Art and Architecture

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Scholarship in American art has largely followed that of literary studies, tending since the 1970s and with growing intensity since to recover neglected arts and artists and to emphasize the production of art in its social and cultural milieu. Students of art have broadly recognized that issues in aesthetics are closely related to the biographies of those who produce and use it and that therefore the history of American art is in fact an array of histories. As the roles of marginal groups have been more closely studied, histories such as Frances K. Pohl's Framing America (2002) and the volumes in the new Oxford History of Art (offering "a fresh look at art that moves away from traditional elitist approaches" [p. 1]), have made room for critical examinations of arts and issues barely addressed in traditional art histories. What has emerged is a considerably more complicated view of American art that challenges conservative ideologies of cultural uniformity. As a result, the canon of American art has been significantly expanded and thereby enriched—even though it has become considerably more difficult to conceptualize as a whole.


The post–Civil War period in American art and architecture is marked by the same kinds of energy that accompanied the rise of industrialization as found in literary realism and naturalism. From the Civil War to the First World War, from the Hudson River school to the Armory Show, from the nondescript pre–Civil War architecture to the skyscraper and the luxurious homes of the newly wealthy, the American vision went through remarkable transformations as it accommodated itself to new circumstances.

John Gast's allegory American Progress (1872) is emblematic of the national mood in the decade following the Civil War. At the center of the painting, a gigantic female figure representing the American spirit glides westward across the landscape, spreading light and power and nonchalantly stringing telegraph wire as she moves. At her feet are representative figures of the westward movement: frontiersmen, homesteaders, pony express and stagecoach riders; railroads follow her advance. To the west, in hasty retreat before these combined forces, are Native Americans and the bison that sustained them. Glimpsed to the far right are signs of settled civilization in the East: cities, ships, bridges. What the painting does not show is the boundless energy of urban and industrial growth and the tensions between immigrants and "Americans" and between the industrialists and the laborers who did the physical work. The final decades of the century were years of restless mercantile activity, and the captains of industry and the newly rich appeared complacent about the human costs of growth.

Despite the relief accompanying the end of the war, Lewis Mumford called these post–Civil War years "the Brown Decades"; he saw a civilization sobered by war and stripped of ideals. The national green bloom had faded, and American culture at large turned to darker hues to express its new sense of itself: brownstones, dark interiors and wallpapers, somber paintings. This is an exaggeration, but it has its core of truth—and against this truth the artists in the period struggled, supported by the examples of their forebears Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. America had not yet fully given itself over to Emerson's demand for a specifically American art. Academic art, self-congratulatory and sentimental, looked often to the past for its models, repulsing serious artistic efforts to look at America through critical eyes. For the most part prestige lay in European, not American, art and so the struggle for a specifically American art was difficult and inharmonious.

After the Civil War and well into the 1930s, artists and writers turned to Europe, especially Paris, where artistic ferment was at its height. Many important American artists and architects studied in Europe—not only Paris but London and even Munich, as in the cases of Frank Duveneck and William Merritt Chase. A number of artists spent much of their lives, like their counterpart in literature Henry James, as expatriates in Europe, among them James McNeill Whistler, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, William Wetmore Story, and the Chippewa and African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis. Although few Americans were drawn to travel in Asia (John La Farge and Frank Lloyd Wright were important exceptions), Asian influences, especially Japanese, were important for artists as diverse as Cassatt, Whistler, and Chase. Many were encouraged by the example of the Boston Museum curator Ernest Fenollosa and, through him, the preeminent American collector of Asian art, Charles Lang Freer, whose collection became the core of the Smithsonian Gallery that bears his name.

American artists may have trekked to Europe for training, but equally as important was the transfer of European art to America to enter the growing American collections of Isabella Stewart Gardner, Duncan Phillips, Henry Clay Frick, Andrew Carnegie, Albert C. Barnes, Walter Arensberg, and Claribel and Etta Cone of Baltimore. And of course there was a need to house these collections, so American art museums sprang into existence: the Corcoran Museum in Washington in 1869, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1870, the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1876, the Art Institute of Chicago in 1879, and though not until a half-century later, New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1929 and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., in 1930.

