The American Renaissance: Cosmopolitanism and the New American Art

by Stephanie Street



In general, the art of the American Renaissance sought to capture the confident spirit of modern life in the United States in a range of aesthetics but tended to avoid disturbing issues associated with population expansion, industrialization, and a burgeoning capitalist society. During a time of profound social change taking place in the post-Civil War era, these untroubled images served to affirm the growing gap between art and life that American audiences increasingly expected in the later nineteenth century. As class distinctions became more pronounced and the tastes of the American public diverged, there was a rise in the popularity of genre painters like the British-born John George (J. G.) Brown (Cat. Nos. 34, 75), whose idealized images of poor immigrant street urchins appealed to middle-class virtues of labor and entrepreneurship while also allaying fears that impoverished children occupying the city streets were emblematic of a decaying society.

In the midst of increased concerns about urbanization and dramatic social transformation (especially concerning the role of women), Impressionism began to capture the American artistic imagination. Although this movement began in France in the early 1870s, it was not until its practitioners had disbanded after their last official exhibition that American painters began to emulate the style. In 1886, an exhibition in New York of three hundred works by French Barbizon and Impressionist painters, organized by the Parisian art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, acted as a catalyst for Impressionism in the United States. The exhibition -- which marked the first time that French Impressionists received widespread publicity in the United States -- caused a sensation, and within a few years Impressionism became a dominant painting mode. Although American advocates never fully embraced the French system of color and form, they shared an interest in painting themes of modern, everyday life by capturing the transitory optical effects of light and atmosphere through abbreviated, broken brush strokes of brightly colored pigment. A few American artists, such as Theodore Robinson and Lilla Cabot Perry (Cat. No. 46), had direct contact with Impressionists in France. Perry, for instance, sought informal instruction from Claude Monet and consciously modeled her style on that of the French master, with sparkling sunlight effects, bold coloration, and the suggestion of spontaneity achieved through the varied textures of her brush strokes.

By contrast, Chase did not study in France but was one of the first Americans to successfully assimilate certain aspects of Impressionism into his own painting. Although he considered orthodox Impressionism to be "more scientific than artistic," he nonetheless admired the French and considered their stylistic innovations to be "the only new thing in Art."[6] Perhaps the most admired art teacher in America at the turn of the century, Chase urged his students not to follow recipes of any kind, including those of Impressionism; he also promoted American painting and instilled in his pupils a sense of national pride: "Let me urge you to strive to prove that our American art is a vital thing."[7] The plein air approach to the Texas landscape taken by Robert Julian Onderdonk (Cat. Nos. 53, 54, 86-91), who studied with Chase in 1905, attests to the impact of American Impressionism well into the twentieth century. Furthermore, the artistic criteria that Chase endorsed -- sound knowledge of European examples combined with distinctly American sensibilities -- shaped the criticism of American artists at the end of the century, as evidenced by this 1890 statement of praise for the brilliant watercolors of Winslow Homer (Cat. No. 41): "Mr. Homer's watercolors, in fact, are impressions. But Mr. Homer has not found it necessary to copy Manet or Monet, or Renoir or Degaz [sic]; he has means of his own, very simple means, artistic rather than scientific, and he uses them frankly. Truth is his first principle; to give the main facts with the least trouble the next. His results are delightful."[8]

The phenomenal rise of trompe l'oeil painting toward the end of the nineteenth century not only reflected the Victorian era's interest in the worldly pleasures of life but also attests to the pluralism of styles running through these years. Steeped in the tradition of Netherlandish still-life painting and carried on in this country by three generations of Charles Willson Peale's descendants, American practitioners of the trompe l'oeil tradition imitated reality with such precise draftsmanship and fidelity that they were able to create the illusion of a third dimension on a two-dimensional surface, attaining heights of realism unprecedented in American still lifes.[9] This circle of painters, led by William Michael Harnett, included John Frederick Peto, John Haberle, and Alexander Pope (Cat. No. 44). Beyond the fascinating illusionism of their pictures, these artists gave prominence to man-made objects in their paintings, in contrast to the more organic still lifes painted earlier in the century by such artists as Severin Roesen and Charles Ethan Porter. Inspired by Harnett's quartet of highly complex game and trophy pictures, each entitled After the Hunt, Pope created his own deceptive still lifes that are among the largest of the American trompe l'oeil school. The iconography of these pictures -- expensive hunting gear, worn leather game bags, and often rare species of game birds -- spoke of wealth and gentlemanly leisure and provided a masculine aesthetic in contrast to the coloristic effects of Impressionism.

