American Painting

Much art of the American colonial period consisted of portraits, as settlers sought to establish their identities in a new world. After the new nation achieved its independence, landscapes and scenes of native flora, fauna, and folk customs began to express its unique qualities and illustrate its untapped resources.


Portraiture formed the mainstay of subject matter in colonial and federal American art, as immigrants to the New World attempted to bring a semblance of Old World civilization to their wild or, at best, provincial surroundings. When Benjamin West arrived in Rome in 1760, he was the first American artist to study in Europe. Upon seeing the Vatican's famous classical statue, the Apollo Belvedere, West exclaimed, "My God! How like it is to a young Mohawk warrior!" His astute comparison between a "noble savage" and the "glory that was Greece" won hearty applause from the connoisseurs. West soon emerged as Europe's foremost history painter, dropping the allegorical trappings from classical antiquity that had been the norm and basing his work on historical research.

John Singleton Copley followed West's example in depicting past and present occurrences with believable accessories and settings. Gilbert Stuart, who studied with West in London, revitalized the concept of "Grand Manner" portraiture; his Skater is invigorated with a sense of immediacy and activity.

When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, artists sought to create a distinctive environment for the ideals of liberty. The eighteenth century's classicizing concepts evolved seamlessly into the nineteenth century's neoclassical style of idealized anatomy, symmetrical composition, and pure colors. The large Peale family, several members of which were artists, bridges this transition toward a more scientific naturalism.

Romanticism, partly engendered by reactions to the American and French revolutions, sought to release the emotions in dynamic design, dramatic spotlighting, and virtuoso displays of palpable paint textures. Such emotional elements mark the later paintings of Benjamin West. Two of West's later pupils, Thomas Sully and John Trumbull, helped to introduce romanticism to the United States.

When the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 instantly doubled the nation's area, artists such as John James Audubon and George Catlin began to investigate the native people, flora, and fauna. These academically educated artists were outnumbered by unschooled artist-craftsmen, such as Edward Hicks, who painted for their own pleasure or on commission from rural patrons. After the War of 1812, landscape painting came to prominence, symbolizing America's unique natural resources and vast territory. And, with the introduction of photography to the United States in 1839, the cameraman soon usurped much of the clientele of the portrait painter.

As nineteenth-century Americans sought an appropriate vehicle to express their national zeal, artists turned to images of the land. Thomas Cole, the leader of the Hudson River School, portrayed a once-pristine environment threatened by the onslaught of civilization. Spurred on by his romantic idealism, some of Cole's followers created pastoral, idyllic views, while others carefully painted what they saw. During the 1850s, an intimate approach to landscape evolved in New England. The twilight marine paintings of Fitz Hugh Lane are paradigms of this elegiac style, which some scholars have termed "luminism." Artists seeking nature's more awesome aspects often traveled far afield: Frederic Church journeyed from the Arctic to below the equator, while other peripatetic painters explored the far western United States, giving tangible expression to America's dream of Manifest Destiny.

Lighthearted genre paintings depicting everyday life also gained popularity around mid-century. However, the mood of the nation quickly darkened following the Civil War. Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer expressed a starkly realistic world view. Their mature art demonstrates an uncompromising commitment to truth.

As Americans traveled abroad in increasing numbers toward the century's end, a newfound cosmopolitanism emerged. Avant-garde movements such as impressionism were embraced by American painters who found the style's look, if not its underlying theory, consistent with their artistic aims. Familiarity with traditional European art also may have inspired a renewed interest in still-life painting and aristocratic portraiture; the popularity of such paeans to wealth and acquisition reflects the prevailing spirit of materialism.

Optimistic immigrants flocked to America, only to confront the sobering reality of urban blight and poverty. Robert Henri, an influential artist and teacher, urged his followers to address these pressing issues. Their ostensibly crude subject matter offended critics, who dubbed the New York group the Ash Can School.

As violence, anxiety, and alienation became dominant themes in the twentieth century, artists expressed dissatisfaction with the dehumanizing aspects of modern life. Whether phrased in the representational idiom of George Bellows and Edward Hopper, or in the language of pure abstraction, these disturbing works seem a far cry from the idyllic aspirations of early nineteenth-century Americans, who—for a brief time—truly believed their country held the promise of paradise.