Perhaps the two writers with the closest affinities with the arts other than literature were Henry James (1843–1916) and Theodore Dreiser (1871–1945). The cosmopolitan James is obviously of great importance, for he felt supremely at home with art objects and the artists who made them. His works, from Roderick Hudson (1876) to short stories such as "The Real Thing" and "The Jolly Corner," evince his abiding interest in the arts and the sometimes conflicted values associated with them and in the arts as cultural symbols that pitted James's America against "decadent" Europe. His The American Scene (1907) records his reactions to American cultural instability.

Of considerable interest are the many magazine pieces written by Theodore Dreiser as he surveyed his own American scene. Dreiser paid attention in print to many artists, some of whom have all but faded from historic consciousness, among them Bruce Crane, William Louis Sonntag, John Henry Dolph, Gilbert Gaul; in reviewing America's Greatest Portrait Painters in 1899, Dreiser spoke of Eastman Johnson, J. Alden Weir, and Childe Hassam but mentioned John Singer Sargent only in passing; Thomas Eakins is altogether absent. Dreiser lacked polish in artistic judgment, but his essays are energetic forays into the American scene in all its richness and motion, and he knew enough about the arts to make a sculptor the protagonist of his novel The "Genius" (1915).

Note should also be made of Henry Adams (1838–1918), historian, novelist, and art history theorist in works such as Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and "The Dynamo and the Virgin" from The Education of Henry Adams (1907). Adams's writings on art, along with his close friendships with John La Farge, Henry Hobson Richardson, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, were extremely influential.

During this period there were many means by which Americans boasted of their achievements, but there were especially two remarkable opportunities to showcase the range of American art (as well as that of other nations): the Philadelphia Centennial in 1876 and the phenomenally successful World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The Philadelphia event was covered by William Dean Howells in "A Sennight of the Centennial" (Atlantic Monthly, July 1876). Howells admired the architecture, but in his enthusiasm for English art—and American machinery—he had little to say about American contributions to art.


After the Civil War, American architecture bloomed. Along with monuments to the fallen dead, courthouses and city halls proliferated. The growth of cities, westward expansion, and the needs of rapid industrialization required a responsive architecture to include handsome buildings intended for commercial purposes, and the astronomical increase in land value required the verticality that the skyscraper soon provided. At the same time, the nouveaux riches needed cultural proof of their ascendancy—the kind of proof that architecture could display in abundance.

Architectural advances are in great part related to accomplishments in engineering, and this was a period of dynamic American achievement: the transcontinental railroad, completed in 1869; the Brooklyn Bridge (begun by John Roebling in 1869, completed by his son Washington Roebling in 1883); the unveiling of Hugh Ferris's enormous wheel at the Chicago world's fair in 1893 (a direct response to the challenge of Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel's tower in 1889); the first flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, in 1903; and the long-awaited opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Of most immediate importance to architecture were the introduction of structural steel and the perfection of the passenger elevator.

As befitted an ambitious and aggressive culture, architects delighted in extravagance, resulting in a confusing hodgepodge of styles; the short-lived battle between Victorian gothic and French Second Empire styles contributed, according to Milton Brown, to "a common aggressively plastic picturesqueness expressive of the brash adventurism of the period" (American Art, p. 249). The French Second Empire style was sometimes known as the "General Grant style" and sometimes was called the mansard style because of its most conspicuous feature, the curved or sloped roofs. Good examples include the building now housing the Smithsonian's Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. (1859–1861), designed by James Renwick, and the State, War, and Navy Building (1871–1875) by Alfred B. Mullett, an important figure in creating the architectural look of Washington, D.C. Competing with the Second Empire was gothic revival architecture, emphasizing flamboyant decorative possibilities and in its later phases influenced by John Ruskin. One of the most important examples is the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1872–1876) designed by Frank Furness.

A more important development in American architecture was the Romanesque revival, sometimes called "Richardsonian" after Henry Hobson Richardson (1838–1886), its most important figure. The style is characterized by its massive look, employing heavy masonry and repetition of rounded arches for windows and doors. Its monumental seriousness lent itself to the demands of public buildings, churches, railroad terminals, and even university campuses. Richardson's work is found most remarkably in Trinity Church in Boston (1872–1877), the Allegheny County Buildings in Pittsburgh (1884–1888), and various libraries and railroad stations in Massachusetts.

