One of the greatest qualities of American painting - and ultimately the source of its strength - is its enduring dedication to the nation. A distinctive cultural vision permeates even the earliest paintings of colonial America, and the thread can be traced thereafter through the works of the great landscape and genre painters of the 19th century and into the modern cityscapes of artists at the turn of the century. Taken as a whole, the nation’s painters have produced a rich pictorial essay on just what it means to be American throughout the country’s relatively short history.
M.S. Rau Antiques’ latest exhibition, From Sea to Shining Sea: 200 Years of American Art, presents works that reflect two centuries of American stories, from Revolutionary-era portraiture to 20th-century visions of the modern world. In their own ways, these artists successfully capture the cultural importance of their respective ages, perfectly defining on canvas the character and very essence of American life throughout the centuries.
THE EARLY REPUBLIC 1770-1810
For most early American artists, the artistic traditions of Europe - and primarily England - were their main source of artistic inspiration. As a result, many early artistic tastes tended towards the British style, and portraitists often imitated British masters, whose work they knew either through imported prints or visits to galleries and private homes in London. In fact, many of these early painters worked both in America and in London during their lifetimes, amplifying the cultural exchange between the two countries.
Yet, the most significant of these early portraitists - including Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley - also infused their works with a broader sense of American culture. These were not simple likenesses, but rather an exploration of the lives, personalities and relationships of their sitters.
By the end of the 18th century, portraiture had developed a uniquely American identity. A key part of this was the rising middle class, who demanded a seat at the table of American material culture. As one of the few luxury goods locally made, portraits became a mark of wealth and influence for middle-class patrons. Art became more affordable to meet the needs of this new clientele, and artists developed a looser and faster compositional style as a consequence.
VISIONS OF A NATION 1800-1890
Thanks to the rise in photography, portraits were not in high demand for long. From the early 19th century, new forms of painting began to emerge that gradually replaced portraiture as the most popular artistic genre. Landscape painting reigned supreme as the subject of choice, while genre painting trailed closely behind. Both allowed artists to capture their own vision of the nation on canvas, revealing the beauty of the natural landscape and the nuanced lives of the nation’s people.
The landscape paintings of the Hudson River School are recognized today as the most important artistic developments of this period - they represent the first truly American style of art. Uniquely American concepts of Manifest Destiny and the great Western expansion can be seen in these scenes of the countryside. While their panoramic views often held up romantic visions of humanity and nature coexisting, some of them also expressed skepticism about the advances of the American empire. Simultaneously championing American progress while also lamenting the loss of the unspoiled wilderness, artists such as Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederic Edwin Church created works that were both picturesque and patriotic.
Genre painters developed in much the same way, albeit through less grandiose subjects. Artists such as Eastman Johnson, Enoch Wood Perry and Winslow Homer turned to scenes that everyday Americans could feel and experience directly. Their works came to embody notions of national identity and character, favoring scenes of community life and families in domestic settings. These subjects appealed to an audience who appreciated direct storytelling, conveying narratives of virtue, practicality, and commerce. The onset of the Civil War presented its own unique challenges to artists; rather than scenes of battle, they explored themes of innocence and reconciliation, looking with hope to the future that lay ahead.
MODERN AMERICA 1880-1950
By the 1880s, American taste had again shifted thanks to a number of expanding cultural opportunities. For one, faster and safer transatlantic travel made it easier to visit Europe. Perhaps even more significantly, European culture was also coming into the United States at an increasing rate. Access to illustrations and prints in magazines and journals exposed Americans to an expanding world of art and culture, while newly founded museums with European artworks on display made it more accessible. Inevitably, the tastes of prosperous patrons began to shift towards European - particularly French - trends, and American painters gained inspiration from an unprecedented internationalism.
As a result, American painters began to study in Europe in increasing numbers, while many even lived for a number of years in European cities and art colonies. Around the 1880s, American painters such as William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam and John Henry Twachtman returned to the United States, bringing with them a distinctly French artistic sensibility.
American Impressionism was born from this new generation. Like the French Impressionists, they depicted scenes of everyday life using natural light, rapid brushwork, and a brilliant palette. Unlike the French, however, they were most concerned with painting places that offered a positive sense of national identity. They captured both the natural and urban landscapes with their new style, ushering in the first popular, modern art movement in America.
While Americans were traveling abroad in greater numbers than ever before, back home the country was thrust into the modern era thanks to an immense industrial and urban expansion. The very character of the city was rapidly changing, and artists could no longer ignore the grittier reality of the American Dream for the middle and lower classes.
Around 1900, a group of New York realists known as the Ashcan School distanced themselves from their impressionist and academic colleagues. Their leader, Robert Henri, championed a new artistic approach that was populist, expansive, and committed to a documentary realism that was ahead of its time. The movement came to embrace the seedier side of urban America, capturing New York's vitality through everyday venues for dining, shopping, and entertainment.
These artists helped to redefine American art in the face of a progressively more interconnected, international and modernized world. Their works not only introduced a new aesthetic idiom in the American art historical cannon, but also helped to record the present and future state of the country.
To learn more about the story of American art, please join us for From Sea to Shining Sea: 200 Years of American Art, on view at M.S. Rau Antiques from April 6 – June 8.