American art

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

American art

American art, the art of the North American colonies and of the United States. There are separate articles on American architecture, North American Native art, pre-Columbian art and architecture, Mexican art and architecture, Spanish colonial art and architecture, and Canadian art and architecture.

The Colonial Period

In the 17th cent. the North American colonies enjoyed neither the wealth nor the leisure to cultivate the fine arts extensively. Colonial artisans working in pewter, silver, glass, or textiles closely followed European models. The 17th-century limners, generally unknown by name, turned out naive but often charming portraits in the Elizabethan style, the Dutch baroque style, or the English baroque court style, depending upon the European background of both artist and patron.

The portrait painters alternated limning with coach and sign painting or other types of craftsmanship, and even in the 18th cent. it was seldom possible to earn a living by working at painting alone. Even the renowned silversmith Paul Revere also turned his talents to commercial engraving and the manufacture of false teeth. The crafts in general followed English, Dutch, and Bavarian models, although in furniture some variations appeared in the work of talented artisans such as Samuel McIntire and Duncan Phyfe.

In the first half of the 18th cent. a growing demand for portrait painting attracted such artists as John Smibert, Peter Pelham, and Joseph Blackburn from England, Gustavus Hesselius from Sweden, Jeremiah Theus from Switzerland, and Pieter Vanderlyn from Holland. Joseph Badger, Robert Feke, Ralph Earle, John Trumbull, and Charles Willson Peale did not depart widely from the tradition of 18th-century English portraiture, but despite some provincial awkwardness, their work is often more vigorous. In the early work of John Singleton Copley this vigor is combined with a great native talent.

Another 18th-century American painter, Benjamin West, set up shop in London and became painter to the king and president of the Royal Academy. Although his training and practice were European, his studio became a mecca for American painters who for half a century came to study under him. His teaching of historical painting did not stand them in good stead on their return to America, where there was little demand for such work. Gilbert Stuart, however, emerged from his tutelage a superb portrait painter and, after gaining success in England, returned to America, where he executed a long series of famous and charming portraits and set a standard rarely surpassed in the United States.

Of all the arts, sculpture was probably the least cultivated in the colonies. Apart from the anonymous carvers of tombstones and ships' figureheads, William Rush is almost the only known native sculptor to have practiced in pre-Revolutionary and early Federalist times.

From the Revolution to the Civil War

The period from the birth of the republic to the Civil War did not see much increase in the demand for the fine arts. Such early painters as Washington Allston, Samuel F. B. Morse, John Vanderlyn, and John Trumbull, who sought a market in America for historical painting in the neoclassical manner of Jacques-Louis David, were quickly disillusioned. Portrait painting alone provided the substantial patronage enjoyed by such men as Mather Brown, Henry Benbridge, Edward Savage, Thomas Sully, John Neagle, Chester Harding, and the miniaturists Edward G. Malbone and John Wesley Jarvis. Their work expressed the energy and self-confidence of the builders of the new American nation.

This period also saw the gradual rise of a number of excellent genre painters—Henry Inman, William Sidney Mount, Richard C. Woodville, David G. Blythe, Eastman Johnson, and George Caleb Bingham. These were the earliest painters of the American scene. In addition, J. J. Audubon created an extraordinary, detailed series of paintings of American birds. It is significant that he had to go to England for recognition and publication of his work. John Quidor painted scenes and legendary figures from the works of James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving.

The first half of the 19th cent. witnessed development of the first school of American landscape painting. Thomas Doughty and Thomas Cole led the Hudson River school, which was continued by Asher B. Durand, John F. Kensett, and Frederick E. Church. The land and peoples west of the Mississippi were described in paintings by George Catlin, Charles M. Russell, and Seth Eastman, and in panoramic landscape views by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran (see under Moran, Edward). The work of these men showed a direct response to nature that has never ceased to be an important factor in American art. See luminism.

In addition, the characteristic American passion for objects realistically portrayed found remarkable expression in the paintings of William Harnett and John F. Peto, and earlier in the still-life works of the Peale family. The strain of primitivism, first evident in the limners, was more pronounced and popular in the early 19th cent. with works by Edward Hicks and Erastus Salisbury Field; it was continued by Grandma Moses and Horace Pippin in the 20th cent.