In the cities, commercial structures responded to population growth, particularly in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and newly emergent Chicago. Expensive land values required efficient use of space, and architecture responded with the skyscraper, which the architect Louis Sullivan (1856–1924), in an important 1896 essay, "The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered," declared should be "a proud and soaring thing." The skyscraper was made possible by the invention of the "safety" elevator designed by Elisha Graves Otis in 1852 (first installed in a New York department store in 1857) and the shift from heavy load-bearing masonry walls to skeletal steel structures. "Curtain" walls were hung on steel skeletons, thus saving space, allowing more light to reach the interior, and making possible greater height and elegance.

Chicago swiftly became the focus of this new dramatic architecture. The great fire of 1871 was catastrophic, but it opened up invigorating possibilities for new planning, leading to the birth of the "Chicago School," which emphasized functionality and rejected classical models. The most important figure in the Chicago School was Louis Sullivan, for Mumford "the Whitman of American architecture" (and the man Frank Lloyd Wright continued to call "the master" long after Sullivan fired him). Sullivan designed influential structures such as the Carson Pirie Scott Building (1899) and, with his partner Dankmar Adler, the Auditorium Building on Michigan Avenue (1886–1890) and the Transportation Building for the Columbian Exposition—perhaps the only exposition building Sullivan did not despise (see Sullivan's The Autobiography of an Idea, 1924). Sullivan argued for a three-part building structure: a base (incorporating accessible retail spaces), a shaft (intermediate floors for offices), and a capital, usually decorative in appearance while hiding the building's elevator technology and utilities.

Another important figure in the Chicago School was Daniel Burnham (1846–1912), who with John Wellborn Root (the poet Harriet Monroe's brother-in-law) designed the Rookery (1885–1886) as well as the often-photographed Flatiron Building in New York (1902) and Union Station in Washington, D.C. (1907). Burnham's most momentous achievement was his role as "director of works" for the Columbian Exposition, leading a virtual who's who of architects and artists who put together the buildings and exhibits on 633 acres of Jackson Park in Chicago.

By far the largest building at the Columbian Exposition—indeed, it was claimed to be the largest building in the world—was the Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building, designed by George B. Post (1837–1913); it was nearly 1,700 by 790 feet (30 acres) and rose to a height of almost 250 feet. Post was the architect most closely associated with the skyscraper in New York; his Equitable Building (1868–1870) was apparently the first office building to employ elevators. Post's talents were broad: he designed the New York Stock Exchange (1901–1903), with its Roman temple front, and the campus of the City College of New York in the early 1900s as well as the Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion on West Fifty-seventh Street (1879–1882, 1892–1894).

Other memorable buildings of the period include McKim, Mead, and White's Pennsylvania Station (1902–1911) and the Boston Public Library (1887), for which John Singer Sargent contributed important murals. Cass Gilbert's Woolworth Building (called "a cathedral of commerce"), upon its completion in 1913 the tallest building in the world, remains a remarkable contribution, its lobby a monument to early-twentieth-century commercial opulence.

The most important name in domestic architecture was Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), whose chief contribution to a distinctively American culture was the organically structured prairie houses that attempted to retain the natural horizontal characteristics of their settings, with low pitched, cantilevered roofs. Perhaps the most famous example of this "Prairie School" architecture is his Robie House in Chicago (1909). Wright also influentially designed for public and commercial purposes, such as the Larkin Building in Buffalo, New York (1904), and the Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois (1905); he renovated Burnham and Root's Rookery lobby in 1905. By the end of World War I, Wright's fame was well established, even if many of his most famous works, such as "Fallingwater" (1936), the house built over a stream in the woods near Bear Run, Pennsylvania, were still far in the future.

Of necessity, Wright's clients were wealthy, but Wright did not design for ostentation, as did the builders of houses for the rich in Newport, Rhode Island—shells for "rituals of consumption and display" as Robert Hughes writes, with "opulence as an end in itself" (pp. 232–233). Chief among these architects was Richard Morris Hunt. His "Breakers" (1895), built for Cornelius Vanderbilt II, was a seventy-room takeoff on an Italian Renaissance palazzo—for Hughes "the archetype of Gilded Age excess" (p. 235). Even more extravagant was Hunt's "Biltmore" (1895) in North Carolina, a mansion of more than 250 rooms built for George Washington Vanderbilt III. The building was made of Indiana limestone, and its grounds included gardens laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted, famous for his work in designing Central Park and the landscape architecture at the Columbian Exposition.

