150 Years of American Art – Katharine C. Cochrane Gallery



It should come as no surprise that the story of American art is America itself: its people and their surroundings, their daily lives, and the history of their interactions with one another and the outside world. In colonial America before 1776 and afterwards, portrait painting dominated as prominent civic and religious leaders, politicians, the professional classes, and merchant families sought to celebrate and document their achievements, especially as the colony moved toward becoming a fledgling independent nation. Artistry also included household items as American furniture makers, silversmiths, glassmakers, potters, and weavers rather quickly began producing finely crafted products to compete with imports. And beginning with the War of Independence, American artists, some self-taught and trained in Europe, were inspired to depict the war’s heroes, victories, and tragedies, often with the models of Old World painting in mind.

After independence was won and expansion moved westward, it was the country’s vast unoccupied landscape–its forests, lakes, and mountains–that preoccupied artists. From the 1820s until the Civil War of the 1860s, the belief that nature was “the visible expression of the divine” and that “to study nature would bring one closer to God’s handiwork and so to God’s revelation” strongly motivated artists. While art training was available in Philadelphia, New York City, and Boston, many American artists went to Europe and its established public museums to study the artistic traditions of which they wanted to become a part. This practice would continue throughout the entire nineteenth century.

In time, both European and American artists began to see modern life as a subject worthy of art. In the mid-1850s, landscape artists in America began to incorporate and record the presence of Native Americans and African Americans as part of the fabric of daily life. The general idyllic tone of these works later shifted in the early twentieth century to reflect the stresses of an increasingly urban environment. Although the Great Depression of the 1930s brought renewed interest in the distinctly American landscape and depictions of the hardships of the times in a basically realistic style, many artists by then were responding to the siren call of European Modernism–Fauvism, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and abstraction–introduced with New York City’s Armory Show of 1913. Even as the primary intellectual and stylistic trends of the 1920s and 1930s came from Europe, and European artists fleeing to America from the impending chaos of World War II contributed to art in this country, that art retained a distinctly American flavor. The ongoing power of American artist to absorb, filter, and adapt ensured that they would put a stamp on their own modernist art and strongly influence the schools of abstraction to come.