Editor's note: The following 1975 essay was published on August 23, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of Thomas Daives, New Canaan, CT. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact Mr. Daives by writing to the author at 58 Beacon Hill Lane, New Canaan, CT, 06480.


Art in America: 1825-1975

by Thomas Davies

(above: cover of exhibition catalogue for Art in America: 1825-1975, held at the City Hall Exhibition Hall from October 24 through November 2, 1975.




The Land and Sea

1825 - 1880


It is appropriate to begin with a group of paintings, primarily landscapes, which represent the first truly Native School of painting in America -- The Hudson River School. This unique group of artists flourished during the years 1825 to about 1880. This is not to say that painting did not exist in America prior to this time. There was, in fact, for a relatively young country, an extensive amount of painting in Eighteenth Century America; however, it consisted primarily of portraiture, historical scenes of the Colonial and Revolutionary Wars, and topographical and architectural studies. Most importantly, it strongly reflected the influence of Europe, especially, England, from which many of the artists or their forefathers came, and to which many visited to study. The Hudson River School was basically a reaction, against the prevailing neoclassicist attitude, which continued to look towards the historical or the ancient world as a source for subject matter. The Hudson River School was, in every sense, a Romantic movement. At the heart of the Hudson River School painters was a unified and profound love of nature in landscape. This attitude, more than any location or place, is what made this group of painters a "school". Unlike previous concepts of art which placed pure landscape painting far below figure, historical and religious painting, this attitude held landscape to be the highest art form, and that American landscape excelled all others in its ability to inspire the artist. This romanticism was characterized by an all consuming love of nature -- both the pastoral or peaceful and the wild and untamed wilderness.

Also, there was an acceptance of emotion or sentiment which was so lacking in 18th Century art. The vastness and seemingly endless opportunity and optimism in a young and growing America produced a spirit of wonderment and a passion for questioning.

Clearly many social, economic and historical circumstances existed in America which enabled, or at least encouraged, the phenomenal rise in popularity of the Hudson River School. Geographically, New York City was fast becoming the centre of this growing country -- and here is where the Hudson River artists found their patrons and eager collectors. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made the Hudson River the primary water route between the East Coast and Middle West. This expanding nation wanted to record and even celebrate its primitive and untapped natural wonders, and develop and promote a sense of its own history. Not the least in importance is the very real fact that there was a favorable climate for the artist to work in, there were numerous buyers to support and even encourage his work. The times did not reflect the popular conception of the "starving artist".

Perhaps the most dramatic change the Hudson River artists brought to painting was the practice of sketching out of doors and spending hours just walking through the wilderness areas studying nature first hand. Gone was the European practice of constructing landscapes from other landscapes embellished with classical, historical and religious imagery. The painters roamed far beyond the Hudson River Valley which gave them their name, first into the Catskill areas, then through the Adirondacks and the White Mountains. They were not totally provincial either, most of these artists travelled abroad extensively, yet still maintained the essentially American impulse for romanticism in a search for identity and in their preoccupation with the real in contrast to the ideal. This Romantic realism is the fabric of which 19th Century American art is made.



The Common Man

1850 - 1900


Pictures painted of scenes from ordinary life are called genre paintings. In 18th and early 19th Century America, this type of art was not taken seriously since it required the artist not to emphasize universal themes but instead the specific environment -- and genre's subject matter was by definition -- commonplace. Prior to mid-19th Century, the neo-classicist attitude prevailed that man should be portrayed at his loftiest -- on a heroic scale, not in the day to day activities of life.