John Singer Sargent visited the "Biltmore" early and did a portrait of its owner. Henry James visited it as well and disliked it, calling his room there "a glacial phantasy" and the building as a whole "a phenomenon of brute achievement" (Stern, p. 101). James was both fascinated with and critical of the Gilded Age mansions. He thought the rows of houses in Newport were "white elephants" that "look queer and conscious and lumpish—some of them, as with an air of the brandished proboscis, really grotesque—while their averted owners, roused from a witless dream, wonder what in the world is to be done with them" (American Scene, p. 224). He likewise thought Isabella Stewart Gardner gaudily materialistic and her "Fenway Court" in Boston little more than an ostentatious shell to house the art objects that she employed the art critic Bernard Berenson to collect for her.

Perhaps precisely because of its feel-good opulence, imaginative hotel architecture became exceedingly popular, such as the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida (McDonald and McGuire, 1892–1894), a building so large, according to Gullible in Ring Lardner's Gullible's Travels (1917), that a telephone call from one end of the dining room to the other required a toll charge. The West was represented by James and Merritt Reid's Hotel Del Coronado (completed 1888) in San Diego, with its stunning Spanish-inspired red roof, large balconies, and huge ballroom; and Robert Reamer's extravagant "log cabin" hotel, the Old Faithful Inn (1904), in Yellowstone National Park. Other memorable western architecture included Bernard Maybeck's Roman-influenced Palace of Fine Arts built for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 and the "castle" built by Julia Morgan (starting in 1919) for William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon, California—the Xanadu of Orson Welles's film Citizen Kane (1941). Also quite remarkable is the "Victorian Carson Mansion" (1884–1886) in Eureka, California, designed by Samuel and Joseph Newsom—described by G. E. Kidder Smith as "a spectacular example of gung-ho Queen Anne and nineteenth century eclecticism" (p. 271).

Two famous houses built for American cultural figures of the period are "Olana" (1870–1891), a "Persian" style mansion in Hudson, New York, designed primarily by its owner, the Hudson River school painter Frederic Edwin Church; and the elaborate Victorian house designed by Edward T. Potter for Mark Twain in Hartford, Connecticut (1874), where Twain was a neighbor to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Twain made the "curious house" his own in his verse "This Is the House That Mark Built" (Stern, p. 93).

The advances in American architecture in this period easily made it the most important and dynamic in the world—appropriately functional and extraordinary in appearance. Architecture had caught the American imagination so completely by the turn of the century that in 1905 the Architectural Record editor Herbert Croly noted the occurrence of architects as characters in American fiction of the time—in Edith Wharton's Sanctuary (1903), Robert Grant's Unleavened Bread (1900), and Robert Herrick's The Common Lot (1904).


Loosely related to developments in architecture is what Milton Brown calls "the national passion for monuments," especially in the years immediately after the Civil War. Much of the sculpture was commissioned to honor figures such as George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and many mundane pieces commemorated the Civil War in the public squares of American towns. The North's success in the Civil War and the defeat of slavery were common themes, such as Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw (1897), showing the white colonel on his horse riding beside marching black troopers, and Thomas Ball's The Emancipation Group (1874), depicting a crouched slave, wearing iron shackles, at the feet of Lincoln. As Barbara Groseclose writes, these pieces continue to question the dynamics of the relations between dominant white figures and subservient blacks. The antislavery movement honored its heroes, as in John Quincy Adams Ward's Henry Ward Beecher (1891) and made it possible for Edmonia Lewis to produce her Death of Cleopatra (1876).

Sculpture, subject to public taste and funding, was necessarily more cautious, less innovative than the other arts. Inspirational sculpture was to be found in abundance, the key figure being Daniel Chester French (1850–1931). His The Minute Man (1873–1874) in Concord is an early example, but his most important work remains his Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (1915–1919), with its imposing nineteen-foot-tall seated figure of Lincoln. French also produced a sculpture of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1879).

