leslie Fiedler has written of the American belief that "what we dream rather than what we are is our essential truth." The question may be phrased: When does a dream become reality and take on the transformative power of American optimism? For the most part, the artists, like most of their nineteenth-century viewers, believed in an inherent American goodness. Their paintings literally reached toward the light. The sun became a spiritual emanation.

Valuable research has enlarged our understanding of the context of our earlier art in terms of political and social realities, often harsh, that were subsumed in the dynamic of the optimistic "engine." That optimism was obviously purchased at a high price, and much recent scholarship, using the many modes of interpretation now available, has measured its actual cost.

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