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Tag Archives: American Realism

I found myself wondering this morning what Edward Hopper, who was painting scenes of personal isolation and alienation more than a century ago, would think if he were around today as saw people “talking” to each other by tapping a screen on a smartphone.

For me, the smartphone is the perfect symbol of the slow, agonizing death of conversation. We don’t have to talk to anyone anymore; we just need to send a stream of sentence fragments through the ether and wait for a similar set of sentence fragments to come bouncing back. I’ve actually seen, more than once, groups of people at restaurant tables not talking to each other but, instead, silently pounding out messages on their little screens to people God knows where. It makes me wonder why they bothered to come out in the first place.

I imagine you could take any number of Hopper’s paintings, put smartphones in the hands of the people therein, and not really change the painting much at all. The technology wouldn’t create the distance between people, it would only make it a bit more tangible.

Cape Cod Evening (Edward Hopper, 1939)

Cape Cod Evening (Edward Hopper, 1939)

Take a good look at Cape Cod Evening, above. If you put a pair Iphone 5s in the hands of this couple, would you really widen the obvious gulf between them? I don’t think so. Do the same with his classic Nighthawks. Same result.

Take a look, too, at the dog; animated, aware, living the moment in both time and space. This is one reason why, if I were ever given the choice, I just might choose to live at least one lifetime as a dog.

I doubt Hopper, who would be celebrating his 129th birthday today if he were still among us, would be pleased by what he would see, but I’d bet that he’d notice it. The smartphone certainly didn’t put this chasm between us, but it certainly gave it, figuratively speaking, some weight.

Opinions vary on the legacy of the late Andrew Wyeth, the American Realist painter who was born on this day in 1917. He was among the most popular artists of the 20th Century and his painting Christina’s World, which hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, is considered an icon of American Art.

Christina’s World (Andrew Wyeth, 1948)

Despite his popularity, the “Art World” isn’t quite as enamored of his work. He hit is creative stride as Abstract Expressionism was becoming the dominant movement in American art and a number of contemporary critics consider his work overly quaint and sentimental.  I, for one, am moved by Wyeth’s work; it’s sparseness, it’s economy, the melancholy feeling it invokes. Christina’s World isn’t really one of my favorites. I much prefer the bleak landscapes and undecorated interiors that Wyeth produced throughout his career. His Master Bedroom, which I’ve shared here before, exemplifies this style but is really only the most popular of a number of master works in a similar mood.

Wind from the Sea (Andrew Wyeth, 1947)

We record the world as we see it. Some of us see sunshine and puppies, some see storm clouds on the horizon. Wyeth’s vision was somewhere in the middle. He saw beauty in simplicity and austerity. His work teaches us that often times an artist can reveal more by showing less. It’s a lesson we can all profit from.

Camden Hills, Maine (Andrew Wyeth, Undated)



Thomas Eakins, who died on this day in 1916, is regarded as one of the most influential painters in American art history. This is the kind of observation that we tend to toss around pretty liberally but in Eakins’ case it’s entirely appropriate and maybe even a bit of an understatement. In fact, it would be hard to trace the development of American Realism without discussing Eakins and his work near the beginning.

As a painter, Eakins was among the first to incorporate realism into the genre of portraiture, producing a number of paintings of people being themselves, what photographers typically call environmental portraits. While he also excelled in formal portraiture, cranking out moody and introspective pictures of Philadelphia luminaries, his paintings of people at work or at play probably represent his greatest contribution to American Art. He chose to paint America at its very core, unadorned and unsanitized, as he saw the country growing around him.

His most famous image is The Gross Clinic, a portrait of Dr. Samuel P. Gross in a surgical setting with blood and everything. It was a scandalous image in 1875, condemned as vulgar and graphic. People hated it and he managed to sell it for only $200. In 2006, its prospective sale to Alice Walton and the Crystal Bridges Museum triggered a bidding war that ended up costing the people of Philadelphia (through a group of wealthy donors) a cool $68 million just to keep it in town. That’s the highest price ever paid for American Portraiture, by the way.

