Americans in Italy

By Wilkin, Karen | New Criterion, October 2006 | Go to article overview

Americans in Italy


Wilkin, Karen, New Criterion


As early as the Renaissance, ambitious artists began to think that a sojourn in Italy was essential to their education--if they had the misfortune to be born elsewhere. Albrecht Durer made the journey south from his native Germany twice, around the end of the fifteenth century, and discovered both the power of the classical past and what it meant for an artist to be treated with respect. By the mid-sixteenth century, aspiring painters from all over Europe were drawn to Venice to work in Titian's studio; fifty years later, they flocked to Rome, eager to master the new-fangled dramatic realism of Caravaggio. From the eighteenth century on, Italy was an obligatory part of the Grand Tour for artists and non-artists alike, not only for the wealth of Old Master art to be seen in its palaces and churches or for the traces of antiquity visible throughout the peninsula but also for the landscape itself--the sites where myths were supposed to have taken place, where classical texts were set, and where crucial events in Roman history unfolded. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the establishment of national academies in Rome and the institution of competitive awards for study at these august institutions left no doubt about the importance of an Italian stay to a successful career. Firsthand encounters with canonical antiquities and Italian Old Master works were deemed so invaluable that when Gericault failed to win a Rome Prize for a residency at the French Academy, he spent three self-financed years in Italy, studying the prescribed masterpieces of painting, sculpture, and architecture--and discovering, perhaps inadvertently, his deep attraction to other, more current themes.

By the early nineteenth century, American artists, too, had come to feel the need for direct exposure to Italian sources. Official recognition of this desire came late--not until 1894-, with the founding of an American School of Architecture in Rome, followed a year later by an American School of Classical Studies; the two merged in 1913 as the American Academy in Rome. For some Americans, Italy's attraction persisted long after the advent of modernism made Paris a magnet for forward-thinking artists. Even in the present anarchic art world, this alluring, complicated country retains its appeal, although the beauty of its landscape and architecture (old and new), the seduction of its light, and the pleasures of its food and wine--not to mention its clothes--probably count as much for today's artists as the relics of antiquity or the rich heritage of Italian art did for earlier generations.

The National Academy Museum's exhibition "Italia! Muse to American Artists, 1830-2005" promises to examine this special relationship. (1) For all its ambitious intentions, however, the show offers less than the all-encompassing title implies. (That gratuitously up-beat exclamation point must have drifted over from the Guggenheim, across the street.) An introductory wall text makes the limitations clear: "This exhibition illustrates precisely how Italy has continued to provide artistic motivation for Academicians over the last one hundred and seventy five years." The crucial word is "Academicians." Plainly there are impeccable reasons, both intellectual and financial, for the restriction. You have to admire the National Academy Museum's construction of a provocative idea to justify a selection of its eclectic holdings--although how "precisely" the show addresses its aims is debatable-but the narrow focus poses problems. Until relatively recently, for various reasons, progressive, adventurous American artists generally ignored the National Academy of Design and vice versa, so despite their long, close relationships with Italy, many important nineteenth- and twentieth-century American painters and sculptors are excluded from the show as non-members. John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, Leon Golub, Caio Fonseca, and Graham Nickson are absent, for example, and you won't find any of the remarkable constructions David Smith made in an abandoned steel factory near Genova or any of Philip Grausman's uncanny Roman heads or Gonzalo Fonseca's haunting stone sculptures from his rural Tuscan studio. …

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