Observations on American Art: Selections from the Writings of John Neal (1793-1876)

Observations on American Art: Selections from the Writings of John Neal (1793-1876)

Observations on American Art: Selections from the Writings of John Neal (1793-1876)

Observations on American Art: Selections from the Writings of John Neal (1793-1876)

Excerpt

Today few persons who have studied the development of the arts in America could, upon request, identify John Neal. Ask anyone to name the first real milestone in the art literature of our country, and the answer very properly would be William Dunlap A History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, which appeared in the Fall of 1834. In this solid two-volume work there is to be found no single mention of John Neal. Yet in the preceding decade Neal had written copiously of our native arts, both in American and British publications, and had won extensive though not universally favorable recognition for his expressed views. In Randolph, a Novel, published in 1823, in a series of articles contributed the following year to Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, and in the pages of The Yankee; and Boston Literary Gazette, which he edited at the end of that decade, Neal had discussed the leading American artists and their works; had done so, moreover, with unprecedented acumen and enthusiasm. In the years just preceding the founding of the National Academy of Design and the closely- timed deaths of Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart, events which to an extent signalized the beginning of a new era and the end of an earlier one in American art, Neal's writings most adequately summarized the accomplishments of the young republic in the fine arts. If not actually the first American to win his spurs as an art critic, he was certainly the first to use them effectively.

Neal in his scattered articles attempted no collection of information on a scale comparable with Dunlap invaluable History. Although one may go to him for a great deal of first hand observation that has its indubitable worth as source material, he had no such extensive acquaintance with the practitioners of the arts as had been acquired by the much older Dunlap. But as much as for the artist lore he recorded, it is for the vigor and originality of his delivery and for his having written when he did that Neal deserves some consideration as a forerunner of the "American Vasari."

By the 1820's the arts in America were fast coming of age. Throughout the country the general outlook for the artist had expanded greatly since the opening of the century. Witness, as indicating a growing concern for the arts, the founding early in the century of the first academies of the fine arts at Philadelphia and New York. In both places annual exhibitions were instituted, beginning respectively in 1811 and 1816. Nor were these the only cities in which efforts, elsewhere less successful, were made to found art organizations. These institutions did much to improve the professional stand-

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