The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

3. "An Influence in the Air"

Italian Art and American Taste in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

LILLIAN B. MILLER, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

In the history of American art collecting during the first half of the nineteenth century, there was no one great discovery (or rediscovery) of Italian art. Nor was there a discovery of a particular artist that we can say marked the beginning of a cycle of taste. Rather, from the 1760s to the middle of the nineteenth century, the sense of the importance of Italy and Italian art was more "in the air" than expressed in collections. American collectors, like American painters and sculptors, were fascinated by Italy as an environment and by Italian Old Masters. Almost every American collection included an Italian work, either an alleged, occasionally an original, Old Master or a copy, and frequently a painting of an Italian scene by an American artist (Plate 16). Until the mid- 1850s, however, no individual collector attempted to form a collection consisting primarily of Italian works, and no significant movement toward collecting Italian art on a substantial scale developed until the turn of the twentieth century. 1

If, however, during the first half of the nineteenth century Italy did not provide many works of art for American collectors, it did in important ways influence the taste and attitudes toward the artistic enterprise of some Americans, an influence that extended far beyond our immediate period. Americans were prepared for Italy even before they encountered it; the country's art history -- its classical, Christian, and Renaissance past -- had provided metaphors and models for Americans since the seventeenth century. Educated Americans could recite a litany of Italian artists' names -- household gods to whom they willingly paid homage: Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, Tintoretto, Leonardo, Domenichino, Guido, Salvator Rosa, Correggio, Carravaggio, and Canaletto. Raphael's Madonnas, Salvator Rosa's landscapes, Correggio's Antiope, Titian Europa, and Caracci's Pietà were known from engravings, copies, and general references long before they were actually encountered in Florence or Rome; and such classical statuary as the Apollo Belvedere, the Venus de Medici, and the Laocoön group were familiar from imported casts, engravings, and Henry Fuseli's translation of Johann Joachim Winckelmann's Reflections on the Painting and Sculpture of the Greeks. Americans had access to Sir Joshua Reynolds' Discourses, Raphael Mengs Reflections upon Beauty and Taste in Painting, John Dryden's translation of Charles duFresnoy The Art of Painting, and Matthew Pilkington Dictionary of Artists; and these works provided educated Americans with ideas concerning art and its history in Italy that conformed with those generally held by their peers in the Western world at the time. 2

From 1760 to 1860, Americans traveled to Italy in increasing numbers for many reasons, but the most common was the recreation and education Italy offered. 3 "A season of leisurely travel in Italy" became the reward for hardworking medical students such as John Morgan ( 1735-1789) of Philadelphia in 1763-1764, and for exhausted businessmen such as the man described by J. T. Headley in 1848 who went to Italy to find "rest for his spirit" from the heavy pressures of life in America, and had the good fortune to find what he was seeking in the Italian landscape and leisurely pace of life. Travelers marveled at Italy's blue skies, pellucid atmosphere, picturesque ruins, palaces, aqueducts, amphitheaters and temples, its historic associations, the hospitality and kindness of the Italian people -- and most of all, of course, the country's artistic treasures. 4

What did they learn from their sojourn in Italy? In general, Italy sharpened Americans' perceptions of their own society by presenting a con

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