Opening Thoughts on American Art

This is the post excerpt.

Sinclair Lewis, the 20th century American novelist, short-story writer, playwright and first literary figure from the United States to win the distinguished Nobel Prize in Literature, made the following remark in 1922:  “In other countries art and literature are left to a lot of shabby bums living in attics and feeding on booze and spaghetti but in America the successful writer of picture-painter is indistinguishable from any other decent businessman.”  Do you think Lewis’s view or vision of American artists and/or literary figures is true today?  In other words, do the creative artists of today (visual or literary) stand out from the crowd as quite distinguishable from everyday people?


The Irascibles, 1950


Andrew Wyeth—Surrendering to a World of His Imagination

Andrew Wyeth was a preeminent American painter during the tumultuous years of the 20th century.  Wyeth witness a dizzying array of change in American politics, culture, social life, and national prominence on the world’s artistic stage.  Born in 1917—near the end of WWI—Wyeth witnessed over the course of his 91 years on Planet Earth—the dramatic emergence and rise of the American century!  Wyeth’s father—N. C. Wyeth—was a prolific artist/illustrator working within the arena of assessing and commenting on America during the fin-de-siecle and coming into his own through the United States’ reluctant engagement on the International stage that witness two world wars!  From his father, young Andrew Wyeth gained insight into the world of a world-class artist and the balance between being an illustrator and being a painter.  As Wyeth matured, he “surrendered to a world of my imagination reenacting all those wonderful tales my father would read aloud to me.  I became a very active reader, especially history and Shakespeare.”

But Wyeth was mature enough, even as a young boy living and growing up with a famous artist as a father, to understand where he needed to focus his gaze.  Wyeth was very clear in his understanding of what constitutes being an artist and where to cast his gaze.  “To be interested solely in technique would be a very superficial thing to me…I search for the realness, the real feeling of a subject, all the texture around it…I always want to see the third dimension of something…I want to come alive with the object.”  Wyeth “came alive with the object” by cultivating a unique relationship with his preferred subject—rural people facing the challenges of rural life.  Wyeth cultivated the “authentic”.  “I can’t work completely out of my imagination.  I must put my foot in a bit of truth; and then I can fly free.”

What are your thoughts on the work and words of Andrew Wyeth within his context of time (1917-2009)?

Photograph of Andrew Wyeth

Photograph of Andrew Wyeth

Andrew Wyeth Studio/Residence

Interior of Andrew Wyeth Studio


Andrew Wyeth, Trodden Weed, 1955

Andrew Wyeth, Turkey Pond, 1944

Cecilia Beaux—Proving Them Wrong

Women artists, whether in the United States or Western Europe during the second half of the 19th century, had to not only fight through their aesthetic challenges as being “artists” but they had to take on the entrenched male ego which stood against the female efforts to gain access to the world of an artist.  One particular male chauvinist who stood as an unmovable barrier to female painters was the French philosopher, art critic and write Denis Diderot.  Diderot disdainfully advised female artists with comments such as:  “Advice to women painters—One must go into ecstasies over the work of our great male artists, take lessons from them, have a good bosom and buttocks, and succumb entirely to one’s teachers.” To a challenger such as Diderot, Cecilia Beaux was more than content to let her artistic skills and female character to her bidding to French society.  Like Cassatt, Beaux was an American painter from Philadelphia who sought the creative energy of Paris and the aesthetic dialogue to be found permeating the Montmartre district.

What are your thoughts on the following portraits by Cecilia Beaux as she not only fought to be a painter/artist in late 19th century France but also to challenge the perceived superiority of the males-only club in the visual art scene?

Cecilia Beaux

Cecilia Beaux, Self Portrait, 1894

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman (Mrs. Jedidiah Richards), 1895

