The American Renaissance: Cosmopolitanism and the New American Art

by Stephanie Street



For many Americans the tensions of the Civil War and its aftermath undermined the harmonious vision and optimism celebrated in mid-nineteenth-century art. As the regenerative landscapes of the Hudson River School lost their currency, American art became increasingly eclectic, as something of the period's restlessness and uncertainty found expression in a variety of styles and subjects. Inciting this stylistic pluralism and demand for new subject matter was a greater attention to trends in European art. Cosmopolitanism soon overtook the American cultural scene, as a concern for artistic achievement in the global arena supplanted the spirit of nationalism that was at the core of pre-Civil War painting. Scores of young Americans flocked to the art academies of Munich and Paris to learn more about the latest styles and to master new techniques. A heightened awareness of cultural developments abroad and an overall decline in patronage at home induced some American artists to expatriate, while others continued to work domestically with a renewed commitment to ingenuity and artistic integrity. Ultimately, America's art vision expanded and gained vitality as a result of broader, more varied knowledge of Continental trends as well as greater artistic tolerance in the United States. This period of cultural expansion coincided with, and was certainly shaped by, an outpouring of technological and industrial growth and the subsequent rise of the leisure class in America.

The Exposition Universelle of 1867 in Paris provided the venue for the expansion of American artistic taste and aspirations. Americans attending this world's fair -- artists, patrons, and critics -- were eager to view the cultural and technological achievements of other participating countries and compare them with their own. The installation of American art was quite impressive and included works by such notable painters as Frederick Edwin Church, Albert Bierstadt, and John F. Kensett. However, nouveau riche American collectors who made their fortunes shortly after the Civil War perceived contemporary European paintings, particularly those by French artists, to be more aesthetically sophisticated and technically superior, and hence more desirable. Furthermore, collecting and displaying European artwork was one way that Americans could announce their own cosmopolitanism.[1] Many of these same collectors arranged for aspiring young American artists to study abroad by providing them with financial assistance and, in some cases, with introductions to Parisian artists and craftsmen whose works these wealthy art patrons owned.[2] Numerous technological advances -- including vast improvements in transportation and the completion of transatlantic cables -- facilitated this pursuit of internationalism.

The Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia was an equally important turning point for American art. Americans made a notable show of their technological prowess with such impressive advances as George Henry Corliss's steam engine and Alexander Graham Bell's telephone. The American art display included over one thousand examples of painting and sculpture that spanned a century, making it the largest single exhibition of American art ever to be viewed by the general public (after all, the United States had only five art museums in 1876). The exposition gave millions of visitors an opportunity to compare American artists' work with that of foreigners, but it also made average Americans more aware of the important role that art had played in the development of their own culture. At the same time, the fair revealed that native American art lacked variety, and if American artists were to hold their own in the modern era, it was imperative that they continue to be trained in the larger traditions of European culture. Furthermore, Americans were in need of an art that was emblematic of their emerging role as a modern industrial nation and major world power. The immense popularity of the Centennial Exposition and its overall effectiveness in bringing foreign art to the attention of the masses foreshadowed the increasingly international character of American art to come.

The decade of the 1870s was indeed an exciting time for American artists. When William Merritt Chase (Cat. No. 38) declared in 1872 that he would "rather go to Europe than go to Heaven," he epitomized the sentiments of many of his contemporaries.[3] In Munich, under the direction of such teachers as Karl van Piloty and Wilhelm Leibl, enthusiastic students absorbed the current revival of interest in seventeenth-century Spanish and Dutch portraiture and genre painting -- particularly the works of Diego Velazquez, Frans Hals, and Rembrandt -- which were characterized by a broad handling of paint, fully developed chiaroscuro, and a limited, dark palette enlivened with minimal bright chromatic accents. Students also learned to paint alla prima, or all at once, applying pigment directly on the canvas rather than working from preliminary sketches. Among those to be inspired by the painterly realism and bravura style of the Munich School were Frank Duveneck, John Henry Twachtman, and Chase, who learned to use technical excellence to bring even the most mundane subjects to life.

Italy continued to be a popular destination for artists, and Americans painters such as George Inness (Cat. No. 31), John Linton Chapman (Cat. No. 32), William S. Haseltine (Cat. No. 78), and Thomas Moran (Cat. No. 72) found inspiration in the abundance of Renaissance art, ancient monuments, and picturesque scenery available in the Italian museums and countryside. However, by the late 1870s, Paris had become the magnet for American students seeking training abroad. A few Americans, including William Morris Hunt, had been drawn to France as early as the 1840s, and he became an ardent admirer of Jean-Françcois Millet, who was the spiritual leader of the Barbizon School of landscape painters. John La Farge (an early student of Hunt) and Inness traveled to France in the 1850s and were also greatly impressed by the tenets of this style, which offered American painters an alternative to the meticulous naturalism of the Hudson River School by introducing an informal and intimate view of nature enhanced by soft, muted tones and subtle, evocative light effects.


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