Samuel Isham History of American Painting is a permanent landmark in its field; it was the first book on the subject to combine an orderly time sequence, logical groupings, and a consistently applied standard of professional criticism. In the forty-five years since it was first printed, the ideas of criticism have changed so markedly that they can yield a new interpretation; the amount of knowledge has increased so strikingly that it both suggests more complex groupings than his and requires a more precise organization of' them in order to clarify the transit of history. But any attempt to survey the field as a whole can never be a last word on the subject; it can only be, for its own time, a helpful first word.
The additions to factual information since Isham wrote have indeed been so immense that this attempt to re-tell the history of American painting omits his third, or Cosmopolitan, time division, leaving it and its successor, the Contemporary period, to receive their duly detailed treatment in some other book. Retaining Isham's characterizing adjectives, Colonial and Provincial, this book supplies each with three divisions which correspond to changes of climate in American culture. Certain painters with whom this book concludes lived and worked beyond the end of the Provincial period, which may be most conveniently dated as 1880; but in both spirit and craft they developed their provincial inheritance more than they participated in the technique and attitude of the somewhat younger cosmopolitans.
Of course, the whole device of periods and subdivisions is only an artifice of narrative for the historian who must describe change. As Mr. Edgar P. Richardson has put it with irrefutable simplicity: "There are no periods except in books." However, since they are necessary there, they should be made as distinct as the facts may warrant. When the books are shut, the human mind will blur and merge all periods quite as effectively as history itself.
Though only one name appears as author on the title page, this book is the work of two. My wife, Ida Ogden Barker, shared in the long search for the paintings through the better part of ten years: five trips through the East from Florida to Maine, a prolonged trip from Detroit and St. Paul to New Orleans, and one to California. In this way all the pictures, with less than a dozen exceptions, have been examined together; on every important painter and many minor ones, stylistic notes have been made by both, working independently . . .