Perhaps in keeping with the period, many dramatically draped figures of grief appeared, such as in the Adams Memorial (1886–1891) by Saint-Gaudens and The Angel of Death and the Sculptor (1889–1893) and Mourning Victory (1906–1908) by French, the latter part of his Melvin Memorial in Concord's Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. The Haymarket Martyrs Monument (1890) by Albert Weinert created controversy because of polarized interpretations of the hooded female who stands defiantly in front of the body of one of the fallen.

Heroic sculpture was found in abundance at the Philadelphia Centennial and the Chicago Columbian Exposition, the latter including works by French, Saint-Gaudens, and Frederick MacMonnies, who created the massive Columbian Fountain in the Court of Honor, with a female Columbia on a barge surrounded by allegorical figures of Time and Fame and rowing figures representing science, industry, agriculture, and art. The tallest sculpture, at the opposite end of the court, was the work of French, a figure of a female Republic (nicknamed "Big Mary") towering sixty-five feet and holding aloft a globe upon which an eagle perched.

William Wetmore Story (1819–1895) has not maintained his reputation as a sculptor, despite Henry James's interest in him. James was most attracted to Story because of his expatriation to Italy, and he fascinated James enough to motivate the latter's two-volume work William Wetmore Story and His Friends: From Letters, Diaries, and Recollections (1903) as well as his novel Roderick Hudson (1876), which carries his young sculptor protagonist to Rome, where he is corrupted and destroyed. Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to have had Story in his mind in the writing of The Marble Faun (1860).

In the West, Frederic Remington (1861–1909) was the preeminent sculptor, with such memorable bronzes as The Bronco Buster (1895) and Coming through the Rye (1902). There were many lesser-known works of sculpture with western themes, especially focused on Indian life, as found in the work of Solon and John Borglum, and on animals, exemplified in the work of Edward Clark Potter. Potter often worked with French on sculptures requiring horses, and he created the famous lions in front of the New York Public Library (1910).

American sculpture was slow and cautious in entering the modern era, and many of the early-twentieth-century American sculptors came from Europe—Alexander Archipenko, Elie Nadelman, Jacques Lipchitz, and Gaston Lachaise among them. The stylized naturalism of Paul Manship is memorable, such as that found in Dancer and Gazelles (1916). The work for which he is best known, his gilded sculpture of Prometheus in Rockefeller Center Plaza, was still in the future (1934). Frances Pohl brings renewed attention to Abastenia St. Leger Eberle, a sculptor of "everyday life" and social consciousness; her White Slave (1913) is a dramatic protest against the kidnapping of young women into lives of prostitution.


Between 1870 and 1920 American painting under-went a dramatic series of transformations, from the romantic realism of the Hudson River school to the rough-hewn social realism of the Ashcan school and the full-blown modernism exemplified in the Armory Show of 1913. The predominant artistic works in the Civil War period were the Romantic landscapes of the Hudson River school and its followers, such as George Inness and Albert Bierstadt; the luminists John Kensett, FitzHugh Lane, and Martin Heade; and genre painters such as George Caleb Bingham and William Sydney Mount.

This was a period of considerable upheaval, as younger artists were forced to struggle against institutionalized American art. Two important institutions were the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, founded in 1802, and the National Academy of Design, started in 1826 by artists led by Samuel F. B. Morse. Both were predictably hostile to the kinds of innovations that led to modern art and resulted in a number of organizations within which young artists rebelled against staid artistic principles and methods, among them the Art Students League in New York (1875); the Society of American Artists, including La Farge, Inness, and Ryder (1877); and the Art Students League in Philadelphia, started by those who supported Eakins when he was dismissed from the Pennsylvania Academy in 1886.

For Lewis Mumford, the important artists who emerged shortly after the Civil War were grouped around Thomas Eakins on one side (including La Farge, Winslow Homer, and Mary Cassatt), roughly representing realism; and Albert Pinkham Ryder on the other, representing "moon-ridden" imagination. Between the two he placed James Abbott McNeill Whistler, not rich in imagination but a superb technician. Modern scholarship has vastly enlarged these categories and both clarified and questioned artistic intentions, but Mumford's instincts are helpful in surveying the field.

