American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience

By Barbara Novak | Go to book overview

14.
The Painterly Mode in America

If the dominant indigenous mode of expression in America was linear and conceptual, it would be an oversimplification to deny the existence of an ancillary painterly mode that was largely the result of European contact, training, and influence. To follow the many variations on this painterly theme requires another, separate volume, but perhaps a few ideas can be advanced here.

The painterly mode appears primarily in the works of those artists who either were almost total expatriates (spending large and significant portions of their lives abroad) or were cosmopolitan and international in sensibility, like John La Farge ( 1835-1910), of whom Henry Adams was moved to write: "Although I thought him quite the superior of any other artist I ever met,--and I have no special reason for limiting the remark to artists alone,--he was so 'un-American.'"1 Perhaps we are justified in assuming that for many American artists the painterly signified Europe--and thus, by inference, sophistication, grace, aristocracy, and vigorous traditions. Significantly, the period ( 1825-65) in which the painterly was least prevalent was one of national confidence and relative self-sufficiency. Though, in this period, the painterly mode could still modify indigenous characteristics-- loosening primitive fixity, introducing atmospheric sophistication, and making a certain translucency of color possible. Even when held at a distance, then, the painterly made valuable contributions.

The painterly alternative was introduced at the very beginning of the American tradition. Gilbert Stuart, in reaching for the truth of what he saw ("paint what you see, and look with your own eyes"), 2 sought a visual realism based on a sensational response to light and color that few of his countrymen shared. For most of them, the image was concept made concrete. For Stuart, it was the indefinite perception made definite. As he told

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