The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

1. Celebrating Botticelli
The Taste for the Italian Renaissance in the United States, 1870-1920

LILLIAN B. MILLER, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

At the turn of the twentieth century, Sandro Botticelli ( Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, 1445-1510)--an artist little known in the United States until about 1870--was one of the most celebrated of Old Masters. Collectors regarded his works as precious acquisitions: just as in the mid-nineteenth century they had aspired (like the New York father in Edith Wharton story "False Dawn") to own a Raphael, so it became their dream fifty years later to own a Botticelli. 1 In fact, by 1900 Botticelli was close to replacing Raphael ( 1483-1520) as the ideal artist in the imagination of art enthusiasts, particularly in England, Western Europe, and the United States. 2

The art of the early Italian Renaissance had been discovered by Western artists earlier in the nineteenth century, when the British Pre-Raphaelites pre-empted Botticelli's images and publicized the merit of Quattrocento artists and their predecessors. These artists--John Everett Millais ( 1829-1896), William Holman Hunt ( 1829-1919), Dante Gabriel Rossetti ( 1828-1882), Edward Burne-Jones ( 1833-1898), and Walter Crane ( 1845-1915) (Plate 1)--adopted Botticelli's Venuses and Madonnas as the ideal expression of womanly beauty. 3 British artists not specifically associated with the PRB, such as Albert Moore ( 1841-1893) and John Roddam Spencer Stanhope ( 1829-1908) among others, 4 also absorbed elements of this style; for instance, William Dyce, who as early as 1836 had fallen under the influence of the Nazarene painters in Rome, continued their advocacy of the stylistic purity of the artists working before Raphael, and in his painting Christabel ( 1855: unlocated), based upon Coleridge's poem, borrowed his figure directly from Botticelli. Dyce, in fact, introduced John Ruskin ( 1819-1900) to the early Italian painters, and Ruskin's influence in spreading the gospel of Pre-Raphaelite art was crucial. 5 By 1893, Botticelli's images had become so familiar that the English artist Aubrey Beardsley ( 1872-1898), assuming that painters expressed their subjects according to their own individuality, was prompted to construct an imaginary portrait of Botticelli (Plate 2) from "materials supplied in his own [i.e., Botticelli's] work." 6

The Pre-Raphaelites set the stage, then, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century for the invasion of this taste into America. It was not a taste for the work of the British Pre-Raphaelites that became important in the United States, however, for although some Americans may have bought paintings of Burne-Jones and Rossetti, the work of this group of artists was never prominent in American collections. 7 What was probably more important for introducing American art collectors to the early Italian Renaissance as a field for collecting were the writings of the British aesthetic publicists and historians of the Renaissance, experience with the actual paintings of the artists whom the writers had praised, and the growth of an interest in this art among connoisseurs and transatlantic art dealers.

The initial interest in Botticelli was literary. Among the first and most influential of the publicists to discover him and his contemporaries and to bring them to the attention of American intellectuals and connoisseurs was the British writer Walter Pater ( 1839-1894), whose highly popular Studies in the History of the Renaissance ( 1873) spread a romantic interpretation of Botticelli's art. Botticelli, wrote Pater, "has the freshness, the uncertain and diffident promise which

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