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AMERICAN PAINTERS IN THE 19thC

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JOSEPH ALEXANDER AMES (AMERICAN 1816-1872) PORTRAIT OF WASHINGTON ALLSTON, ca 1840 - Oil on canvas
JOSEPH ALEXANDER AMES (AMERICAN 1816-1872) PORTRAIT OF WASHINGTON ALLSTON, ca 1840 - Oil on canvas

The best trained painters working in the United States after the War of 1812, Washington Allston, John Vanderlyn, and Samuel F. B. Morse, subscribed to a modification of neoclassical theory then not uncommon in Europe. The doctrine that, because of the superiority of Greek classic society, only the ancients had perfect bodies, had been broadened to postulate that among ordinary men only European peasants were worth painting, because, as Vanderlyn explained, their lack of "fashion and frivolity" gave them a closeness to nature, a universality not found elsewhere. Differing widely from the European norm, Americans were clearly the least universal of Western men. In Massachusetts, Allston painted ‘Roman Lady Reading’. Of the five genre scenes Morse, the president of the National Academy, exhibited there, four were European.

The attitude of home-trained portraitists towards American genre was epitomized by John Neagle (1796 - 1865), a former sign-painter's apprentice who had frequented Stuart's studio. He was surprised when a prosperous blacksmith told him, "I do not wish to be painted as what I am not: a gentleman." Pat Lyon wished to be painted in his leather apron, standing beside his forge with his hammer in his hand. The commission must have appealed to something basic in Neagle's nature, for he produced by far his best picture. Cool blue sky seen through a window complements the glow of the fire which turns the interior of the smithy reddish-brown. A boy manning the bellows is effectively subordinated to Pat himself, who stands at full length with negligent strength, his expression good-humored, the red of his nose vying as the brightest color with the hot coals behind him. In 1828, this genre portrait was the popular hit of a Boston Athenaeum exhibition; the directors bought it for their permanent collection. Neagle executed a copy for Lyon, but made no further effort to repeat his triumph. He had been given an eccentric commission and executed it twice; he returned to conventional portraits.

During the early nineteenth century, gales of youthful laughter swept the adolescent nation. Washington Irving's literary career began with a series of hoaxes. When in the 1820's New York's leading artists and writers formed a Sketch Club, they spread the rumor that it was a secret society aimed at the establishment of an absolute monarchy and abolition of "the odious practice of making visits on New Year's Day." At a meeting, the poet William Cullen Bryant propounded "a sage notion that the perfection of bathing is to jump head foremost into a snow bank"; and they held formal debates on such questions as "does heat expand the days in summer?"

MINIATURE Profile Portrait of Aaron Burr by John Wesley Jarvis (NY 1780-1840)
MINIATURE Profile Portrait of Aaron Burr by John Wesley Jarvis (NY 1780-1840)

At the center of such rebels was a portrait painter, John Wesley Jarvis (1781 - 1839), whose funny stories were as celebrated as his pictures: the art critic John Neal considered him "one of the greatest humorists of the age." As a joke, Jarvis would dash off such hilarious drawings as his caricature of a barber who crowned himself emperor to prove that any American, "if he had spirit enough to assume and talents enough to support the title," could be the equal of any European king. When Jarvis engaged in more serious book illustration, he turned out gruel, and he never attempted comic paintings. Among his pupils, he preferred the correct portraitist Henry Inman (1801 - 1846) to John Quidor (1800 - 1881) who was in the next generation to bring American humorous art to its own.

Local life was considered by Americans too mean to paint, but it fascinated John Lewis Krimmel (1787 - 1821) who came from Germany to Philadelphia during 1810. In a miniaturist's technique, using brushes sometimes no larger than the head of a pin, he crowded small canvases with full-length figures. More in the illustrator's than the fine arts tradition, he delighted in showing bumpkins as bumpkins. When lie painted ‘Bishop White Officiating at a Country Wedding’, he reproduced a rural parlor even to chips in the paint of well-worn chairs, the cat brooding amidst the clutter on top of a closet. His passion for detail kept him, as he himself realized, from achieving unity of effect, yet the happy little canvases are instinct with naive charm.

