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Unit 2. American painting

What do you know about the peculiarities of American painting? How was it influenced by various national forms of painting inherited from Europe? When were the earliest works of American art created? Do you know any particular American painters and their world famous works of art? Now, read about the American art of painting and learn more about its history and distinctive qualities.

Read texts A-D. Try to guess the meaning of the underlined words from the context. Then use your dictionary to check them.

Text a. Introduction

The native flavor of American painting is partly determined by the types of subjects chosen by the artists. Working under the patronage of a predominantly middle-class society, American painters have found little demand for subjects favored in Europe by court and church. Their interest has been in their surroundings – their people, landscapes, familiar objects, and scenes of everyday life. American painters have described this external world of fact with honesty, clarity, and precision. Their realistic approach may be said to reflect the national traits, which are frequently characterized as practicality, industry, and love of material things. The American is also known for his geniality; and a buoyant, optimistic spirit is often present in American pictures.

These native qualities may be seen in The Sargent Family, painted by an artist whose name has been forgotten. Whoever he was, his stiff, rather crudely modeled figures suggest that he had little training. His painting is folk art, of a kind classified as indigenous to America because its practitioners had little contact with Europe.

More ambitious and progressive artists, even when their work shows native characteristics, have been dependent on European culture. Since the American nation shares its heritage, native painters have quite normally been drawn to the Old World, with its time-honored traditions. Moreover, until recent times, American artists have had to go abroad for adequate technical training. Their biographies, as well as their paintings, illustrate the powerful magnetism of Europe in the earlier years, and also national eventual independence.

John Singleton Copley (1738-1815), America's most famous Old Master, exemplifies both the native and European tendencies in American art. Brought up in Boston, where his formal training was negligible, he was blessed with an innate ability to interpret character and to record objective details. This gift launched the shy, serious young man, while still in his teens, on a successful career. As was the case with all early American artists, painting likenesses was the mainstay of his profession, and he had already enjoyed some twenty years as a popular portraitist in Boston when he went to Europe, in 1774. His intention was to stay long enough to acquire the sophistication of European style and then return to America. But the Revolution changed his plans. Since his wife was the daughter of Richard Clark, whose tea shipment had been thrown into Boston Harbor to protest the English excise tax, the family now found it wise to settle in London. There Copley abandoned his American realism. The Red Cross Knight, which he painted in England, does not have the American flavor of The Sargent Family. Rather, its subject and style are imaginative; it follows the generalized, theatrical ideal popular in eighteenth-century Britain.

Copley's departure for Europe had been encouraged by Benjamin West (1738-1820), a native of Pennsylvania, who had gone abroad in 1760, while still young. Arriving in Rome West was an immediate success. This handsome young artist from the American wilderness fascinated cosmopolitan Roman society; and his art, like Copley's European work, took on sophistication. His emulation of the ideal style of sixteenth-century Italy gained him the epithet of 'the American Raphael,' and his popularity continued when, after three years in Italy, he moved to London. There George III befriended him; and such prominent people as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs sat to him for portraits. In 1792 West was chosen President of the Royal Academy, the only American ever to hold that position. During his long residence in London, West's brilliant work as teacher, his warm personality, and his endless hospitality affected the succeeding generation of American painters who came to study under him.

From the artists of Colonial times we turn to those of the Federal, or early Republican, period. Unlike Copley and West, the men who painted in the years immediately after the country had won its freedom left America only to study and then returned to the United States. Typical of this generation is Edward Savage. As a youth in a small Massachusetts town, he could have had little training. In 1791 he went to England for three years of study and then returned to settle in Philadelphia. It was soon after his return that he completed the large canvas of the Washington family, an exhibition piece so popular that engravings from it brought the artist a small fortune.