By the 1890s the primal vision of the American wilderness had become obsolete. Painters of the frontier such as Bierstadt and Thomas Worthington Whittredge (Cat. Nos. 24, 26) had been instrumental in their role as aesthetic translators of the splendors of the far western landscape, but their reputations -- particularly Bierstadt's -- were on the decline. As a result, Keith adopted the moodier, more painterly (and current) Barbizon style for his renderings of the Yosemite landscape. Thomas Hill (Cat. No. 43), by contrast, capitalized on the growing tourist industry and its fascination with California's natural wonders by producing a number of paintings that promoted the Wawona Tree, a massive redwood that ironically bore the marks of the encroachment of civilization in the form of a tunnel through its base.

With the growing awareness of the rapid disappearance of the open wilderness, fueled in part by the official closing of the frontier by the United States government in 1890, the public's appetite for nostalgic western imagery -- particularly of cowboys and Indians -- had become insatiable. The need to create a heroic past for Americans in the midst of a rapidly changing industrial and urban culture was realized in the works of such artists as Borglum (Cat. No. 39) and Elbridge Ayer (E. A.) Burbank (Cat. Nos. 47, 76), whose dramatic presentations of the vigorous hardships of cowboy life (Borglum) and extraordinarily refined portrayals of the American Indian (Burbank) significantly contributed to the iconography of a vanished past while simultaneously appealing to America's desire to return to a proverbially simpler time.

Thus, for all of its cosmopolitanism, American culture during the American Renaissance remained intensely nationalistic. Nowhere was this more evident than at the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Designed to rival the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, the fair was called "the White City" for the elaborate display of Beaux-Arts buildings, fountains, and sculptures that were erected for the occasion. The exposition proudly announced that American culture had come of age and no longer needed to apologize for its provincialism. Visitors from around the world were in awe of America's artistic and technological accomplishments, and the whole affair prompted Saint-Gaudens, who was partially responsible for the assembly of the enormous project, to exclaim, "This is the greatest meeting of artists since the fifteenth century!" (referring to the Italian Renaissance in Florence).[10] The earnest endeavors of American artists, the direct or indirect endorsements of wealthy art patrons, and the favorable response of critics laid the foundation for a new American art. Although Americans undeniably appropriated images, symbols, and stylistic innovations from past and contemporaneous civilizations, they did so in the interest of a higher and more vital expression of American culture.



1. See Carol Troyen, "Innocents Abroad: American Painters at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, Paris," American Art Journal 16 (Autumn, 1984): pp. 13-20.

2. See H. Barbara Weinberg, The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth Century American Painters and Their French Teachers (New York, 1991).

3. Quoted from "Janitor Brother Tells How Chance Aided W. M. Chase," Indianapolis Star, 25 March 1917, in Ronald G. Pisano, Summer Afternoons: Landscape Paintings of William Merritt Chase (Boston, 1993), p. 1

4. Quoted from William C. Brownell, "The Younger Painters of America," Scribner's Monthly 20 (May-July, 1880): pp. 1-15, 321-35, in Richard Guy Wilson, ed., The American Renaissance 1876-1917 (Brooklyn, NY, 1979), p. 154.

5. Quoted from William C. Brownell, "The Younger Painters of America," Scribner's Monthly 22 July, 1881): pp. 322-34, in Wilson, American Renaissance, p. 154.

6. Quoted in Ulrich W. Hiesinger, Impressionism in America: The Ten American Painters (Munich, 1991), pp. 117-18.

7. Quoted in Pisano, Summer Afternoons, p. 14.

8. Quoted from "Art Notes," New York Evening Post, 19 February 1890, in Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., and Franklin Kelly, Winslow Homer (New Haven, CT, 1995), p. 266.

9. For a discussion of early still-life painting in America and the impact of the Peale family, see William H. Gerdts, Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801-1939 (Columbia, MO, 1981), pp. 47-65.

10. Quoted in Wilson, American Renaissance, p. 12.


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