The Gross Clinic (Thomas Eakins, 1975)

A softer, simpler painting that exemplifies Eakins’ skill at capturing the quiet moments of life is Kathrin, which shows his future fiance playing with a kitten. The light is dull and dramatic and the pose isolates the subject from the viewer in a most unportraitlike fashion for the period.

Kathrin (Thomas Eakins, 1872)

For all his accomplishments as a painter, Eakins’ greatest contribution to American Art might just be as an educator. First as an instructor and then as the director of the Pennsylvania Academy, Eakins proved to be an innovative but controversial teacher and he was finally forced out after an unpleasant incident involving Eakins, a female student, and a moving, nude male pelvis. His commitment to realism, however, made a lasting impression on some of his students who in turn became educators themselves. His influence extended well into the 20th Century and his philosophy can be seen in the work of such American heavyweights as John Sloan and Edward Hopper.

By the time Eakins died in 1916, he was well past the peak of his career. Badly hurt, both personally and financially, by his dismissal from the academy, he made his living in portraiture but his portraits, sadly, were often too penetrating and revealing for the subject’s comfort. It is this stark realism, though, that carries Eakins’ portraits beyond mere human likeness and into another place that’s hard to reach; the human character.

At his best, his portraits were so good that one of them, Miss Amelia Van Buren,  was called by at least one historian “the finest of all American portraits.” Strangely enough, Miss Van Buren was the female student in question during the infamous pelvis incident that ended Eakins’ tenure with the Academy five years before the painting was completed. She became a respected photographer as a result of Eakins “unsavory” instruction and remained close to him for years afterward. She was, like me, a native Detroiter and we’re a pretty forgiving bunch.

Miss Amelia Van Buren (Thomas Eakins, 1891)



In my mind, the best thing about 20th Century American art was Edward Hopper. This is hardly a bold statement; Hopper had his detractors but he is generally included in the very top tier of American artists. Toward the end of his career (Hopper died in 1967), some art hipsters had begun to regard his work as too traditional, too pre-war to be cool, but he was, and remains, one of the most influential painters America has ever ever produced.

Just about everyone knows Hopper, if not by name than by the sight of his most recognizable painting; Nighthawks. It’s right up there with the pool-shooting dogs in terms of its connection to the American psyche and even people who have no affinity for art know it. A lot of people, however, would be shocked to learn that Elvis, Bogart, Marilyn Monroe,  and James Dean were not in the original image.

Nighthawks (Edward Hopper, 1942)

The lack of interaction among the characters in Nighthawks is Hopper’s signature. For me, the isolation and alienation inherent in Hopper’s work has always been its strongest feature because it mirrors so completely how my life had felt to me most of the time. This could just as easily be a couple of booths at the Texan on State Street in the wee hours of some morning when I was in my 20s, after the bars had closed down. There’s a listlessness about the characters, a lack of emotional connection. That couple may have met over drinks earlier are are just now settling into the understanding that they have nothing at all to talk about. I also find it significant that the place has no door. Read into that fact whatever you may.

A far more meaningful painting for me is Excursions Into Philosophy.

Excursions Into Philosophy (Edward Hopper, 1959)

This painting resonates with me at a number of levels. I return to it now and again to remind myself of the cloud of melancholia that I floated around in for all those years, just in case I get cocky about how good things are at the moment. I wonder if that cloud still lurks, around some corner somewhere or in a dusty box in the basement. I could tell you exactly what I see in Excursions but what’s the fun in that? It will likely speak to you in a totally different language if you listen carefully.

Like any other discipline, Art History has a tendency to lump groups of artists together. Sometimes these associations are fictions with no real similarities among the artists in question. In other cases, they’re based on ephemeral linkages that fade, or even vanish, as careers progress.

In the case of William Glackens, usually considered a member of the Ashcan School or The Eight, his association with the core group of American painters was tenuous at best when it existed at all and disappeared almost entirely over time.