The most prominent artist of the period was Gilbert Stuart (1755-1828), a native of Rhode Island. Although he considered himself a professional portraitist when he went to England, in 1775, his work could not yet meet London competition, and he was nearly starving when he was welcomed into the home of Benjamin West. There he was free to work and study. A few years of West's training prepared Stuart for a successful career as portraitist, with fashionable people flocking to his studio. Not only was he talented, but he had a striking personality, alert, gay, and witty. A brilliant conversationalist, he could always adjust his discussion to his sitters' interests and so keep their faces lively while he was painting. In the winter of 1792 Stuart returned to America with the specific intention of painting George Washington. Always an opportunist, he realized that a portrait of the new president would bring him recognition. After working for some time in New York, where, among many other portraits, he painted Mrs. Richard Yates, he finally arranged in 1795 for the president to sit for him in Philadelphia, then the capital of the United States. Painting likenesses of dignitaries, Stuart now became a kind of American court painter. In 1805 he accepted an invitation to paint portraits in Boston, a city which he found so much to his liking that he remained there the rest of his life. With his reputation as the leading artist in America, it was inevitable that he should attract other painters to Boston.

One of those who sought Stuart's advice was Thomas Sully (1783-1872). He was born in England but was still a little boy when he was brought to Charleston, South Carolina. In 1807 he visited Stuart briefly in Boston, and it was probably on Stuart's recommendation that he then made the trip to London to study with Benjamin West. Sully established himself in Philadelphia when he returned to the United States, in 1810. How very successful he was we may judge from his own register, where more than twenty-five hundred pictures are recorded, most of them portraits. Among these is the full-length Eliza Ridgely, a large and elaborate composition that may serve as index to the importance still attached to portraiture in America at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Without affecting the popularity of portraiture, other themes were being introduced by mid-century. America was producing genre painters, who recorded daily happenings; and landscapists were thriving, particularly those of the Hudson River School in New York State.

Some of these artists, breaking with the old tradition of composing landscape pictures in the studio, took their easels out-of-doors and painted what was actually before their eyes. This interest in immediate surroundings continued to be the inspiration of what is known in the history of American painting as the “American scene.” Because the subjects, both genre and landscape, express a popular sentiment and are at the same time concerned with objective appearance, this phase of painting in the United States has been termed Romantic Realism. The early part of the nineteenth century was a period of romantic art in Europe also, but American romanticism seldom offers escape to faraway places or long-ago times as does this phase of European art. Rather, it develops out of an idealistic contemplation of the native world.

The Lackawanna Valley belongs in this category. An early work by George Inness (1825-1894), who was influenced by the Hudson River School, it is remarkable for its realistic description. Inness' later landscapes, better known than his first efforts, are dreamier in mood. Their indistinctness of form and their veiled softness of color are barely suggested in the picture. Inness spent most of his life in the New York area, and was almost entirely self-taught. Nevertheless, he made trips to Europe, and he had already fallen under the spell of the French painter Corot before he painted The Lackawanna Valley.

In the period of industrial growth between the Civil War and 1900, when large fortunes were being established, America made great strides in cultural pursuits. The period of the 1880's and 1890's is often referred to as the American Renaissance. The painters of these decades fall into two groups. To the first group belong the artists who worked in the country even though they briefly studied or traveled in Europe. To the second belong those who lived abroad and adopted European styles.

Homer, Eakins, Harnett, and Ryder belong to the first group. Winslow Homer, by starting his career as an illustrator for Harper's Weekly, developed a keen faculty of observing and a precise method of recording. In his prolific career as painter in both oil and water color, illustration – primarily of out-of-door life – remained a chief concern. Healthy and vigorous, he liked to hunt and fish, and he particularly enjoyed the sea. In the 1870's he was often on the coast of his native Massachusetts; a summer at the fishing village of Gloucester inspired Breezing Up. Later in life he settled at Prout's Neck, Maine, where he became a recluse, absorbed in his art.

Equally concerned with reality was Homer's contemporary Thomas Eakins. Eakins was born in Philadelphia and studied there at the Pennsylvania Academy, with supplementary anatomy courses at Jefferson Medical College. That he should have submitted to this thorough training at the outset was characteristic of Eakins, with his logical and scientific turn of mind. The Biglen Brothers Racing, an early work, shows already his uncompromising realism.

In Eakins' Philadelphia milieu were other painters of similar objectivity. One was William M. Harnett (1848-1892), a specialist in still-life pictures. My Gems was painted after Harnett had moved to New York, but its realism relates it to the Philadelphia tradition.

