From the Depths: The Discovery of Poverty in the United States

By Robert H. Bremner | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
The Poverty Theme in Art and Illustration

A MERICAN subjects are well enough, but hard to find you know -- hard to find," remarked an impecunious young artist in Stephen Crane novel The Third Violet ( 1897). He was pretending to be a fashionable painter showing off his wares at a smart studio tea. Here was a pretty little thing, a peasant woman in sabots; over there, a sketch of an Arab squatting in a doorway; and next to it a delightful study of a gondolier leaning on his oar. "Morocco, Venice, Brittany, Holland -- all oblige with color, you know -- quaint form -- all that," the impersonator continued. "We are so hideously modern over here; and, besides, nobody has painted us much. How the devil can I paint America when nobody has done it before me?"1

This attitude was common among artists in the 1890's, but it had not always been so, for there was a long tradition of interest in the native scene in American art. Fifty years earlier painting America had been a flourishing enterprise, and representations of the homely incidents and occupations of everyday life rivaled portraits and landscapes in popularity. The painters of the 1840's and 1850's had usually chosen to depict the pleasanter aspects of the American scene, but they had not complained of a dearth of subjects, nor had they scorned to record the characteristic experiences and emotions of ordinary people. By the final decades of the century, however, both the artists and the nation had changed. The painters who then dominated the field had been trained in the best European schools. Devoted to beauty, conscious and proud of the dignity of their high

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