Cecilia Beaux, Portrait of William Henry Howell, 1919

Mary Cassatt—Feeling the Love and the Life

Mary Cassatt was an American impressionist artist who chose to live in Paris where the art scene was alive and full of creative energy.  In the United States Cassatt did not feel like she would be enabled to fulfill her artistic skills because of the prevailing belief that women were to be wives and mothers and take on the responsibility of the home first and foremost.  In Paris, there existed a precedent for an open mind regarding female painters.  Edgar Degas recognized the presence of a creative presence in the young Cassatt and mentored her throughout her career. But Degas had to deal with his latent suspicions that women could not paint.  Degas is quoted in Wilson’s book American Painter in Paris:  A Life of Mary Cassatt (1971) exclaiming the following:  “I will not admit that a woman can draw so well.”  Mary Cassatt would answer that bias with statements like the following:  “I am independent!  I can live and I love to work…I have touched with a sense of art some people—they felt the love and the life.  Can you offer me anything to compare to that joy for an artist?  Cassatt herself recognized that her creative skills challenged Degas and, often, they had to spend time apart to allow him to process how good he knew this prodigy to actually be.  Cassatt made the following observation about Degas’ difficulty accepting this young American’s creative abilities:  “Sometimes it made him (Degas) furious that he could not find a chink in my armour, and there would be months when we just could not see each other, and then something I painted would bring us together again.”

What are your thoughts on the rise and emergence of women artists in the the latter part of the 19th century and on Cassatt’s skill levels as a female painter?

Mary Cassatt, Self Portrait

Mary Cassatt, The Reader, 1877

Mary Cassatt, Tea, 1880

Mary Cassatt, Woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, 1879


Martin Johnson Heade: Landscapes That Echo Zen-Like “Poise and Acceptance”

Martin Johnson Heade, one of the preeminent American Luminist landscape artists painting during the mid-nineteenth century, has long been recognized to favor a rather unsettling atmospheric mood in his vision of the American frontier.  John Updike, in his formidable book Still Looking:  Essays on American Art, offered the following insightful account of Heade’s curious mood:  “Heade’s calm is unsteady, storm-stirred; we respond in our era to its hint of the nervous and the fearful. His weather is interior weather, in a sense, and he perhaps was, if far from the first to portray a modern mood, an ambivalent mood tinged with dread and yet imbued with a certain lightness.The mood could even be said to be religious: not an aggressive preachment of God’s grandeur but a kind of Zen poise and acceptance, represented by the small sedentary or plodding foreground figures that appear uncannily at peace as the clouds blacken and the lightning flashes.”

 What do your visual instincts suggest when your eyes gaze upon Heade’s famous Jersey Marshes of 1874?  Do you concur with John Updike’s statement quoted above or do you see something else, something perhaps different?

Martin Johnson Heade, Jersey Marshes, 1874


Emergence of a New Kind of Hero in American Visual Arts—The Folk Hero

Powerful investors like John Jacob Astor helped push the Westward migration beyond the Allegheny Mountains into the Great Plains area of the United States.  Astor’s very successful American Fir Company, headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, brought to life the rugged yet “heroic” life of solitary fur trappers and the bargemen who plied America’s rivers to bring the animal belts to the world’s market places. George Caleb Bingham, a Virginia-born artist who grew up in Missouri, chronicled and documented the plains life of America’s frontiersmen along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers.  Bingham’s images had no counterpart in Europe.  Wayne Craven writes:  “…and so here again was a subject that was uniquely American…Here, all the color and spirit of life on the great river are captured in rich detail.”  American artists were confident enough by mid century to turn their gaze away from Europe for their inspiration and focus closer to home as Bingham has done.  Andrew Dasburg, in The Arts, 1923, extols American artists who are willing to respond closer to home in their creative endeavors.  “Not until it is realized that that originality never follows from this attitude of assimilation and refinement (of European styles) can we become innovators.”  Bingham and his fellow frontier-type artists most certainly pave the way forward for innovation in American painting at mid-century. What are your thoughts on American artists now becoming confident enough to gaze more intently on the American frontier scene and leave the European narrative style behind?

George Caleb Bingham, Fur Traders Descending the Missouri, 1845

George Caleb Bingham, The Jolly Flatboatmen in Port, 1857

The Artist’s Gaze Taking In The American Eden

As the “founding father” of American landscape painting, Thomas Cole possessed both the painter’s skill set to capture what his eyes beheld and the sympathy, even the empathy with which to document nature’s so-called “silent energy” to stir one’s soul.  For Thomas Cole and the other American landscape painters who followed closely behind, “the solitude of rocks, the freshness of forests, the clearness of waters, the extensive breadth of plains” enabled the artists to “give themselves up to agreeable musing” as they walked amongst nature.  Cole explained to his followers:  “We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out is our own ignorance and folly.”  What do you suspect Cole meant by this reference to a wall?  Do you believe the “Eden” Cole and the other pioneers of documenting the American West still exists?  Your thoughts?