Glackens, who was born on this day in 1870, was a member of the Ashcan School largely by virtue of his personal and professional associations with other group members, first as a newspaper illustrator in Philadelphia and later as an emerging artist linked to  influential educator Robert Henri.  In 1908, when Ashcan artists finally got tired of  being denied the opportunity to exhibit their work by the National Academy and organized their own show, Glackens’ work showed some affinity for that of John Sloan or  George Bellows and the rest. By the time the organized their second show in 1910, Glackens had begun to swing over to the Impressionistic style that the group was rebelling against.

Battery Park (William Glackens, 1902 - 04)

Over time, Glackens became fully committed to Impressionism. He even became known, somewhat derisively, as the “American Renoir,” If we look back over the trajectory of his career, this transition is hardly surprising. Chez Mouquin, among his better-known paintings, shows a strong Renoir influence that predates even the first Ashcan exhibition.

Chez Mouquin (William Glackens, 1905)

What’s really unfortunate about lumping people together for academic convenience is that the contribution of individual artists to the development of a uniquely American statement gets lost in the shuffle. Glackens was a stylistic hybrid in that he painted the same fragments of life that appealed to his friends yet did so in a style that bridged the space between Sloan’s hard-edged realism and the softer visual language of Impressionism. Glackens has become a footnote the discussion of the contribution made by the Ashcan School to American art and is left out of the history of American Impressionism almost entirely.

The Promenade (William Glackens, 1925-26)

There is no easy alternative to the imperfect grouping of artists into schools and movements scattered across the art historical timeline. I suppose we simply need to remember that there will always be multiple layers to the story and try to peel them away when we can, always remembering that we never know the whole story.





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)

“Artists today think of everything they do as a work of art. It is important to forget about what you’re doing – then a work of art may happen.

Andrew Wyeth
1917 – 2009

Master Bedroom (Andrew Wyeth - 1964)

This is one of my favorite paintings. I’ve loved it for 30 years. The more I look at art, the more I learn, the more I love this for its power and elegance, its simplicity, it’s emotional impact.

When Wyeth died in 2009, there was some kind of debate about whether or not he was among America’s greatest artists. I was unaware of that debate previously and completely uninterested in it now.  It all seems so unrelated to his work, which is where my connection begins and ends.

Saying something moving and poignant and revealing about life in such a simple image is either an act of pure genius or pure luck. I don’t care which. I’ll let the Art World sort all that out.

The Saginaw Art Museum opened a new show by painter Philip Koch on Friday.  Koch, a native of Upstate New York and a Professor of Fine Art at the Maryland Institute College of Art, is a painter in the realist tradition, but with a substantial twist: he tends the use the most  unnatural of colors in his landscapes.

Ascension (Philip Koch - 2007)

Walking into the main gallery Friday evening, the first thing that I noticed was that viewing these images on line clearly doesn’t do them justice. The room seemed to radiate with a beautiful light from these paintings, a soft glow not unlike the Christmas lights we saw while driving through town.

The effect of Koch’s color choices, which are deliberate and well thought out on his part, elevate what are essentially realist landscape paintings into the realm of the surreal. As he pointed out in his own remarks during the opening reception, these colors do not occur in these combinations in nature. They draw your attention immediately hold it firmly as you consider his arrangement of familiar visual elements in a most unfamiliar setting.

Inland (Philip Koch - 2007)

Koch’s paintings are well-executed and visually striking, and in some instances I found the strongly amplified hues a bit too much for my tastes, favoring as I do a far more muted palate. In that vein, I very much enjoyed the smaller preliminary studies in vine charcoal intermingled among the large and vibrant canvasses.

My favorite among the works displayed, Deep Forest Pool (2011) seemed almost an anomaly among its more colorful counterparts.  In it I see a scene that is comfortingly familiar, something I’ve seen in countless variations in Northern Michigan, reminding me of enjoyable times going back decades.

Deep Forest Pool (Philip Koch - 2011)

Koch’s show runs until February 19th, 2012.

I am 54 years old today.

