Artistic Expression in 18th and 19th Century America

Artistic Expression in 18th and 19th Century America

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Artistic Expression in 18th and 19th Century America


The first settlers in the New World faced unpredictable hardships. The men of the Virginia colony had enough trouble learning to live off the land, let alone having to defend themselves from native attacks. Famine proved to be a hard obstacle to conquer for all of the new colonies. New England, while having a more suitable climate for the prevention of diseases, also had its conflicts with local tribes. The Puritan ideals of New England were very strict especially in regard to private indulgences, including art. The only type of art that was "acceptable", were portraits, almost exclusively of upper class citizens and clergy. Through the years leading up to the revolution, however, as the population became diversified, new ideas started to influence popular thought. There were many different cultures coexisting as well as different social classes. However, as was the standard in Europe, only the upper class people were part of the "art world".

Look at paintings from the per revolutionary era, including The Mason Children: David, Joanna, Abigail, (unknown artist), Hanna Minot Moody (Joseph Badger), New England Merchant (Charles W. Peale), Portrait of Elizabeth, The Artist's Daughter (John Singleton Copley), we notice many similarities among them. As stated previously, they are all portraits. All of the subjects are portrayed in very fine clothes and are obviously posing for the painting. Most of these works have little or nothing at all in the background. One gets a very "cold and sterile" feeling when looking at these, and they are most certainly intended not for artistic expression but simply to record the image. "As late as 1800, owing to the limited economy of the Colonies as well as the Puritan’s prejudice against idolatry and their regard for art as a luxury, portraiture was the only accepted form of expression in painting." (Bazin 341).

In the period following the American Revolution up to the turn of the eighteenth century, we start to see some subtle yet significant changes in the popular artwork. We can see a much bolder use of color and background, as in C.W. Peale’s Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming (1788) and Mather Brown’s Sir Richard Arkwright (1790). Emotion is shown of the faces of the subjects and Ralph Earl showed the Striker Sisters (1787) with their arms around each other and pleasant, happy smiles on their faces. Mr. Peale’s work shows the physical attraction between Benjamin and Eleanor.

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They do not appear to be posing quite as much as the subjects of other works. Their garb is also considerably more casual and naturally worn; Benjamin has his coat unbuttoned and Eleanor is shown in a "revealing" low cut dress. The rebel spirit of the revolutionary period seems to have had an influence on the artwork of the time. Artists were beginning to take risks and express themselves more fully, fortunately the 1800’s would not hinder their efforts.

The turn of the century seems to have brought with it an almost immediate change in American art, redefining what were previously considered the standards of painting. The era of expansionism starts after the War of 1812, the U.S. has acquired the Louisiana Purchase and soon after Spanish Florida. The threat of Indian attacks are lessening as troops begin to force tribes onto federally controlled reservation, making the west more accessible and safer. The steam engine is put into use on riverboats, creating a cultural icon for the new century and greatly improving the economy for both buyers and sellers. Joshua Jackson’s The Westwood Children (c. 1807) is not far removed from the portraits of the 1700’s however, after further inspection, it is obvious that he took many artistic liberties. Unlike the standard convention, he has placed the children, his subject, off center, as if to say that they are only part of a whole, not the entire whole itself. Mr. Jackson adds facial expression, physical contact between the siblings, the family dog and finally a picnic basket to set a warm mood. These small additions prove to the viewer that this is a scene from everyday life, almost a candid representation of a moment in time.

Margaretta Angelica Peale’s Melons and Pears (1820), Thomas Cole’s The Clove, Catskills (c.1827), and Alvan Fischer’s Waiting for the Stage Coach (1834), are all examples of how the popular thought of what art is, changed during the early 1800’s. Unlike all their predecessors, these paintings have no human subjects. Ms. Peale’s work is a still life, obviously it was intended to be viewed for its artistic and aesthetic quality. It is not meant to be a showpiece of ones wealth, nor a chronicle of ones ancestors. It is simply a study of the shapes of fruits and how those shapes interact with each other. Mr. Cole’s and Mr. Fischer’s paintings are both landscapes. Again, these works celebrate the beauty of nature, a concept unheard of a hundred years earlier. These subjects suggest that this was a time of prosperity in the nation. The outdoors was for the first time looked at as a national treasure.

In 1829 Andrew Jackson was elected to office. He was the first president not to have been one of the founding fathers. He brought with him many new ideas that would forever change the nation, making it a more democratic society. Soon after his election, came the Second Great Awakening, fuel by the ideas of anti slavery, temperance of alcohol and women’s rights. All of these were very controversial topics, however times had changed, allowing people to speak out without fear of reprisals. It was a more open-minded time, which saw the birth of the Mormon religion as well and the popularity of spiritualism. The idea of equality and tolerance is portrayed beautifully in the painting The Peaceable Kingdom (1846) by Edward Hicks. The title alone suggests harmony and unity. The painting shows bulls, leopards, monkeys and other wild animals living along side humans. The work has an almost surreal quality to it, however the subject matter is not nearly as far fetched.

Other paintings from this pre-Civil War era, such as Shad Fishing On the Hudson (1846) by William T. Ranney, and At The Well (1848) by William S. Mount, show the roots of the impressionism movement, normally associated with European artists, such as Van Gogh and Monet. These paintings fall under the genre of "realism", in which the artist’s intent is to show a scene from everyday life, like a candid snapshot. The artists are no longer interested in who the fishermen are on the Hudson, or who the man was at the well. Their intent is to capture a "feeling" and to instill a certain nostalgia in the viewer.

In conclusion, it is interesting to look at American art and see its progression. American art like the country itself, was grew slowly and had its share of "ups and downs". We can see how the economics and religious beliefs of the populace had a huge impact on artistic expression. The dark and eerie portraits of the 1700’s are in contrast to the lively paintings of the same era in Europe. Prior to the twentieth century, all major trends in art had their roots there. Regardless of the popular trends and styles though, art is and always will be a true expression of the thoughts and feelings of the time in which it was made.

Works Cited

Badger, Joseph. Hanna Minot Moody. 1758.

Bazin, Germain. A History of Art. (New York: Bonanza Books, 1959).

Brown, Mather. Sir Richard Arkwright. 1790.

Cole, Bruce, and Adelhied Gealt. Art of the Western World. (New York: Summit Books, 1989).

Copley, John Singleton. Portrait of Elizabeth, The Artists Daughter. 1776.

Earl, Ralph. The Striker Sisters. 1787.

Fischer, Alvan. Waiting for the Stage Coach. 1834.

Hicks, Edward. The Peacable Kingdom. 1846.

Jackson, Joshua. The Westwood Children. C. 1804.

Janson, H.W. History Of Art. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1986).

Mount, William Sidney. At The Well. 1848.

Peale, Charles William. Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Learning. 1788.

Peale, C.W. New England Merchant. 1765.

Peale, Margaretta Angelica. Melons and Pears. 1820.

Ranney, William T. Shad Fishing On The Hudson. 1846.Unknown Artist. The Mason Children: David, Joanna, Abigail. 1670.
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