The American Renaissance: Cosmopolitanism and the New American Art

by Stephanie Street



Inspired by the French painters and their American counterparts, younger artists such as William Keith (Cat. No. 45), Edward Mitchell Bannister (Cat. No. 40), and Homer Dodge Martin (Cat. No. 33) were quick to assimilate various aspects of Barbizon painting into their own landscapes. Martin's subjective landscapes also reflect the influence of the American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who befriended the young painter while Martin was on a visit in London. A pioneer of the aesthetic movement, Whistler's adage of "art for art's sake" became the cultural keynote of the time. Although few Americans actually adopted his abstract extremes, his emphasis on the decorative treatment of form and the evocative power of color had a decisive impact on future generations of American artists. No longer was it necessary for an artwork to convey a message or moralizing statement-beauty was artistic justification enough.

Paris also was attractive to American artists wishing to learn to emulate the conventions of French academic painting. In addition to lessons in perspective and history, the study of the human figure was a primary concern, and France allowed the opportunity to draw from nude models, a practice limited in American instructional facilities until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The most distinguished institution in Paris was the École des Beaux-Arts, but many Americans opted to study at the Académie Julian, which had no entrance examination. Others trained in the ateliers of academic painters such as Jean-Leon Gérôme, Alexandre Cabanel, Léon Bonnat, or Émile Auguste Carolus-Duran. Striving to attain the level of painterly fluidity and technical finesse that American collectors found so appealing in French academic works, young American hopefuls endured hours of rigorous training to become thoroughly grounded in sophisticated techniques of figure painting, and they drew inspiration from classical and Renaissance sources. Some of the most prominent figures in American art of this generation -- John Singer Sargent, Thomas Eakins, Thomas Dewing, and Julian Alden Weir -- were among those who sought academic training in Paris throughout the 1870s.

As in painting, the cosmopolitanism of post-Civil War American culture prompted many sculptors to travel to Europe to enhance their technical and artistic vocabularies. However, instead of seeking out the neoclassical traditions of Rome that were so appealing to the previous generation, these artisans went to Paris to absorb the fluid, naturalistic style of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. Artists such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French, and Olin Levi Warner, who trained at the École des Beaux-Arts, brought a new sensuousness, vibrancy, and sophistication to both relief carving and freestanding works in the 1880s. Indeed, elegant Beaux-Arts styles remained the dominant mode in American sculpture through the turn of the century.

However, subject matter for sculpture in this period was increasingly diverse, including animals, early settlers, military heroes, frontiersmen, African-Americans, Indians, cowboys, portraiture, ideal figures based on historical and literary sources, and personifications of concepts or places. Second-generation Beaux-Arts sculptors benefited not only from formal academic training but also from their association with contemporary masters like the French sculptor Auguste Rodin. For instance, the intricate modeling and commitment to beauty and elegance in the work of Saint-Gaudens had a profound impact on younger American sculptors like Bessie Potter Vonnoh (Cat. Nos. 50, 51). Yet, in her small bronze statues of women in graceful postures of movement or repose, Vonnoh also seemed to have gleaned from the work of Rodin an appreciation of expressive bodily poses and gestures as well as the more subtle variations of texture that change fluidly under light. Such surface vivacity and elegant sensuousness found their corollaries in impressionist paintings and epitomized modernity and gentility in American sculpture at the turn of the century. John Gutzon Borglum's sculptures of the period likewise reflect the influence of Rodin, as Borglum explored the expressive potential of the deliberate fragmentation of the human form, in which the figure appears to emerge out of the rugged stone from which it was carved. His use of this technique in Sorrow (Cat. No. 55) simultaneously conveys humanity's most profound emotions and anticipates twentieth-century expressionism.

When American artists returned from Europe with fresh new ideas and techniques -- the rich, painterly brushwork of the Munich school, the poetic lyricism of the Barbizon landscapes, the abstraction of color and form of Whistler, and the sophisticated naturalism of French academic training -- many found themselves attacked for their reliance on foreign styles. Impeded by the conservative standards of the National Academy of Design, which was dominated by artists of the previous generation, a number of younger craftsmen reacted in 1877 by founding the Society of American Artists, which for the next twenty years would be the most progressive art organization in the United States. The paintings exhibited in its annual shows demonstrated a departure in both subject and style, placing emphasis on figure painting rather than pure landscape and, in general, following Whistler's dictum. In a series of articles begun in 1880, a writer for Scribner's Monthly commented, "We are beginning to paint as other people paint."[4] On the question of artistic nationalism, the same writer asserted, "At present it is quite evident that we are but accumulating and perfecting the material for such a national expression, and even to the taking of so initial a step as this, the destruction of our old canons and standards was necessary."[5]

This era, which was characterized by a new consciousness of the role of art to create cultural betterment and status, came to be known as the" American Renaissance." Ironically, the American artist that best reflected its ideals was the expatriate John Singer Sargent (Cat. No.3 7), whose portraits of the cultural elite in New York and Boston helped to define what was most fashionable in high society at the end of the nineteenth century. Trained in Paris, and already recognized as a gifted painter of landscapes and portraits while living in London, Sargent used virtuoso displays of technical brilliance in portraits of America's most wealthy and powerful to convey the personality of his sitters while simultaneously flattering them with his sophisticated manner.


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