Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

What's American about American Art?

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

What's American about American Art?

Article excerpt

THE SOURCE: "The Clarity of Things" by John Updike, in The New York Review of Books, June 26, 2008.

WHEN IT COMES TO MAPPING the visible world, American artists tend to stay faithful in some essential way to the concrete reality of the things they paint, says Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist John Updike. He sees defining examples of this American "bias toward the empirical" in the work of the Boston-born titans John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) and Winslow Homer (1836-1910).

Working in isolation from the European art world in colonial Boston, Copley developed a portrait style that represented his subjects plainly and without flattery while rendering their clothes and other material objects with magical detail. In 1765, when Copley submitted a portrait of his half-brother Henry Pelham, Boy With a Squirrel, to the annual exhibition of the Society of Artists in London, Benjamin West, an American master of the English style, wrote to inform him that the London art world recognized Copley's raw talent but found his painting too "liney."

Art critic Barbara Novak suggested at a 1966 Copley retrospective that this liney sensibility stemmed from a "conceptual bias" rooted in Puritanism. The great preacher Jonathan Edwards had stressed "the clarity of 'things'" as "manifestations God makes of Himself in His works" The material world is a reflection of God himself, and, in the minds of Copley and other American painters, capturing its reality is their essential task. …

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