Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on January 12, 2009 with permission of Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the exhibition catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York directly through either this phone number or web address:


The Figure in American Art: 1764-1983

by John I.H. Baur


Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of mankind is man.
- Alexander Pope, Essay on Man


The skeptical, pragmatic, anthropocentric spirit of the 18th century has seldom been more succinctly stated. But if humanity was at the center of things, it was not, therefore, necessarily noble. No rose-tinted glasses clouded the realistic vision of the time. Man, said Pope in the same essay, is:

Created half to rise, and half to fall:
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all:
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd:
The glory, jest and riddle of the world,

It is not surprising then that the 18th century was the great era of the portrait, both in England and America. The concept of what a portrait should be, however, changed radically during the period. The charming rococo style of its early years was an echo of aristocratic ideals translated -- especially in America -- into rather naive visions of affluence and a social prestige created largely by affluence. Lawrence Kilbrunn's Young Girl Holding Flowers (plate I) is such a painting, making much of the sitter's fine dress and bouquet - the latter an adjunct that the artist introduced into many of his women's portraits.

Kilbrunn was an Englishman who had come to America in 1754 and died here in 1775. John Durand's portraits of about the same period (e.g., plate 2) already show the transition that was taking place toward a more direct treatment, less stylized, more concerned with likeness and character. In the portraits of Charles Willson Peale (plate 4) and especially in those of John Singleton Copley, (plate 3) this tendency was carried to an ultimate conclusion. It is not that these artists were indifferent to the attributes of wealth and colonial prominence; they gave loving attention to the rich fabrics and fine furniture of their sitters. But they also searched out the human traits behind the trappings and showed us not symbols but human beings whose characters can be read vividly in feature and pose.

The kind of portraiture that Peale and Copley established -- fluent, worldly, psychologically perceptive -- lasted long into the 19th century. It can be seen here in portraits by George Caleb Bingham (plates 11, 12) and John F. Francis (plates 6, 7). It is also represented in portraits by David Blythe and the team of Waldo and Jewett. The circumstances of Blythe's work for Col. James McDonald provide an insight into how and why such groups of likenesses were sometimes done. Family records indicate that Blythe was hired by the colonel in 1855 to spend several months at the latter's huge Primrose Plantation in western Pennsylvania to paint the whole family. The pictures of the colonel and his wife were to flank the fireplace; those of the children, including Margaretta, twenty-two (plate 9) and Kay, fourteen (plate 10) were to be disposed on adjoining walls. And so, indeed, they hung until 192l.

There are fewer circumstantial details about Waldo and Jewett's portrait of The Livingston Children (plate 8), though they, too, were plainly members of a wealthy family. Of greater interest here, however, is the unusual teaming of two artists, plain proof of the growing demand for family likenesses. Samuel Waldo, senior member of the pair, had hired William Jewett to grind colors for him, but after three years had promoted him to a partnership in which, said a contemporary, it was "a puzzle to ... assign to either painter his share of a portrait."[1]

The portrait was not, of course, the only way of painting human beings. Indeed the 18th century ranked portraits lower than historical, allegorical or religious paintings, all of which were considered to bear higher moral messages. Neoclassicism was perhaps the most highly regarded mode of art because, as E. P. Richardson has pointed out, it replaced aristocratic ideals with those of the citizen, the civis, or city state of antiquity. Its appeal in the young republic of the United States was enormous, as the popularity of Benjamin West's Cicero Discovering the Tomb of Archimedes (plate 5) shows -- as well as the writings of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine and the names of so many American cities.

In the end it was probably West's historical paintings -- such as The Death of Wolfe and Penn's Treaty with the Indians -- that had the longest influence on American art. Not only were they models for later historical painting, like that of Trumbull and the Civil War men; they were also forerunners of American genre painting, which rose in the 1830s and flourished throughout the rest of the century. For genre resembles historical painting in that both are a record of events that illuminate man's experience; it differs only in being less specific. American genre had other sources in the similar art of England and Holland, but West's influence was felt for a long time, as Edward Hicks's many Peaceable Kingdoms testify.

The 19th century gradually abandoned both neoclassical and historical subjects as a new realism swept through American art after the Civil War. Winslow Homer was a key figure in this transformation. "His style is large and free, realistic and straightforward, broad and bold," wrote G. W. Sheldon in 1881, concluding that his paintings were admirable "in their ability to make the spectator feel their subjects at once."[2] The same spirit pervaded the genre painting of men like Eastman Johnson and Julian Scott's Civil War paintings (plate 16).

Even the American Impressionists, represented here by Hassam and Prendergast, continued in the earlier genre tradition despite their technical innovations. Their free handling and broken color introduced a new optical realism into American art, but their subjects were drawn largely from a familiar stratum of American life. As Doreen Burke has observed, they "favored attractive, middle-class women and well-behaved children, pleasantly engaged in outdoor settings or tastefully decorated interiors."[3] This taste for the bright world of fashionable society informed many portraits and genre scenes in the late 19th century -- pictures which Charles Caffin called "portraits of esprit" as opposed to "portraits of character."[4] A dashing example here is Alice B. Stephens's The Dinner Party (plate 17), done as a cover for the Ladies' Home Journal of February, 1897.