Thomas Cole, Landscape with Tree Trunks (public domain)

“The Silent Energy of Nature Stirs the Soul”

American landscape painters in the early 19th century recognized the incredible potential visible before their eyes as they cast their vision to the American West!  Thomas Cole was, for all intents and purposes, the first skilled artists who recognized the power and presence of the American West.  And Cole dedicated himself to recording that visual phenomena!  Cole exclaimed early on as he focused his gaze toward the Western reaches of the United States:  “It was not that the jagged precipices were lofty, that the encircling woods were the dimmest shade, or that the waters were profoundly deep; but that over all, rocks, wood, and water, brooded the spirit of repose, and the silent energy of nature stirred the soul to its inmost depths.”  In your travels within the United States, have you witness and experienced the phenomena that Cole references in his written words above and most decidedly in his Eden-like documentary images of nature in the Western reaches of the United States?


Thomas Cole, Distant View of Niagara Falls, 1830

American Landscape—A New World Eden

As Americans and Europeans became more and more intrigued by the western lands of the United States, artists recognized the emerging opportunity to create a patronage for landscape painting.  Leading the pack early on in defining the American image through its land was the English painter Thomas Cole who emigrated to the United States.  Cole quickly realized the importance of the pristine and unspoiled western lands of the United States.  The artist exclaimed:  “We are still in Eden; the wall that shuts us out is our own ignorance and folly.”  What wall do you suspect Cole is referencing here that “shuts us out”?  Your thoughts?


Photograph of Thomas Cole


Thomas Cole, The Oxbow of the Connecticut River, 1836


Thomas Cole, Scene from The Last of the Mohicans, 1827

Building with durable materials…

Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third president of the United States, was also an amateur architect who had very strong beliefs and values regarding not just design but also the use of materials in buildings whether they be educational, governmental or residential in purpose.  While serving as the U.S. Ambassador to France, Jefferson had opportunities to see architectural structures constructed in marble still standing.  These structures were designed by the ancient Geeks and Romans using permanent materials and they left powerful impressions on the still developing aesthetic foundation of an impressionable Jefferson. Jefferson absorbed the classical language of ancient Greece and Rome as applied to education, governmental and urban structures.  He also understood the importance of materials, especially durable materials in construction such as marble and brick. Jefferson famously stated:  “A country whose buildings are of wood, can never increase in its improvements to any considerable degree…. Whereas when buildings are of durable materials, every new edifice is an actual and permanent acquisition to the state, adding to its value as well as to its ornament.”  As the fledgling United States is trying to define itself in visual forms, what are your thoughts on Jefferson’s preference for durable materials in his design for the University of Virginia?  For your information, Jefferson is the only U. S. President to have founded a university!


Thomas Jefferson’s Vision of an Academical Village for the University of Virginia


Thomas Jefferson, Design for the Rotunda (library) university_of_virginia_rotunda_in_2006

Thomas Jefferson, Rotunda, University of Virginia

John Singleton Copley and his Colonial/European Legacies

There is little argument that John Singleton Copley was the most gifted and talented artist born in Colonial America.  Copley did not have access to viewing ART in museums, galleries, or private collections during his early adult years.  But Copley have been blessed with the possession of an aesthetic eye and hands that would follow his command.  Skill set alone will not satisfy most artists and certainly not someone as naturally gifted and talented as John Singleton Copley!  The young and advancing Copley had to satisfy himself by looking at prints brought to Colonial America by the early wave of emigrants to the “New World”.  But Copley believed deep down inside of his soul that there was more to be learned and gleaned about being an ARTIST!  In a letter to his step-father, Copley wrote:  “It is a pleasing reflection that I shall stand amongst the first of the artists that shall have led the country (America) to the knowledge and cultivation of the fine arts, happy in the pleasing reflection that they will one day shine with a lustre not inferior to what they have done in Greece or Rome in my native country.”  What are your thoughts on the contributions Copley made to the formation of Colonial American art and, after 1774 when he moved to London, to his advancement in aesthetic issues gleaned from living abroad and contributing to European reputation for history painting?  Do you have a preference between his Colonial body of work and his later European portfolio?  If so, what impresses or stands out for you between the two bodies of work?


John Singleton Copley, Self Portrait, 1780s


John Singleton Copley, Brook Watson and the Shark, 1778


John Singleton Copley, The Death of the Earl of Chatham, 1781