The Italian Presence in American Art, 1760-1860

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

5. Theory and Practice
Leonardo da Vinci's Importance for American Artists, 1820-1860

KATHERINE E. MANTHORNE, University of Illinois

Of all the great Masters of Western art, it was Leonardo da Vinci who offered the nineteenth-century American artist the most appealing model for his own life and art. In his capacity as artist -- inventor, he seems to have been a role-model for Robert Fulton, Charles Willson Peale, and Samuel F. B. Morse (whose early biographer dubbed him the "American Leonardo"). 1 His closely observed drawings of rocks, plants, and swirling water appear to be logical prototypes for the nature studies of the Hudson River artists. And the trust that Leonardo placed in mathematics, especially geometry, finds parallels in the work of William Sidney Mount and Thomas Eakins. Given their mutual concerns with the affinities of art and science, and the obvious possibilities for self-identification on a variety of levels, it is important to establish to what degree the American painters were actually aware of their great predecessor and how such knowledge affected their approach to art. It is my contention that (a) Leonardo's influence in America was far more widespread than has hitherto been noticed and that (b) his importance transcended any single work of art, to include a guide for the conduct of artistic life and a theoretical basis for painting.

The intention here is to shed light, not on Leonardoper se, but on the image of him held by nineteenth-century Americans. They poured over the pages of his Treatise on Painting, mined the available accounts of his life, and acquired paintings attributed to him as well as engravings after his well-known masterpieces. This body of material was assembled and distilled, giving rise to a distinctive view of his accomplishments. The particular works the American critics pointed out for study, the aspects of his theory they found most significant, the anecdotes they repeated to the exclusion of the many others available in the literature -- these tendencies possess a certain logic and interest to the historian of the period.

The Americans referred to Leonardo not only as "the Father of Modern Painting," 2 but also as "the first name of the fifteenth century." 3 A writer for The Crayon placed him "at the head of the Florentine school of painting." 4 And James Jackson Jarves regarded him as "perhaps the most completely endowed man by nature of all time." 5 To the late -- twentieth-century observer, such appreciation of Leonardo seems perfectly natural, but it so happens that in their attraction to Leonardo beginning in the first quarter of the nineteenth century Americans demonstrated a taste both precocious and distinct. For by comparison their European contemporaries greatly favored Michelangelo and Raphael over Leonardo. 6 This is not to say that American artists were uninterested in Raphael or Michelangelo, for the lingering influence of Sir Joshua Reynolds among other forces had helped to ensure a great admiration for them. But by the 1820s, as American artists began to take a more active role in forging professional standards of art, and to consider more self- consciously their place within the art-historical tradition, they simultaneously made a more independent selection of the artists and sources most relevant to their needs. 7 Thus, they turned increasingly to Leonardo, who was in fact peculiarly well-suited for the role of their art avatar. He had, they were well aware, actually completed only a small number of art works; and many of them were in poor condition. The primary way to study Leonardo was, therefore, through engrav-

____________________
I should like to acknowledge a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies and the National Endowment for the Humanities which greatly facilitated the completion of this essay.

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