A third kind of figure painting should be added to Caffin's categories - idealized figures, almost always of women, which are neither social images nor character studies. Rather, they are idealizations of human nature suggesting woman's essence, her moods, dreams and reveries. This kind of painting has surfaced at wide intervals in American art, as here in George Lambdin's Clasping a Bracelet (plate 13) of 1857 and James Champney's The Maid (plate 18) of 1910 -- over forty years apart in time. Tuckerman noted Lambdin's "skill in pathetic expression,"[5] and indeed his picture evokes a nearly voyeuristic sense of witnessing the fleeting passage of a subtle emotion. Champney's canvas is more hieratic and suggests the embodiment of a Madonna-like purity underlined by the white lilies. Both owe a spiritual debt to neoclassicism, which had given birth to the concept of "ideal beauty" as opposed to "natural beauty" -- that is, a beauty formed in man's mind rather than found in nature. It was a fragile concept which scarcely survived World War I.

The opening years of the 20th century saw the disappearance of more than idealism from American artists' view of man. Every romantic or sentimental human attribute was questioned, and frequently discarded. Pope had seen man's ambivalent nature "the glory, jest and riddle of the world." The 20th century saw principally his failings -- "in endless error hurl'd." This was particularly true of a group of urban realists in a society known as The Eight, who painted, in the name of honesty, all the seamier sides of man's existence -- his slums, saloons, cheap movies and the like. Two painters who were close in spirit to The Eight are Stuart Davis (in his early work) and George Bellows (plates 20, 21).

The realism of these artists was far removed from the realism of Copley or Homer. The difference lay partly in the changed conditions of American life itself, but also, and more basically, in a change in artistic attitude. The 18th and 19th centuries had their unattractive aspects, but these were generally considered unfit material for art. It was only in the 20th century that the vitality and endless variety of common life began to appeal more to artists than virtue or seemliness.

Social realism has continued to yield rich rewards in the American art of our time. It has colored the regionalism of men like Thomas Benton and John Steuart Curry (plate 23). It has led to a re-examination of the prizefighting theme, inaugurated by Bellows, in the work of later men like Joseph Hirsch (plate 28) and to the sympathetic portrayal of immigrants, one of George Luks's notable subjects, by the Soyers, Reginald Marsh and Marvin Cherney (plate 27). It remains a strong current in our art.

But a more profound esthetic revolution was, of course, the introduction of modernism from France and Germany in the second decade of the 20th century. It was a revolution which disrupted the venerable concept of art as a mirror of life and of experience. Of its two main branches, abstraction offered the artist a way of building forms into esthetically meaningful designs without reference -- or with little reference -- to observed reality. Expressionism, its other main branch, kept closer ties to the world but authorized extreme distortions of things seen as a means of imparting emotion. Walt Kuhn (plates 24, 25) was a pioneer in this revolution, both as an organizer of the 1913 Armory Show and in his own art, which went through both abstract and expressionist phases.

The place of man in modernist art has been ambiguous. Many artists have treated him (or her) as an object of little more significance than the pears and apples of a still life. John Marin's Glad to See You (plate 22) with its sharp, thrusting angles says more about the tempo of modem life than about the people in the picture. Of the works shown here, perhaps only Leonard Baskin's Spellbound (plate 31) demonstrates that the language of modernism can be used to comment directly, if somewhat ambiguously, on the human condition. Ambiguity, indeed, has its poetic uses and is a characteristic of much modem work, such as Will Barnet's Salem (plate 30).

If modern artists have generally shown little interest in the portrayal of individual character, they have, on the other hand, made us more aware of their own inner states. Marin's fragmented stick figures, for instance, may not be made of flesh and blood, but Marin himself is, and his art is a window into his own character, his own emotional response to New York. By comparison earlier portraitists, from Copley to Sargent, have told us more about their sitters, but surely less about themselves.

So, in the end, mankind does perhaps remain art's proper study even if the focus has changed from other to self. It could, of course, be argued that self-knowledge stands a better chance of success than the understanding of those we know less well. Pope, I fear, would not have agreed:

Go. teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!


1. Henry T. Tuckerman. Book of the Artists. New York. G. P. Putnam & Sons. 1867. p. 67.

2. G. W. Sheldon. American Painters. New York. D. Appleton and Co. 1881, pp. 29.25.

3. Doreen Burke. American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. vol. 3. New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 1980. p. xxvii.

4. Charles H. Catlin. The Story of American Painting. New York. Frederick S. Stokes Co. 1907. p. 254.

5. Tuckerman. op, cit. · p. 450.


About the author

John I.H. Baur began his career at Brooklyn Museum of Art where he became curator of painting and sculpture around 1936. In the midst of World War II, Baur, 35, joined the army in 1944. He soon found himself in special services organizing soldiers' art exhibitions at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The postwar years afforded Baur time to write and mount new exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum. Baur joined the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1952. He was Director there from 1968 until 1974. After retirement, Baur consulted for Kennedy Galleries, New York and contributed to American art journals.


Resource Library editor's note

The above exhibition catalogue text was reprinted in Resource Library on January 12, 2009 with permission of Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York. The permission was granted to TFAO on November 19, 2008. Mr. Baur's essay pertains to The Figure in American Art: 1764-1983, which was on view at the Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York in 1986.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Lillian Brenwasser, Vice President of Kennedy Galleries Inc., and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above texts.

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