In sculpture portraiture provided the main source of patronage. John Frazee and Hezekiah Augur with little training produced forceful and original work in marble and wood. Horatio Greenough began the long tradition of the American sculptor trained in Italy, where he was soon followed by Thomas Crawford, Hiram Powers, and Harriet Hosmer. The American sculptors in Italy were greatly influenced by the Danish neoclassicist A. B. Thorvaldsen. Works of great originality were produced by Clark Mills, Thomas Ball, and particularly by William Rimmer, whose untutored sculpture was enormously powerful.

After the Civil War

In painting the post–Civil War period, which was one of unprecedented patronage for the arts from government and private sources, produced works of enduring worth and striking individuality. Among the many outstanding artists of this period, James McNeill Whistler, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Thomas Eakins, and Winslow Homer created works that rank among the finest achievements in American art. While they were contemporaries, these four are strikingly dissimilar. Whistler, an expatriate, cultivated a delicate art of suggestion in his oils and etchings, approaching the effects of French impressionism. Ryder produced a visionary art of profound emotional impact. Eakins painted sympathetic portraits of extraordinary psychological insight and uncompromising honesty. Homer's watercolors are among the strongest interpretations of pure landscape and seascape ever painted.

This period also saw the further development of the romantic landscape in the works of George Inness, Alexander H. Wyant, Homer D. Martin, and Ralph Blakelock. In Inness, and perhaps even more in William Morris Hunt, the influence of the Barbizon school was brought to America. Although French influence had begun to supplant German, the work of the portrait painters William M. Chase and Frank Duveneck reflected contemporary currents in Munich, as the earlier genre painters had reflected the influence of artists in Düsseldorf. John La Farge's religious murals and stained glass set a new standard for these arts.

John Singer Sargent, working chiefly in England, excelled in society portraiture, and Elihu Vedder and Edwin Abbey in illustration. At the close of the 19th cent. and the beginning of the 20th, John Twachtman, Childe Hassam, Ernest Lawson, and Mary Cassatt as well as such lesser-known American artists as Willard Metcalf (1858–1925) worked under the direct influence of French impressionism. Meanwhile, under the same influence, Maurice Prendergast created original, boldly colorful images of passing urban scenes. In a wholly different vein, realistic if somewhat romanticized scenes of life in the American West were painted by several artist-illustrators, the most prominent of whom were Frederick Remington and C. M. Russell.

In sculpture after the Civil War there was an increased demand for commemorative work. Notable sculptors in the monumental tradition include John Quincy Adams Ward and Daniel Chester French. The workshop of John Rogers produced small figures and genre groups that became popular. Later, Remington's small bronzes extended the subject matter of native realism westward to include the cowboy. Neoclassical tendencies dominated in the work of Olin Warner and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, both of whom studied in Paris.

The Twentieth Century

Among early 20th-century American sculptors Paul Bartlett, Karl Bitter, Frederick MacMonnies, George Barnard, and Lorado Taft exhibited a continuing conflict between naturalistic and idealized modes of representation. A significant cultural development of the era was the founding and expansion of American museums, whose collections were important to the art student and public alike. Under the impetus of new techniques of reproduction, the art of illustration flourished. The work of Edwin Abbey, Arthur Frost, and Howard Pyle was outstanding, appearing in Harper's and numerous other illustrated magazines and books.

Most importantly, in the 20th cent. American art turned to the exploitation of new techniques and new modes of expression. The functional design aesthetic of the machine strongly influenced all the arts. Meanwhile, the development of photography forced a reevaluation of the representational nature of painting, and the formal and expressive capacities of modern European art opened fresh fields for the American artist.

Early in the century a vigorous movement toward realism in subject matter and freedom in technique was headed by Robert Henri, John Sloan, and George Luks. With William Glackens, Everett Shinn, and others, they formed the Eight, a group also known as the "Ash-can School." They sought to communicate something of the reality of everyday life through art. At the same time, Alfred Stieglitz offered America early glimpses of fauve and cubist work from Europe and exhibited abstract paintings by such Americans as Max Weber, Marsden Hartley, and John Marin at his revolutionary 291 Gallery for contemporary photographs and paintings.

The full force of European modernism was presented to shocked Americans in the famous Armory Show of 1913 in New York City, which was organized by such American artists as Arthur B. Davies, and Walt Kuhn. Under the influence of this exhibition, the early work of such Americans as Joseph Stella, Yasuo Kuniyoshi, Charles Demuth, and Stuart Davis revealed new abstract tendencies. George Bellows and Rockwell Kent remained popular realists, and Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield developed a more poignant and intensely personal realism. John Marin caught the imposing breadth of nature in his watercolors, while Georgia O'Keeffe and Charles Sheeler combined realism with varying degrees of precise formal design.