A gruff, unsociable foreigner, who scorned to dress like a gentleman and was pioneering in an unfashionable mode, Krimmel had his difficulties at first, but an engraver became interested in his work, other purchasers came along, and a group of connoisseurs was finally impressed into trying to reform him: they Commissioned a historical subject in the "grand style": ‘The Landing of Venn’. Whether Krimmel would have given in to such pressure it is impossible to know, for he died at the age of thirty-two. His scenes of American life continued to have an amazing currency: they were exhibited at academies and sold at auction beside spurious Raphaels. Yet he had no followers. On a professional level, genre persisted primarily in topographical drawings and engravings, and in the work of artisans who continued the old colonial tradition of "painting in general."

John Archibald Woodside Pennsylvania (1781-1852) ARAB CHIEFTAIN ON STALLION 1831 oil on canvas
John Archibald Woodside Pennsylvania (1781-1852) ARAB CHIEFTAIN ON STALLION 1831 oil on canvas

Considered "one of the best sign painters in this state and perhaps in the country," John A. Woodside (1781 - 1852) exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy easel pictures which were an extension of the demands made on him by his commercial patrons. Still life was essential to signs identifying butcher and grocery stores, but it had become so identified with beginners and artisans that between the Columbianum show of 1795 and the Pennsylvania Academy shows of 1811 - 1813 the percentage of artists who exhibited such pictures dropped from twenty-eight to twelve. Boasting of his catholic taste, Allston wrote, "I cannot honestly turn up my nose even at a piece of still life." Undaunted, Woodside submitted fruit and flower pieces reminiscent of canvases by James and Raphaelle Peale but with a brash hardness suited to boards that swung high over a street.

For the sides of fire engines, Woodside enlarged those engravings of buxom maidens, whose semi-nudity was not considered shocking because caused by draperies in the correct classical taste, which served the advertising art of those days as "cheesecake." They were ubiquitous even on the currency with which polite young ladies paid their bills. When he ventured into historical painting, Woodside sought similar excitements. His ‘Columbus at the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella’ features garish, poster-like colors and scantily-clothed Indian coquettes who would make any right-thinking fireman whistle. As landscapes, he painted portraits of gentlemen's estates completely in the topographical tradition.

Woodside's most admired picture is a genre scene, his ‘Country Fair’. Seeking, as a sign painter should, an organization that would hold the eye from a distance, he grouped his multitudinous sharply-drawn forms into bold masses. Parallel with the frame stretches a frieze of cattle and horses which protrudes forward into a knot of sheep, and is variegated at the rear by a crenellation of human shoulders and top-hatted heads. Behind there is a vacant ground broken with lots of action, and then a similar frieze, smaller but not dimmer with distance. The background is dominated by three shapes: some trees joined into a clump; a free standing barn; and a house that makes a unit with its vegetation. Because each of the larger shapes goes off in its own direction, this organization fails to give the picture unity. Although loved today for its quaint rendition of times long dead, ‘Country Fair’ nonetheless reveals the limitations of the sign-painter's manner.

Amateur art was even more limited. The maidens who crowded into drawing schools did not stare hard at the world around them. For one thing, they were not trained to see with their own eyes. A teacher might paint, as a showpiece of his skill, such a charming genre scene as ‘Young Ladies' Seminary’, ‘Virginia’, but he would not recommend anything so difficult to his pupils. The object of instruction was to enable beginners to turn out with little application impressive pictures. Krimmel lost his job as a drawing teacher in a finishing school because he refused to help the process along by executing difficult passages himself.

