contributed by Ronna Fleischman
As with other art forms, American artists have long used the medium of paint and brush to express a national identity, question traditional thinking, and promote controversy. For the past three centuries, individuals, regions, movements, and schools have explored and evolved the various aspects of the American experience through painting.
Most early American art consisted of historical painting, battle scenes and especially portraits. John Smibert, who landed at Newport in 1729, was America’s first portrait painter of distinction to attempt to carve out an existence in colonial America. Benjamin West was a Neoclassical painter who had a profound influence on several generations of American artists. And John Trumbull, who introduced romanticism to American painting, is known as the artist of the American Revolution.
With westward expansion of settlement came the transcendent beauty of frontier landscapes to the attention of American painters. The Great West became a distinct genre, which emphasized the sheer size of the land and the cultures of the native people living on it.
The first painting school of American art was The Hudson River School, whose painters carefully detailed their landscapes with romantic, almost glowing lighting. Asher B. Durand and Thomas Cole were prominent artists of this School. The Hudson River painters set out to “ignore the courtly muses of Europe and define a distinct vision for American art. The vast nation lay before them, which they celebrated with a sense of awe for its majestic natural beauty and a feeling of optimism for the enormous potential it held. By the 1830s, landscape painting had become the vehicle for depicting a national identity.
Lighthearted paintings depicting everyday life gained popularity around the mid-1800’s, however, the mood of the nation quickly darkened following the Civil War. Thomas Eakinsand Winslow Homer expressed a stark realistic world view. Their mature art demonstrated their uncompromising commitment to truth.
Toward the end of the century, avant-garde movements such as Impressionism were embraced by American painters. Exhibitions of Impressionist works were held in American cities and sales were strong. In 1886, with a series of brilliant images of New York’s new public parks, William Merritt Chase became the first major American painter to create impressionist canvases in the United States. Theodore Robinson, Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam, among others, helped to firmly validate the impressionist style of painting for American artists.
Controversy has always been a motivation for American artists, and much of American painting since 1900 has been a revolt against tradition. The Modernist painters experimented with a variety of new styles that challenged conventional thinking. George Bellows and Edward Hopper painted in a language of abstraction that spoke of anxiety and alienation, and challenged the notion that America held the promise of paradise.
Georgia O’Keeffe was another major figure pushing the boundaries of modern American artistic style. She is chiefly known for paintings of flowers, rocks, shells, animal bones and landscapes in which she synthesized abstraction with representation.
The Harlem Renaissance in the first half of the 20th century was both a celebration of black culture and a plea against prejudice. Black American artists looked to their unique racial experience as the source of artistic inspiration. One of the most prominent artists of the Harlem Renaissance was Aaron Douglass who created many paintings of black subjects, cultivated wealthy patrons to support the movement, and worked as an activist.
In the 1940’s, the Abstract Expressionists came together in New York City’s Greenwich Village, where they addressed the great question of human existence through art. They emphasized form and color within a nonrepresentational framework. Their paintings were often shapes, lines and abstract forms not intended to depict reality. Jackson Pollock initiated the revolutionary technique of splattering paint directly on a canvas to achieve a subconscious interpretation of his inner vision.
In the 1960’s, as both a development of and a reaction to Abstract Expressionism, American Pop Art was born. The sentiment surrounding the former was that it had become to elitist. Pop Art attempted to reverse this trend by once again introducing the image as a structural device and pull art back from the edge of abstraction. Pop Art was an affirmation of pop culture, consumerism, optimism, music, art and youth culture. The artist that embodied the spirit of the movement was Andy Warhol, who elevated its imagery to museum status.
Although digital technologies have permeated the art world in the last few decades, painting is still very much alive in America. Artists are more free to paint what and how they want. There is no consensus, nor need there be, as to a representative style of the age. An anything and everything goes attitude prevails, and only the marketplace is left to judge their merit. However, magnificent and important works of art continue to be made in a wide variety of styles, perpetuating the plurality of American art.