The emergence of genre painting began in the mid-1830's. Basically, it coincided with the growing population and the rise of the common man's philosophy, as well as an economically improved middle class. This was the age of democracy, and the fall of the aristocracy, which a few decades earlier sought family portraiture as the ideal in art. This was a new audience for American art and they demanded a different kind of realism. They were utilitarian people whose emphasis was on accomplishment, the betterment of their existence, and changing the environment rather than merely enjoying it. They wanted art to depict their own contemporary life. Simultaneously, landscape perhaps first, but genre shortly afterwards, developed an enormous national popularity. Contributing to this, besides the economy, was a system of national lottery called the American Art Union which bought original paintings directly from artists and made engravings of these, which then circulated among its thousands of members. During its lifetime the Union sold over 50,000 such engravings, thus broadening America's exposure to popular art. In the post Civil War era print makers, like the very popular Currier and Ives, circulated tens of thousands of prints depicting landscape and genre scenes to almost every income level. Generally, pastoral or rural life was most often depicted in these genre paintings, scenes of fishing, boating and hunting, or the individual efforts of people earning their livelihood: the travelling salesmen, census taker, politician or blacksmith. The viewpoint was always optimistic and sentimental, and frequently lighthearted or humorous.

The Civil War fought between 1860-1865 produced a change in the mood of genre work afterwards. The world was suddenly more complex, the tragedy of war had shaken the faith in "common sense" and the virtues of rural, simple life and romantic optimism. There was industry and strikes and poverty. The reality of subject matter diminished and more sentimentalism crept into pictures. Often old people, quiet and lonely, were present in post Civil War genre pictures. Frequently, the truth was glossed over and an idealized rendition of genre work resulted. Nevertheless, the rich genre tradition did continue into the early 20th Century when it, like the Hudson River School, gave way to new influences.


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About the author:

In an August 2004 transmittal letter to Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Mr. Davies provided insights into his extensive interest in representational American art, and that of his son, Kristian Davies.

Thomas Davies lived in Hong Kong with his family in 1974-77 and "participated in several Bi-Centennial celebrations, one of which was organizing an exhibition of American art from our collection." Mr. Davies pioneered the exhibition of American art in that city which at that time had "virtually no knowledge of Western art, especially American representational art." His art was presented at an exhibition titled "Art in America: 1825-1975" held at the City Hall Exhibition Center from October 24 through November 2, 1975. The show was accompanied by an illustrated 51-page catalogue. In the Volume III, Number 3 May-June 1976 issue of American Art Review, he wrote an article about the Hong Kong exhibition.

In 1994, Mr. Davies wrote an article titled Sharing Your Paintings -- or --"It's Better Than Selling Hot Dogs", describing his experience of organizing an art exhibition held at King Low-Heywood Thomas School in Stamford, CT. KLHT is an independent, college preparatory school serving students from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade. The article published in Resource Library contains the author's original unedited text. A condensed version of the article appeared in American Art Review, Volume VI, Number 4, August-September 1994, p. 140-145. Mr. Davies wrote to Resource Libary that the KLHT exhibition "covered a unique experience I had of organizing an exhibition of paintings...integrating the whole exercise into a high school program. After I did it I thought it would make a good story and ideally encourage other to do the same."

In 1996, Mr. Davies was asked by the Rockport Art Association to write an essay in connection with the first major retrospective on Aldro Hibbard, held September 28 through October 27, 1996 at the Association's galleries. Mr. Davies says, "I tried to take a distinctively different approach, with the support and approval of his [Hibbard's] daughter." The A. T. Hibbard, N.A. article published in Resource Libary contains the author's original unedited text. A condensed version of the article appeared in American Art Review, Volume VIII, Number 4, September - October 1996, p. 142-149.

Mr. Davies' son, Kristian Davies, wrote a hardcover book in 2001 titled "Artists of Cape Ann; A 150 Year Tradition," ISBN 1-885435-18-5, published by Twin Lights Publishers, Inc.[1] Artists of Cape Ann: A 150 Year Tradition, an exhibition featuring some of the paintings in the above book, but also several not included in the book, was held in 2003 at the Lyme Art Association. Kristian Davies later wrote an article for the exhibition which was published in American Art Review, Volume XV, Number 1 January-February 2003. Art & Antiques published an essay by Kristian Davies titled "Raised on Art" in its Summer 2002 issue and another titled "Family Tradition" in the June 2003 issue.

1. Copies of the book may be obtained {as of August 2004) by forwarding $29.95 plus a $4.50 mail and handling fee to Thomas Davies, 58 Beacon Hill Lane, New Canaan, Ct 06480.

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