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Tag Archives: 19th Century American Art

Mary Cassatt was one of those 19th Century painters who, for the most part, spent their lives in Europe and painted with a European flavor and yet is still regarded as an American artist. I’ve always had some difficulty getting my head around this (and have written so in posts before, here and here and maybe a few other places, too) – her art experience, her style, her influences, they were all distinctly European, so why do we still claim her as one of our own? She left America because she wasn’t taken seriously as an artist here simply because of her gender, eventually settled in Paris, and was never again more than a visitor on her native soil.

Cassatt was deeply involved with the development of Impressionism in France and a close associate of Edgar Degas, although she ventured far from the tenets of Impressionism later in her career. Her most recognizable work involves women and children, but her treatment of the subject shows a good deal more depth and introspection than what’s typical of the heartwarming genre scenes that first spring to mind. Her portraits, mostly of women, have an air of mystery about them. Her sitters rarely makes direct eye contact with the viewer as if concealing some deeply held secret. Much different from the fixed gaze typical of portraiture at the time.

Young Woman in Green, Outdoors in the Sun (Mary Cassatt, 1914)

She was fond of painting women and children engaged in the act of doing something; reading, bathing, breastfeeding, sewing, sitting in a theater box. She loved simple scenes of people in the act of daily living and didn’t clutter her images with a lot of histrionics. I enjoy her work a great deal, appreciating especially the way she keeps a subtle separation between us and the people she painted. We’re never acknowledged by her subjects; their lives are going on without any hint of our presence, we’re allowed just a glimpse of their reality.

For me, the very best of Cassatt’s work is wrapped up very neatly in Little Girl in a Blue Armchair. Here we have a little girl’s private moment, lounging in a posture most “unladylike” for the 1870s, her sleepy little dog her only companion and not an adult in sight. We’re expected to want to see this girl smiling for us with the dog in her lap, but Cassatt’s gift to us is a moment borrowed from a real life. We’ve all been this child, drifting along on that current of youth, maybe bored out of our minds, maybe lost in a dreamy fantasy.

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair (Mary Cassatt, 1878)

Beyond her paintings, Cassatt was instrumental in introducing Impressionist art to America by encouraging her friends and family to buy paintings from her friends in Paris (many of these painting have since found their way into the collections of major American museums). She also served as inspiration and mentor to young American artist studying in Paris. Forced to end her painting career due to illness in 1914, she became active in the Women’s Suffrage movement. She died in 1926 and lies in a cemetery in rural northern France.

 

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One of key characteristics about American art in the 19th Century was they way it supported, and in many ways created, our view of ourselves and our place in the world. The work of the Hudson River School in particular celebrated America as a land of unsurpassed beauty and vastness, one enjoying a special relationship with The Creator. It helped us believe in the Exceptionalism that still permeates American consciousness today.

One of the most effective of these godfathers of our self-image was Frederic Edwin Church, a second-generation Hudson River School painter who was born on this day in 1826. Church’s work was immensely popular in the middle of the 19th century, the heyday of Manifest Destiny, when we were busying ourselves with consuming a continent, taking only a few years off for a bloody civil war.

Church’s paintings were often large and spectacular and he actively promoted his work by touring it around the country. He worked extensively in South American but somewhat ironically didn’t spend much time, if any, in the Western territories we were conquering when his work was popular.

Twilight in the Wilderness (Frederic Edwin Church, 1860)

His painting Twilight in the Wilderness, painted on the eve of the Civil War, is a scene that doesn’t exist except in the mind of the artist. It’s a composite of sketches that Church made in Maine and New York and it represents the idealized American landscape as Church understood it. Celebrating the enormity of Nature with the capital N was what his work was all about and it instilled in Americans a sense of pride in our beautiful country while encouraging us to go out and exploit it. Work like this helped create a sense of endlessness about our resources that some people still believe, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, today.

Aurora Borealis (Frederic Edwin Church, 1865)

Aurora Borealis is pure spectacle and illustrates a fairly common visual device used by Hudson River School artist. Placing a tiny ship in low in the frame beneath the towering expanse of sky shows us just how much space enjoy and how insignificant we appear within it. In retrospect, we weren’t as insignificant was we thought. In the 35 years following the completion of this painting we had deforested much of the Eastern United States and strung railroads and barbed wire all over the place. We turned out to be pretty effective landscape-changers and we keep getting better.

The work of Church and his cohorts might appear to our jaundiced 21st Century eyes to be a little sappy. This kind of romantic realism had fallen out of favor by the time Church died in 1900, although American Exceptionalism had not. Whether we choose to celebrate Church’s paintings or not, the contribution he and his cohorts made to our national identity is both deep and permanent.

Though he was born and educated in England, Thomas Cole,  his work was quintessentially American. Not only did his realist landscapes determine, in large measure, the trajectory of American painting in the 19th Century, they helped shape how a young nation came to view the Western Frontier.

A Rocky Glen (Thomas Cole - 1846)

In the days before we were bombarded with imagery, a century before Television, when even newspapers contained nary a photograph, Americans got their “news” through the work of painters, illustrators, and engravers. Cole and his artistic progeny, first the Hudson River School and later the artists who swarmed over the American West, were the eyes through which we saw our wilderness landscape. Those eyes showed us beauty without limits, but what we saw was, in the final analysis, a storehouse of wealth to exploit without restraint. That probably wasn’t Cole’s intent, but its is his legacy.

Cole never really traveled beyond the tamed, civilized wilderness of the Eastern United States. He left it to his successors, like Moran and Bierstadt, to explore the trackless expanses beyond the Mississippi River. When those other artists traveled West, Cole’s spirit went with them. American landscapes of the period leaned toward large, if not in size than at least in scope. People, if they were in the frame at all, were generally tiny in order to emphasize the scale of the chosen vista. Collectively these artists created an American ideal that exists in our consciousness to this day. Their contribution to our identity is incalculable.

Niagara Falls (Thomas Cole-1830)

I had the exquisite experience last year of standing in a large gallery stuffed with 19th Century American landscapes at the Detroit Institute of Art late last year (DIA has over 2000 works by Cole in it’s collection, mostly drawings). It was moving in a way that was pretty difficult to describe, but whatever it was that I was feeling was enhanced by understanding of just how significant this room full of paintings had been in the development of MY country, My America.

American Lake Scene (Thomas Cole-1844)

It’s surprising in a way the very best piece I’ve ever seen about the work and importance of the American Realists of the 19th Century comes from an Australian, Robert Hughes, in his book American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, a book I highly recommend even to people with only a passing interest in art. As a critic, Hughes is both highly capable and highly opinionated. I think the fact that a number of living American artists detest him is a compelling recommendation of his work. Anyway, he had this to say about the work of Cole and his successors

“It was pure, and pointed to it’s Creator. The wilderness, for nineteenth-century American artists, is mostly stress-free. Its God is an American God whose Gospel is Manifest Destiny. It is pious and full of uplift. No wonder it was so quickly absorbed as metaphor of religious experience by the first mass audience American art was to reach. It dovetailed so well for the piety of its time.” (American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America: Robert Hughes (1997), 140-41)