Faces of a New Nation

by Lisa Reitzes

 



 

One step toward promoting the education and independence of American artists occurred with the establishment of the first art academies in the United States: the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1805) in Philadelphia and the American Academy of the Fine Arts (1802) and the National Academy of Design (1825) in New York. Most of the major artists of the period were involved with one or more of these institutions, as founders, trustees, fellows, and exhibitors. In these settings, artists could find instruction in drawing and composition and gain exposure to European art (including casts of ancient sculpture), and the public could view the work of established and promising American artists. Thus, by the 1820s, technical developments and changes in artistic style were catalyzed not only by artists' contact with Europe but also by artists responding to the new trends evident in exhibitions at home.

Such was the case with the virtuoso Romantic portrait style associated with the work of Sir Thomas Lawrence. Thomas Sully brought the style back from England in 1810, and it quickly became the standard for fashionable image making throughout the East, as Sully's work was visible not only to his individual clients but also to academy audiences and fellow artists. In Philadelphia, his approach to portraiture had a direct influence on the work of Henry Inman (Cat. No. 10) and John Neagle (Cat. No. 15); in turn, Neagle passed along his expertise to students such as George H. Comegys, whose single most important work, displayed in this collection (Cat. No. 12), portrayed the newly elected President James K. Polk standing next to a Texas map. Thus, West's legacy of the professional artist extended through mid-century and eventually out onto the western frontier.

Despite the increased support for artistic education and patronage at home, American culture continued to demonstrate ambivalent attitudes toward the fine arts. Prompted by the Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson, the federal and state governments began to commission art and architecture as a means to communicate civic values, but governmental expenditures for the arts were controversial from the outset. In this environment, American artists continued to seek training and professional standing in Europe. The need to study in Italy was especially strong for aspiring sculptors, as American academies offered little formal instruction in the techniques of carving and casting. In addition, unlike in painting, there were no significant collections of statuary in this country before the middle of the nineteenth century, although the work of European artists such as the French neoclassicist Jean-Antoine Houdon provided the example of sculpture in the Grand Manner. Thus, what Wayne Craven has called "the quest [for] an heroic American sculpture"[6] necessitated that artists like Horatio Greenough, Thomas Crawford, and Hiram Powers (Cat. Nos. 16, 17) travel and sometimes remain abroad. By the time that Powers established an international reputation with ideal statues and portrait busts in the 1840s, sculpture in the United States was barely a generation old in its professional history. Nevertheless, the visual arts became an integral element of national identity in the mid-nineteenth century, prompted by the cultural and economic aspirations of the elite and by the emergence of public education systems that used images of American worthies to promote the vision of an enlightened society.

 

Notes

1. Russell Lynes, The Art-Makers: An Informal History of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1982), p. 7.

2. John Singleton Copley to [Captain R. G. Bruce?] (1767?), quoted in McCoubrey, American Art, p. 17.

3. John Singleton Copley to Captain R. G. Bruce (ca. 1767), quoted in Carrie Rebora et aI., John Singleton Copley in America (New York, 1995), p. 53.

4. Dorinda Evans, Benjamin West and His American Students (Washington, D.C., 1980), p. 19.

5. Neil Harris, The Artist in American Society: The Formative Years, 1790-1860 (New York, 1966), p. 91.

6. Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (Newark, DE, 1984), p. 144.

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