Not all artists of this period had the realistic approach popular with so many Americans. Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens shows Albert Pinkham Ryder's (1847-1917) interest in a subject far removed from the tangible world. Born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Ryder came to New York when twenty years old. There he worked hard and earned little. We hear of his getting up in the middle of the night to paint and to repaint, for he was seldom satisfied with his work.

While Ryder escaped American materialism by painting imaginary compositions, other artists escaped by fleeing to Europe. Whistler, Cassatt, and Sargent all spent most of their mature lives abroad. Intimately connected with European art movements, they were concerned with the aesthetics of painting. That is, they felt that how they painted was more important than what they painted.

James McNeill Whistler went to Europe when he was twenty-one and never returned. He first took up residence in Paris, where friendship with the progressive French painters made him an advocate, and a vociferous one, of “art for art’s sake.” His theory of tone harmony illustrated by The White Girl contributed significantly to the development of modern art. In 1863 Whistler moved to London. Among the pictures he painted there is his celebrated Portrait of the Artist's Mother, now in the Louvre, a painting which shares the sensitivity of the artist's work as etcher. But in Whistler's day in England it was his sarcastic wit, more than his art, that established his reputation as a highly sophisticated but untamed American.

Mary Cassatt, like Whistler, was very spirited. Her determination to become a painter is characteristic of her forcefulness. What an extraordinary decision this was for a woman of her wealthy and conservative Pennsylvania background we may judge from her father's reaction: “I would almost rather see you dead.” Ignoring family opposition, she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy, traveled extensively in Europe, and then in 1874 settled in Paris. Three years later, when the official Salon rejected one of her paintings, Degas invited her to exhibit with the Impressionists; she was the only American in the group. Degas was her guiding light. The Boating Party shows the stylistic influence of both Degas and Manet, and her own favorite subject, motherhood.

A third cosmopolitan painter was John Singer Sargent, who was born of American parents in Florence and studied in Paris. While still in his twenties he exhibited several paintings with success at the Paris Salon; and in 1885 he moved to London, henceforward his headquarters. Here he dominated the fashionable art world. The technical brilliance which he had developed is evident in the somewhat informal portrait entitled Repose. He was able to catch a likeness in only one or two sittings, and his enhancement of grace, beauty, and distinction brought him many portrait commissions.

The opening of the twentieth century found the native tendency dominant in American art. The Europeanized style was less popular. It is not surprising to find that several important painters of this new generation came from Philadelphia and that they carried on the realistic tradition of Eakins and Harnett. One of these was George Luks (1867-1933), who painted The Miner. Like the earlier realist Homer, Luks started his career as an illustrator, in this case for the Philadelphia Bulletin. In 1908 he joined seven other Philadelphia artists to form a group called “The Eight,” from their number. Luks and some other members of this group made up what was later called the “Ash-Can School,” from their predilection for painting the seamier side of city life, a kind of subject matter that was not immediately acceptable at New York exhibitions.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was younger than the members of “The Eight” and never joined the group; but he was sympathetic with their aims, and he studied under their leader, Robert Henri. Bellows' training was entirely American. New York in its many aspects inspired his early subjects, such as Both Members of This Club. He was an athlete himself and had even considered becoming a professional baseball player. Boxing matches seem to have had a special interest for him; he recorded the tense moments of exciting fights in numerous drawings, lithographs, and paintings.

Analyzing the paintings created by the American artists one realizes that, as the artistic style of the New World broke from its European inheritance, it gained its own flavor and established its own tradition. Though some of the artists have had an imaginative, romantic approach, most of them have felt an immediate contact with American life and American scenery. This has given vitality to national art. Pictures painted in the United States express a democratic rejection of artificial standards; they are direct and simple. Since they are painted with concern for literal fact, fortunately they are easily understood and raise no barrier between artist and layman. This realistic tradition starts with the Early American portrait painters and is continued by such nineteenth-century interpreters of the American scene as Inness. It culminates in Homer's landscapes and Eakins' figure paintings; and after the vogue for European art has abated native realism appears again in the “Ash-Can School.” Today this tendency shares honors with abstract movements.

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