The National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts

New York, NY



Rave Reviews: American Art and its Critics (1826-1925)


The first comprehensive historical examination of American art criticism, "Rave Reviews" will include some of the most powerful images in the history of American art, along with others that received attention only in their own time. By highlighting both the critical successes and failures of these artistic debuts at the National Academy of Design, "Rave Reviews" offers a balanced portrayal of the prevailing attitudes, taste, and art market that influenced the visual culture of each period. According to Academy Director Dr Annette Blaugrund, "During our 175th Anniversary, it is particularly appropriate for us to review the first 100 years of contemporary art exhibitions at the National Academy of Design through the eyes of the art critic, and examine the role of criticism in relation to the art market, patronage, and the artist's career."

Exhibition curator Dr. David Dearinger, Chief Curator at the National Academy of Design, selected some of the country's most exceptional paintings and sculpture from public and private collections nationwide. Many of the America's foremost artists including Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Winslow Homer (1836-1910), John Singer Sargent (1856-1926), Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), and John Sloan (1871-1951), among others, will be featured in this groundbreaking exhibition.

Works of art include Thomas Cole's Last of the Mohicans (1827), the first Cole to be shown in the United States, and to establish a new standard and genre for American art. One of the most popular work of its day, Francis William Edmonds' The City and The County Beaux (1840), will demonstrate the fleeting sensibility of taste; while Winslow Homer' s first and second critically acclaimed paintings Prisoner's From the Front (1866) and The Life Line (1884), are both on view in order to chart the artist's progression in relation to his growing reputation. (left Winslow Homer, NA, The Life Line, 1884, oil on canvas, 28 1/4 x 44 5/8 inches, Collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, PA)

Reflecting the panoramic tradition popularized during the Civil War period, the pairing of Jasper F. Cropsey's The Spirit of Peace (1851) and The Spirit of War (1851) constitutes the second time in history that these works have been shown together. Other notable couplings include the re-installation of George Bellows' The Sawdust Trail (1912) alongside Horatio Walker's crucifixion painting De Profundis (1916), an ironic juxtaposition determined by the critics to reflect a timely post-World War I modernist view of religion.

The Academy's annual exhibitions of contemporary art broadened the scope of American art by offering artists one of the few opportunities available for exhibition, while encouraging them to explore new subject matter. Prior to 1826, the demand for art in the emerging nation had focused on portraiture, which almost always required payment in advance of its execution, thereby proving financially feasible for the struggling artist. Once the Academy began providing a lucrative venue for the display of art, artists seemed to feel more secure in other subject categories that did not necessarily afford the comfort of commission. Thus rare subject categories in America such as landscape, still life, and genre, began to flourish. (left: William Sidney Mount, NA, Farmer's Nooning, 1836, oil on canvas, 20 1/4 x 24 1/4 inches, Collection of The Museums ar Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY)

By the 1840s, the Academy's Annuals were the most important venues for the exhibition of art in the United States, and by the 1850s; the Academy's exhibition openings were among the major events of New York's social season. It is therefore, according to Dr. Dearinger, the published critical response to these exhibitions that has served as his organizing principle for "Rave Reviews."

During the later 1820s and 1830s, newspapers, such as the Evening Post and Morning Courier in New York, the Transcript in Boston, and the Enquirer in Philadelphia, were the most reliable publishers of art reviews. A few weekly or monthly periodicals, such as the New-York Mirror and the U. S. Democratic Review and Literary Gazette, also began to print articles on art. In almost all cases, however, art reviews were little more than exhibition checklists.

By the 1840s, however, the situation changed in part because of the increasing popularity of genre painting and also the emergence of the "Hudson River school." As American art evolved in terms of aesthetics and range of subjects, critical response became increasingly discerning, and reviews became more widely read. Beginning with American Art Union's Transactions in 1839, several new periodicals devoted to art including The Crayon, founded in 1855; the Western Art Journal, published in 1856; and The New Path, which began in 1863, followed. All of these periodicals and many newspapers, especially in New York, increased the detail and length of their reviews; with some installments as lengthy as six issues.

After the Civil War, more and more critics included their bylines in articles; thus further raising their profiles especially among the cognoscenti. Notable among these were Clarence Cook, Mariana Van Rensselaer Griswold, and Russell Sturgis. At the same time, art periodicals flourished and included The Art Journal, founded in 1867; The Aldine, in 1868; Art Interchange; in 1878, and Art Amateur, in 1879. Other prospered, and general publications, such as Harper's and Scribner's Monthly, increasingly covered the art scene as well.

During the 1880s and 1890s, more and more writers turned their attention to art, resulting in a whole new group of perceptive and influential critics. Among these were 8. G. W. Benjamin, Sadakichi Hartmann, and Charles Caffin.

As the twentieth century began, these and other well-known critics such as Mary Fanton Roberts and Royal Cortissoz and the artists/critics Kenyon Cox and Guy Péne du Bois continued regularly review the Academy's annuals in the press.

Read a review on the exhibition by Carter B. Horsley with 8 images in The City Review

Read more about the National Academy Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other web sites. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. TFAO neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although TFAO includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over them. For more information on evaluating web pages see TFAO's General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/18/11

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