The most renowned American drawing school was the Columbian Academy in New York City. At one moment Alexander Robertson, its proprietor, would state that the best art galleries were the parlors of "people of importance" containing pictures by their "particular relations"; in the next, he would advertise that "to his very numerous collection of patterns he has added this summer very considerably." Engravings to be reproduced were the basis of every curriculum, so much so that rhapsodists on "folk art" are being perpetually embarrassed by the discovery that the masterpieces they had hailed as untrammeled outpourings of American genius were copies of European prints.

Most helpful was a chemical which, since it made paper that was glued to glass transparent, kept even a girl's parents from knowing that her fancy picture was achieved by washing flat colors over the ink of an engraving. For still life on velvet, the teacher obligingly supplied stencils of fruit and flower elements, which could be combined to taste. Needlework patterns often doubled as sources for the watercolorists. And an easier method than watercolor was supplied by "Monochromatic Drawing," somewhat analogous to modern finger painting, in which dobs of black crayon were pushed out on a white ground to form shapes and shadows.

The abler young ladies, of course, made their own changes in their sources, sometimes giving them a wild, romantic tone suitable to their girlish temperaments: ‘The Royal Psalmist’ is an altogether delightful translation of the stern neoclassical mode into a parlor vision. Copying an engraved emblem which showed Liberty being pulled in a star-spangled chariot by eagles, Lucy Douglas of Vermont (1797 - 1833) gave a bromide freshness by placing it in the sky over a landscape into which houses - and perhaps trees - had been inserted through stencils. Between the ages of thirty and sixty, the twice-married Eunice Pinney (1770 - 1849) copied many prints, but also produced an occasional composition which seems to have been entirely her own.

Even the best of the ladies' pictures were shaped and restrained by their social function. Allies in the cause of gentility with downcast eyes and pretty blushes, they could never be brutal or direct, nor could they be strong in days when a swooning timidity was considered to characterize "the sex." Humor had to be elfin, not raucous; love and romance were to be taken seriously but covered with the circumlocutions of modesty; melancholy was suitable; and a spirited rush of feelings attractive as long as it was kept within bounds. Those melancholy storms that were painted as the romantic movement deepened, those moonlit scenes full of brooding ruins, are stage sets: we enjoy the thrill but are not frightened. The young lady who weeps under a willow by a tomb in the ubiquitous "mourning pictures" has not disarranged her hair, nor, when she drops her handkerchief, will her eyes be red. Those watermelons and apples on silk have charm but excite no hunger; those heroines riding through the dark with their lovers are delightful, but incite no lust. Surely the person waits at the end of the road.

At best, the ladies' art brings to our eyes tears of nostalgia for those dear dead days, and for the graceful hand, the sparkling eyes now gone to dust, which in the exuberance of youth produced these visions. What a flirt the painter must have been to the decorous notes of the waltz, what a gracious bride, what an attractive mother! But she was too corseted by convention to be a great artist.

Attributed to Henry Sargent - Couple in a Interior -  Oil on canvas
Attributed to Henry Sargent - Couple in a Interior - Oil on canvas

Like their predecessors since American art began, most amateurs practiced limited techniques, but the same cultural change which permitted gentlemen to be professionals, produced some amateurs of professional training. When Henry Sargent (1770 - 1845) reacted against business, his merchant father sent him to London and Benjamin West. On his return to Boston, Sargent set up as an artist, but no financial necessity kept him at his easel. Drifting into state and militia politics, he neglected his brushes and picked them up again in the 1820's largely for his own amusement. His best paintings showed festivities at which he had been host. ‘The Dinner Party’ (Neal reported that a dog was fooled into begging at the painted table, but the dog must have been nearsighted) and ‘The Tea Party’ almost escape from the cluttering of detail which characterized what genre painting was being done in the United States. Sargent's swollen pocketbook enabled him to collect old Dutch masters, and from them he learnt a control of light which, by strengthening the formal grouping of the figures, allowed him to present a unified artistic vision. Such pictures pointed the direction to knowing depictions of American life. They were admired, but not imitated.

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