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Paris 1900: The "American School" at the Universal Exposition


A major exhibition recreating the American art installation from the Universal Exposition of 1900 held in Paris opens at the Elvehjem Museum of Art on September 16, 2000. That important exhibition established a distinct and important American school of art, rivaling many contemporary European schools and putting American art and artists definitively on the international cultural map. A traveling show organized by The Montclair Art Museum, Paris 1900: The "American School" at the Universal Exposition will remain on view through January 28, 2001. (left: Edwin Lord Weeks, Indian Barbers -- Saharanpore, c. 1895, oil on canvas, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE)

Paris 1900 offers the first in-depth examination of this pivotal moment in American social and cultural history when a uniquely American art was recognized internationally and considered on par with European work. The exhibition features more than 80 objects, primarily from the original installation, as well as additional archival and scholarly material. Works by such masters as William Merritt Chase, Childe Hassam Theodore Robinson, J. Alden Weir, Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Charles Sprague Pearce and George Inness are included in the exhibition.

The American installation at the Universal Exposition of 1900, financed by the State Department, was carefully designed to promote the image of the United States as a powerful and civilized nation. While many Americans artists were already internationally recognized as important, American art as a category was not yet established. The exquisite exhibition of paintings in the installation at the Exposition, which garnered more awards than any other national group except the French, redefined American art to the world. (left: Willard L. Metcalf, Midsummer Twilight, c. 1890, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.)



The U.S. exhibition at the Universal Exposition of 1900 was developed in direct response to previous criticism, at home and abroad, that American art of the late 1800s was "too French." With Paris as the center of the international art world, many American artists had studied and lived there and were greatly influenced by French masters. Through their participation in the annual salons and other exhibitions, many artists acquired international reputations they could not have earned in America. In order to attract acclaim and patronage, these artists adopted French academic methods, which favored an almost photographic exactitude, and subjects, including exotic narrative and figure painting. The conservative French critics of the era, considered the most discerning in the world, valued academic technique, and American artists who were eager to build their careers catered to their tastes.

At the Parisian Exposition of 1889, French academicism was the accepted standard for judging art. American painters won more medals than artists from any other visiting nation, and a new international status for American art was achieved. French influences, however, displaced typical American tendencies. American artists in the 1890s denounced these foreign characteristics and attempted to restore a national identity to their art, by relinquishing French themes and styles in favor of distinctly American ones. (left: Gari Melchers, The Sisters, c. 1895)

At the same time, the United States was growing as an economic and military superpower, and the State Department was determined to reinforce that identity in all areas. Eager to promote the idea of a new American "school" of art worthy of the nation's new position, the Department of Fine Arts carefully designed the American installation for the 1900 Exposition to convey a strong message about American society and culture.


1900 Universal Exposition

Works for the American installation were carefully screened to convey specific nationalistic messages. Expatriate luminaries, including Whistler and Sargent, were invited to lend international cachet to the group. Distinguished artists practicing in America, including Homer, Eakins, and the recently deceased Inness, who was hailed as the "father" of the new national "school," rounded out the group to convey the full scope and breadth of American art of the period.

Nationalism was communicated through a variety of pictorial types in the paintings exhibition. The nation's future was seen through innocent American children as in Rosina Emmet Sherwood's Head of a Child; the nation's virtue was depicted by chaste American women as in William Merritt Chase's Portrait of Mrs. C.(Lady with a White Shawl); George Inness' Sunny Autumn Day and other fertile landscapes showcased American resources; and American power was highlighted in the technologically superior cities as in Henry Ward Ranger's Brooklyn Bridge. Works by the American expatriate celebrities showed more traditional European subjects -- peasants, nudes and grand narratives-but also expressed a distinctly American point of view. Including foreign themes ensured that the installation did not suffer from a provincialism that would have been inconsistent with the State Department's agenda.

The designation "school of art," which refers to a group of compatriot artists whose work is connected both thematically and stylistically, was of great importance to artists of the era, as the term "school" was applied only to the most distinguished group of artists. The campaign to create such an American "school" at the 1900 Exposition was a great success. Key French critics and officials enthusiastically praised American art and sanctioned the "Ecole Américaine," as it would come to be known throughout the 20th century.


Paris 1900: The "American School" at the Universal Exposition

Prior to this exhibition, the location of many of the original paintings was unknown, as they were dispersed following the 1900 Exposition. Nearly 100 were located by exhibition curator Diane Fischer, and more than 50 are included in the exhibition, from collections across the United States and Europe.

The exhibition will also include objects outside of the paintings installation -- including five sculptures and ten decorative art objects, as well as ancillary and archival material-to bring the Universal Exposition of 1900 to life, and offer visitors an in-depth examination of the social and cultural milieu of the era. Highlights include The Montclair Art Museum 's Bessie Potter Vonnoh's Young Mother and Tiffany Studios' Cypriote Vase from the Philadelphia Museum of Art .

The legacy of this milestone in American art and culture has not previously been thoroughly examined in the American art historical canon. In response to the overwhelming success of the State Department's crusade, critics on both sides of the Atlantic proclaimed that the "Ecole Américaine" would become the school of the future. The exhibition also formed a bridge between American art of the 19th and 20th centuries, showing the transition from the peak of the cosmopolitan 1880s to the emergence of American modernism.



The scholarly catalogue features five essays by noted scholars, as well as an annotated catalogue of the original paintings installation. The principal essay by exhibition curator Diane P. Fischer analyzes the selection of works for the 1900 exposition installation and notions of distinctly American qualities at the turn of the century. Other essays provide a broader context for understanding the full significance and impact of the original exhibition and the Universal Exposition of 1900, including the continuing influence of the "American School" in Paris on 20th-century American art (Gall Stavitsky, curator of the Montclair Art Museum), French reaction to American fine and decorative arts (Gabriel P. Weisberg, professor of art history at the University of Minnesota), manifestations of cultural nationalism in the arts between the world's fairs of 1893 and 1900 (Linda J. Docherty, associate professor at Bowdoin College), and an exploration of the overall American presence at the 1900 Exposition (Robert W. Rydell, professor of history at the University of Montana).

Organized by The Montclair Art Museum of Montclair, New Jersey, Paris 1900: The "American School" at the Universal Exposition was generously supported by The Florence Gould Foundation, The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, the Baird Family Fund, The Bank of New York and The George Link, Jr. Foundation. Local funders for the Elvehjem exhibition include the Humanistic Fund, Hilldale Fund, and a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The organization of Paris 1900 was made possible through the generous support of The Florence Gould Foundation, The Henry Luce Foundation, Inc., the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency, the Baird Family Fund, The Bank of New York and The George Link, Jr. Foundation. Local funding is provided by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Be sure to see our earlier article Paris 1900: The "American School" at the Universal Exposition (9/11/99)

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Elvehjem Museum of Art 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.

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. rev. 3/23/11

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