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

Synopsis

In this distinguished work, which Hilton Kramer in The New York Times Book Review called "surely the best book ever written on the subject," Barbara Novak illuminates what is essentially American about American art. She highlights not only those aspects that appear indigenously in our art works, but also those features that consistently reappear over time. Novak examines the paintings of Washington Allston, Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Fitz H. Lane, William Sidney Mount, Winslow Homer, Thomas Eakins, and Albert Pinkham Ryder. She draws provocative and original conclusions about the role in American art of spiritualism and mathematics, conceptualism and the object, and Transcendentalism and the fact. She analyzes not only the paintings but nineteenth-century aesthetics as well, achieving a unique synthesis of art and literature.
Now available with a new preface and an updated bibliography, this lavishly illustrated volume--featuring more than one hundred black-and-white illustrations and sixteen full-color plates--remains one of the seminal works in American art history.

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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