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The Artist in American Society Previous Next
Digital History ID 3554


If Americans could produce literary masterpieces, were they also capable of creating visual art that would rival that of Europe? At the end of the 18th century, this seemed doubtful. Artistic implements, such as paints, brushes, and canvases, were difficult to obtain, and professional artists were few in number. Although a number of talented portrait painters--including John Singleton Copley, Charles Willson Peale, and Gilbert Stuart--appeared during the last half of the 18th century, most painters were simply skilled craftspeople, who devoted most of their time to painting houses, furniture, or signs.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the development of the visual arts was the fact that the revolutionary generation associated art with luxury, corruption, sensual appetite, and aristocracy. Commented one person: “When a people get a taste for the fine arts, they are ruined.”

During the early 19th century, however, artists succeeded in overcoming public hostility toward the visual arts. One way artists gained a degree of respectability was through 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. Romantic landscape paintings also attracted a large 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.

A more favorable public attitude toward art was also evident in public campaigns to erect patriotic monuments, to landscape homes, and to beautify cities by restoring town greens and commons, constructing the first urban parks, and building the first modern “park” cemeteries. At the beginning of the 19th century, public monuments and statues were rarities; town commons were muddy, ill-kept areas, often containing buildings and packs of animals; houses lacked lawns; and cemeteries were unlandscaped collections of graves located near town centers.

Beginning in 1825, when an obelisk was erected at Bunker Hill to commemorate that Revolutionary War battle, Americans started to construct patriotic monuments. Around the same time, homeowners began to beautify their homes with lawns and landscaping, while cities established the nation’s first urban parks. Construction of Mount Auburn cemetery in the 1830s in a pastoral setting outside Boston marked the beginning of the modern park cemetery, where the living could commune with the spirit of the dead (though the site was initially popular because it was a “green space” that could be used as a picnic ground). These beautification campaigns represented a response to the urban and industrial growth of cities that already threatened to destroy the physical beauty of city environments.

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