Meanwhile, Peter Blume, Ivan Albright, and Edwin Dickinson developed differing and complex realist and surrealist styles. A chauvinistic espousal of the American scene flourished under Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood in the early 1930s, while the same decade and the 1940s saw the rise of a more socially conscious realistic art in the work of Ben Shahn, Philip Evergood, Reginald Marsh, Jacob Lawrence, Isabel Bishop, and Raphael and Moses Soyer. Several years later this social awareness was given bitter expression in the paintings of Jack Levine.

Government sponsorship of the arts during the years of the Great Depression under the Dept. of the Treasury's Section of Fine Arts and the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration enabled many artists to continue working, embellishing many public buildings with murals and creating smaller works for display in public institutions. The Farm Security Administration supported the photographic documentation of rural America, a project that employed a number of outstanding photographers and resulted in a moving portrait of America in crisis. World War II brought an influx of European painters who were to influence the course of American art. They included Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, and Yves Tanguy.

A continuing realistic tradition in American sculpture produced works in traditional styles during the 1920s and 30s. Among these are Gutzon Borglum's enormous Mt. Rushmore monument, the classicizing figures of Paul Manship, and Mahonri Young's naturalistic athletes and laborers. Nonetheless, the dominant tendency of national sculpture was toward abstract design and expressive form, a trend to which William Zorach, Gaston Lachaise, and, later, Leonard Baskin contributed figurative work. Alexander Calder pioneered in the use of mobile welded metal forms, adding motion as a new dimension in sculpture.

In painting from 1945–60 the work of all but the most intensive realists, such as Andrew Wyeth, tended increasingly toward abstraction. Such artists as Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and Helen Frankenthaler developed and employed abstraction in works of highly personal symbolic content, while painters such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, and Franz Kline created a bold and unique imagery that made American painting a dominant influence in world art (see abstract expressionism). In sculpture of the 1940s and 50s the free play of abstract forms in light and space and the use of new materials were vigorously exploited by David Smith, Theodore Roszak, Herbert Ferber, Isamu Noguchi, and Richard Lippold.

The pop art movement of the 1950s and 60s utilized an aesthetic based on the mass-produced artifacts of urban culture, rejecting the concepts of beauty and ugliness. Its major practitioners included Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Robert Rauschenberg. Other nonobjective styles of painting and sculpture flourished concurrently with pop art during the 1960s, including op art, minimalism, and color-field painting.

No single school or style has dominated American art in the latter half of the 20th cent., as artists have sought numerous avenues of individual expression. Sculptural abstraction was developed in individual directions by John Chamberlain, Eva Hess, Carl Andre, Louise Nevelson, and Tony Smith; minimalist sculpture in particular was developed by Donald Judd. Postmodern developments in painting and sculpture include photorealism, conceptualism, neoexpressionism, assemblage, land art, and performance and process art (see performance art; see also contemporary art).

The ascendancy of women and minority artists since the 1970s has been marked by essentialism, the assertion of the artist's distinctive heritage or social circumstance, favoring a point of view typically presented as outside the mainstream of contemporary art. Imagery suggestive of female anatomy and sexuality has been central to the works of Judy Chicago; an awareness of stereotypes of African-American women has informed drawings and installations by Adrian Piper. Jenny Holzer in her work has made extensive use of the printed word.

No single trend can be said to have dominated American art in the closing decades of the 20th cent. However, in general, American art in the 1980s and 90s saw an increased occurrence of words as statement and image as well as a widened use of photography, collage, and a variety of other media. Also characterizing these decades was eclecticism in both materials and imagery, combinations of painting and sculpture in single works, a trend toward use of the ironic, a resurgance of realism, and a heightened use of "borrowings" from other periods and works of art.


See A. T. Gardner, Yankee Stonecutters (1945); L. Lippard, Pop Art (1967); J. K. Howat, The Hudson River and Its Painters (1972); M. Brown, American Art (1979); D. Ashton, American Art Since 1945 (1982); E. Lucie-Smith, American Art Now (1985); C. Copeland and J. M. De La Croix, Encyclopedia of Contemporary American Art (1987); B. Haskell, The American Century, Art and Culture, 1900–1950 (1999) and L. Phillips, The American Century, Art and Culture, 1950–2000 (1999); A. Cohen-Solal, Painting American: The Rise of American Artists, Paris 1867–New York 1948 (2001).

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