Thomas Eakins (1844–1916) is still considered an essential realist, perhaps best known for his intense psychological portraits, as, for example, his portraits of women—Maud Cook (1895), Edith Mahon (1904), and perhaps the finest, the pensive Amelia Van Buren (1891)—as well as his portraits of male professionals, such as that of Dr. Samuel David Gross in The Gross Clinic (1875) as he steps back from surgery, scalpel in hand, to lecture to the assembled audience. Eakins's friendship with Walt Whitman is commemorated in a memorable portrait (1888). As director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Eakins encouraged nude study but went too far when he allowed women artists along with men in the room with the nude models; he was forced out in 1886. Among his students were Thomas Anshutz, whose The Ironworkers' Noontime (1880), displays working-class males on break in the factory yard; and the African American Henry Ossawa Tanner, whose The Banjo Lesson (1893) pictures a young black boy sitting on a black man's knee while the boy fingers the frets and experimentally strums the instrument. The intimacy of the two figures in the barren room and the man's attentiveness make this a portrait of generational bonding in conditions of poverty.

Winslow Homer (1836–1910), whose reputation has strengthened through time, started as an illustrator and became a prolific creator of Civil War scenes (many for Harper's Weekly) and later of powerful landscapes in watercolor and oil. He was important as well for his pictures of childhood innocence, as in Snap the Whip (1872), picturing boys at rough play in the schoolyard, and outdoor scenes of hunting and fishing. But Homer is perhaps most important for his sea pictures, of which The Gulf Stream (1899) is a superb, if puzzling, example, calling out for a narrative that is not available. The painting features a black man lying on the deck of a drifting fishing boat with a broken mast. The apparently hopeless man looks off into the distance as sharks swim in the foreground, while behind him, across the rough water, a ship is passing on the left and a typhoon is visible on the right. Peter Wood believes Homer intended the painting as commentary on the history of American slavery and colonialism.

Another important realist was Eastman Johnson (1824–1906), at one time called the "American Rembrandt" because of his interest in portraits (and the fact that he studied at The Hague) but now perhaps best known as a painter of genre scenes, such as The Cranberry Harvest on the Island of Nantucket (1880). His The Girl I Left behind Me (1870–1875) is a captivating picture of a young girl, with braced feet and windblown hair, books in hand, looking out over a stormy romantic landscape.

The independent Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) is best known for her tender domestic scenes, of which Mother and Child (1905) is an excellent example, but she did other work as well, including the mural Modern Woman for the Woman's Building at the Columbian Exposition (the building itself was designed by Sophia Hayden). Cassatt studied with the Impressionists Claude Monet and Edgar Degas in Paris and is linked to the "American Impressionists" Theodore Robinson, J. Alden Weir, John Twachtman, and Childe Hassam. The visual theories supporting Impressionism lend themselves to literary realism, as James Nagel's argument for Stephen Crane makes clear: Nagel believes The Red Badge of Courage (1895), with its epistemological and glimpsed vision, was considerably indebted to Impressionism.

At the opposite extreme from the realists are the poetic, lyrical "visionaries," the most important of whom is Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917). His works are intense symbolic representations of states of consciousness, and he reworked them for years—indeed, it was said that a patron had waited so long for a painting Ryder had promised him that he planned to have his funeral procession stop by Ryder's house to pick it up. A good example is The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse) (c. 1896), in Ryder's typical deep-brown and yellow colors, depicting a skeleton holding a scythe and riding a speeding horse around a fenced track. His Jonah (c. 1895) pictures the prophet struggling mightily in fiercely roiled brown waters, surrounded by odd shapes, one of which resembles a whale's snout; above the water is a representation of a bearded God. Ryder took many of his themes from literary sources, and he occasionally accompanied his paintings with poems of his own composition. Another important Romantic, influenced by Pre-Raphaelitism, is Elihu Vedder (1836–1923), whose illustrations for the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1884) achieved great success. His Cup of Death (1885), picturing a dark-winged angel with averted eyes holding a cup to the lips of a young woman, is akin to the sculpted figures of grief by Saint-Gaudens and French.

The expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), much interested in art for art's sake, is most famous now for his portraits of his mother (Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 1, 1871) and the English writer Thomas Carlyle (Arrangement in Gray and Black, No. 2, 1872–1873). He is also remembered for his lawsuit against John Ruskin when the critic accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" after viewing Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket (1875). Whistler published the memoir The Gentle Art of Making Enemies in 1890. Another expatriate and a close friend of Henry James, John Singer Sargent (1856–1925) is best known for his portraits, including the scandalous Madame X (1884), a full-length portrait of Amelie Gautreau, originally showing too much shoulder for proper Victorian audiences. Sargent also did the portraits Isabella Stewart Gardner (1888) and Henry James (1913); when it was shown at the Royal Academy, the James portrait was attacked by a suffragette—the James biographer Leon Edel claims she wielded a meat cleaver; the portrait suffered gashes to head and shoulder.

In the West, Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and Thomas Moran (1837–1926) often produced huge canvases celebrating sublime landscapes. Among their many works are Bierstadt's Donner Lake from the Summit (1873) and Moran's Chasm of the Colorado (1873–1874) and Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River (1882). But perhaps the best-known western artist is Frederic Remington, who often painted and illustrated scenes of western adventure; his A Dash for the Timber (1889), for example, depicts a small group of rapidly retreating horsemen firing rifles back upon their Native American pursuers. Remington was also a minor novelist, publishing John Ermine of the Yellowstone in 1902 and The Way of an Indian (1906), concerning the decline of the northern Cheyenne. Together with Theodore Roosevelt and the novelist Owen Wister, Remington helped to create the mythology behind the West. Much later and only briefly (1915–1927), the Taos Society of Artists, an innovative cooperative, exerted some attraction in New Mexico. The founding members were Bert G. Phillips, Herbert Dunton, Joseph Henry Sharp, Oscar E. Berninghaus, E. Irving Couse, and Ernest L. Blumenschein, but over the years twenty-one artists were associated with it, including Robert Henri and John Sloan as "associate members."

Recent scholarship in American art has also given attention to forgotten and neglected artists from this period. Frances K. Pohl puts renewed focus on Cecilia Beaux, a friend of Sargent, whose Sita and Sarita (1894), a portrait of a woman in a white dress with one hand flat on her lap and the other caressing a black cat (with penetrating green eyes) on her shoulder. Pohl suggests the portrait's "sexual energy" is reminiscent of Édouard Manet's Olympia (1863). Pohl also notes the Self-Portrait of Ellen Day Hale (1885), an artist with connections to Nathan Hale and the Beechers. Another artist receiving renewed attention is Edward Bannister, a little-known African American artist who won the first-prize medal at the Philadelphia Centennial for his painting Under the Oaks.

Emphasis on the social and cultural history of American art has also examined such works as Robert Koehler's The Strike (1886), depicting a confrontation between owners and workers; at least one of the workers is picking up rocks to throw. And finally getting serious recognition is American Indian ledger art of the 1870s; works such as the Cheyenne artist Yellow Nose's dramatic Drawing of the Battle of Little Big Horn (c. 1885) provide intimate and detailed Indian perceptions of historical events normally reported quite differently for public consumption.


Two broad paths led to the triumph of modernism in American art. The first was exclusively American, led by Robert Henri (1865–1929); it championed a new realism that relished Whitman's spirit of rebellion and used it as an argument for overcoming the tried and true in American art. The second, more radical movement, was led initially by Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and attached itself mainly to the European modernism exemplified in Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, the broad movement that fueled many innovations in European art in the early twentieth century, among them Cubism, Fauvism, futurism, Dadaism, and surrealism.

The movement led by Henri culminated in the most important rebellion against the conservatism of the traditional academy. Like their counterparts in literature, the younger artists wished to pursue the "democratic art" espoused by William Dean Howells; they were interested in painting realistic works depicting working-class characters and urban situations and themes. Henri's breakaway movement resulted in an exhibition at the Macbeth Gallery in New York in February 1908. The artists who exhibited there were dubbed the Eight (later the "Ashcan school")—including, besides Henri, William Glackens, Everett Shinn, John Sloan (who from 1911 to 1916 edited the radical journal the Masses), George Luks, Maurice Prendergast, Arthur B. Davies, and Ernest Lawson. Henri had been a student of Thomas Anshutz and himself taught George Bellows, Edward Hopper, Stuart Davis, Rockwell Kent, and briefly the poet Vachel Lindsay; Henri's importance as a leader may be deduced from his book The Art Spirit (1923).

