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Art in Early America

Digital History TOPIC ID 36

At the beginning of the 19 th century, Europeans treated American culture with contempt. They charged that America was too commercial and materialistic, too preoccupied with money and technology to produce great art and literature. “In the four quarters of the globe,” asked one English critic, “who reads an American book? or goes to an American play? or looks at an American picture or statue?”

Writing toward the end of the nineteenth century, the novelist Henry James explained that the United States, in its founding decades, had none of the things necessary for great art: "No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools--no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class--no Epsom nor Ascot!"

Basic artistic implements, such as paints, brushes, and canvases, were unavailable. Most painters were simply skilled craftspeople, who devoted most of their time to painting houses, furniture, or signs. They were untrained and lacked the self-consciousness that we associate with real artists. They were imitators and illustrators, not artists.

Not surprisingly, the country's few talented portrait painters of the late 18 th century—John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart—spent much of their lives abroad.

There were three major obstacles to the creation of great art in America . The first was a problem of patronage: In the colonies, there were no churches or colonial assemblies eager to commission art works to embellish their buildings or adorn their rituals. There was no powerful monarchy that wanted art to glorify the state. And there was no aristocracy that wanted to beautify its estates.

A second problem was a problem of democracy. In a democracy, could art flourish or even survive? Was there a market for anything but portraits in a commercial, predominantly Protestant society? Would the people be willing to pay for fine art? Or simply for mass culture?

The third problem was a problem of legitimacy. Colonial Americans were deeply uneasy about visual images. The Puritan ancestors had a taboo about graven images, icons, and mirrors. Before the end of the 18th century, there were very few paintings, drawings, or visual images in America . Ours was a cultural of words, not of images.

Many members of the Revolutionary generation regarded art with disdain. Art was viewed as effete, aristocratic, European. Even in the 19th century, Americans still had Puritan-like anxieties about indulging the senses. Americans associated the visual arts with luxury, corruption, and sensual appetite. Declared one early President: “When a people get a taste for the fine arts, they are ruined.”

In addition, America was a country filled with middle-class taboos, which limited the kinds of subjects that artists could treat. Artists couldn't include nudity in their paintings. There would be an ongoing reluctance to deal with the city and with the human body

The United States would gradually overcome these obstacles and develop a distinctive artistic tradition. In its formative era, the United States faced a problem that we now call “post-colonialism” Americans felt a profound sense of cultural inferiority; they were very vulnerable to the charge that they were vulgar, materialistic, and lacked visual acuity. There was a great fear that art in America would be derivative of art in Europe.

Many Americans wanted the United States to create a “democratic” art that would be different and distinct from art in Europe and would help the United States establish an independent national identity.

During the nineteenth century, there was a widespread consensus that art needed to serve non-artistic functions: it needed to be educational or moral, to uplift the senses, and to shape character. Artists adopted several strategies to legitimate art.

One strategy was to mimic the art of classical Greece and Rome. Classical art had republican associations. Classical art emphasized simplicity, purity, balance—ideals that were stressed by Americans of the Revolutionary era who were heavily influenced by the Enlightenment.

A second strategy involved historical painting. The American public hungered for visual representations of the great events of the American Revolution, and works such as John Trumbull's Revolutionary War battle scenes and his painting of the Declaration of Independence (1818) fed the public's appetite.

A third strategy involved romantic landscape paintings. Landscapes attracted an enormous popular audience. Portrayals of the American landscape by artists of the Hudson River school, such as Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederick Church, evoked a sense of the immensity, power, and grandeur of nature, which had not yet been tamed by an expansive American civilization. Landscapes also offered a way for Americans to commune with the divine. Furthermore, landscape paintings represented a reaction against the urban and industrial growth of cities that threatened to destroy the beauty of the American environment.

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