I spent the weekend celebrating this minor milestone. The celebration had it’s highs and lows as I reflected on the good times and spectacular meltdowns that have marked the trail I see when I look over my shoulder. I guess I should be thankful for everything, including all that self-inflicted pain, because all those things have conspired to make me what I am today.

One of the many activities on my busy social schedule was a trip to the Detroit Institute of Art. It may surprise a lot of people to learn that Detroit, that monument to the decline of the American Empire, is also the home of an absolutely world-class art museum. The irony of that cultural jewel in the middle of an economic war zone wasn’t lost on me, particularly as I watched a homeless man searching through a trash can beneath a sign advertising the Rembrandt Exhibition (admission fee: $16), but that’s a subject for another day.

I had a mission in mind. In addition to viewing the exhibition of photographs of a dying Detroit that is on view until April, there was a particular painting that I wanted to see, that being John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar.

McSorley's Bar (John French Sloan - 1912)

Sloan is a bit of a hero to me, a member of a group of American painters known as the Ashcan School who, at the beginning of the Great American Century, decided to paint the real lives of real people in the bustling streets of New York. They were, I’m given to understand, rebelling against the academy, as many good artists are prone to do from time to time. This particular group of rebels gave voice and dignity to people who were previously of no real interest to American art; immigrants, laborers, bums, drunks, the vast ocean of urban inhabitants who fueled our ascendency to global greatness yet did not benefit much from it. In short, they painted my people. Had they worked in Detroit or Pittsburgh, they may have encountered my grandfather in one of those dingy bars and immortalized him on canvas.

I found this painting after spending some considerable time with 18th century French aristocrats, Dutch peasants, the English Gentry, several hundred years of gruesome Catholic religious iconography (including the particularly bloody style of crucifix that I grew up fearing at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Saginaw), some really bad portraiture from post-Revolution America, a huge room full of absolutely stunning American landscapes from Thomas Cole and others, and then, finally, two rooms full of offerings from the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Degas, and even a Monet thrown in for good measure. DIA has a wonderfully rich collection that I only sampled in the three hours I spent there.

McSorley’s Bar was the grail I sought, although  I still don’t know why I so needed to see it and understand even less why it had such a powerful emotional effect on me when I found it. I guess it represents the very best of what I know of American art, the pride we have as Americans tempered with the responsibility we feel for our brothers and sisters. I wish we felt that kind of responsibility these days instead of the fear and contempt that I see.

I felt so good after visiting McSorley’s Bar that I was able to look at a couple of Warhols without openly mocking them. Well, without mocking them very much anyway.

Though I am a photographer rather than a painter, I can trace some of my own artistic heritage back to Sloan and his friends, through Edward Hopper, the very best of the American Realist painters. On this day, on top of all else, I will be thankful for those footsteps to walk in.

As a native Detroiter and a not-terribly-secret admirer of decaying urban landscapes, I read this interview with artist Stephen Magsig on the Painting Perceptions blog with a great deal of interest. It appealed to me on two levels, the first being an aesthetic one.  Magsig’s paintings capture the stark realism of the once-thriving cities we’ve left to rot in our enthusiasm for moving our homes to suburbia and our jobs overseas. A Michigander himself, Magsig’s work reflects the influence of a number of American Realist painters I admire; Hopper, Sheeler, and Demuth, among others. He produces images that I find visually appealing. He’s a good painter, plain and simple.

Detroit Stories Fort St II (Steven Magsig 2011)

The second reason I like Stephen Magsig is this:

It is an incredible time to be an artist in Detroit. There is such a strong supportive art scene.

There are artists moving into Detroit from all over the World and there are opportunities that did not exist before”

That’s a quote from the aforementioned interview, and I find it very encouraging. If Detroit can fabricate a vibrant arts community from the wreckage of globalization, why not Saginaw? Why not Flint, or any of the many other casualties of Wall Street and the New World Order?

Gate 2 (©2011 by Richard X. Moore)

It merits serious consideration. Do we try to move forward with what we have, or do we just sit around and bitch about our misfortune? I’m for moving forward. I’ll find out soon enough if anyone else feels like I do.