Although not all of the artists were drawn equally to "ashcan" subject matter, the best work of the Eight focused on urban American life and its swirling energies. In George Luks's Hester Street (1905), for example, the New York street is teeming with people walking, negotiating with street vendors, or just watching the rich variety of city activity. John Sloan's Movies, 5 Cents (1907) emphasizes the large and boisterous audience crowding the theater to take in this new cultural phenomenon. In The "Genius" (1915), Dreiser appears to have incorporated Sloan's Six O'Clock, Winter (1912) as a painting made by his protagonist, Eugene Witla (based on the artist Everett Shinn), depicting an elevated train platform with the train glimpsed against the cloudy twilight sky and the thronging crowd below seen in the garish light from the shop windows. Sloan's McSorley's Ale House (1912) pictures the establishment writer Joseph Mitchell called McSorley's Wonderful Saloon in his book of the same name (1943). Although he was not a member of the Eight, George Bellows also featured powerful urban scenes. His New York (1911) is full of activity: streets crowded with horse-drawn wagons, carriages and pedestrians, tall buildings in the background (with just a touch of sky at center top), all conveyed in rich browns, blacks, yellows, and greens; his The Cliff Dwellers (1913) emphasizes exuberance in the lives of the urban poor.

Alongside the struggle for American realism, another important force at work was the one exemplified by Alfred Stieglitz, who as early as 1906 had opened his 291 Gallery (at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York) for the exhibition of photography as art and the display of experimental European art. Milton Brown finds Stieglitz of the same degree of importance in bringing modern art to America as the avant-garde writer and collector Gertrude Stein. Broadly, the difference between the Eight and those who exhibited at 291 was the difference between the realists' pictorialism and the modernists' interest in abstract experimentation. Stieglitz gave opportunities to many experimental young American painters, including Arthur Dove, Georgia O'Keeffe, Max Weber, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Alfred Maurer.

This movement toward abstraction was the key to the International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show (held at the New York National Guard Armory), in February and March 1913, organized by the Association of American Painters and Sculptors. The Armory Show was an ambitious attempt to provide a general historical context for the innovative new art; it consisted of some thirteen hundred pieces of sculpture, paintings, and drawings, most of it American. Most of the Eight were represented, along with others including Maurer, Stuart Davis, Marsden Hartley, and early works by Charles Sheeler and Edward Hopper; John Marin presented watercolors of Cass Gilbert's newly completed Woolworth Building (1913). But the public hardly noticed the Americans in their outrage with the Frenchman Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912), which reduced the nude figure to cubist angles and planes. Because the protest was broad and severe enough to get into the newspapers, attempts were made to close the show on "moral" grounds, and the artists were described as madmen and anarchists. But the Armory Show succeeded in opening the door to the public's ultimate acceptance of modernism and made it easier for artists like Max Weber (Rush Hour, New York, 1915) and Joseph Stella (Battle of Lights, Coney Island, 1914, and Brooklyn Bridge, 1918) to incorporate abstract forms and shapes into their paintings with American settings.

The Armory Show also contributed substantially to several great modern collections, including that of Walter Arensberg, a lover of the arts who befriended many of the new visual artists and the poet William Carlos Williams. As case studies of influence across the arts, Williams and his friends are exemplary: always interested in new artistic possibilities, Williams wrote poems in response to the paintings of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and others; in turn Demuth illustrated literary works by Émile Zola, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry James, including The Turn of the Screw; and Hartley befriended the playwright Eugene O'Neill. Imagism in American poetry was indebted as well to the new visual arts.

It is interesting to note, finally, that the Whitney Museum (1931) was organized largely around works from both the Ashcan realists and the more abstract contributors to the Armory Show, suggesting the crucial importance of both movements to the subsequent history of twentieth-century art. As a result of these artistic efforts, American art was emboldened, liberated from the constraints of tradition, and free to employ modernistic subject matter and methodologies as the artistic spirit moved—toward the regional realism of the 1930s or the abstract expressionism of the 1940s and 1950s.

See alsoAestheticism; Arts and Crafts; Chicago; Impressionism; Museums; New York; Photography


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Joseph J. Wydeven

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