Art and American Nationhood

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Most of the great western revolutions have led to an explosion of artistic creativity. The American Revolution was no exception. Colonial-era white American art was derivative and provincial. Post-independence art saw significant strides toward cultural autonomy and creativity. The achievement, however, was uneven. American artists accomplished a great deal on canvas. Distinctive American architecture began to appear, both in the Federal style (derived from English Georgian and Regency) and in the Greek Revival mode, which drew on classical and Renaissance models. Taken together, these styles came to define American public buildings, as in Washington, D.C., on college campuses, and at places of business such as banks. They also signified wealth and good taste in private homes. In literary terms, a real flowering had to wait until the mid-nineteenth century. Musically, a genuine American voice did not become audible until even later, when concert hall and music hall alike began to explore the country's heritage of ethnic and racial collision. Nonetheless, by the early nineteenth century distinctively American themes were emerging and, sometimes, receiving sophisticated development.

portraiture and history painting

Late-colonial-period white Americans from New England to Georgia were acquiring enough wealth to celebrate their own lives on canvas. Initially, the market need was filled by limners, who often painted a sitter's face into an otherwise borrowed image, and by travelers from England. But on the eve of independence more sophisticated portraitists were emerging. One was Philadelphia's Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827), whose 1772 portrait of George Washington reveals a provincial Virginian with no intimation of the fame that awaited him. But the foremost was John Singleton Copley (1738–1815) of Boston. Between his earliest works, at age fifteen, and his permanent departure from America in 1774, Copley turned out portraits of ever-growing sophistication. Working from guidebooks published in Europe and without formal teaching, he mastered chiarascuro, became adept at painting costumes, and acquired psychological insight. His portraits of Samuel Adams (1771) and Paul Revere (c. 1770) take the viewer deep into Boston's Revolutionary leadership. Yet Copley knew that he had still much to learn; he wanted to graduate from portraiture to history painting; his politics were Loyalist. All these contributed to his leaving.

In London, Copley could associate with fellow expatriate Benjamin West (1738–1820), who had left Philadelphia and emerged as a premier history painter. West's studio had become known as the "American School" because of the aspirants who congregated there. Among them were Peale, Matthew Pratt (1734–1805), Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828), and John Trumbull (1756–1843). Copley's own reputation already was so strong that he joined the Royal Academy of Arts within a year of his arrival.

Most of the others returned to America. Peale worked in many genres, blending the ambitious painter and the showman. His choice of names for his children (Raphaelle, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian) bespoke his high goals; his Peale's Museum (established 1784) where he exhibited both art and artifacts, prefigured the popular culture productions of P. T. Barnum. Peale's charming The Artist in His Museum (1822) brings both qualities together.

After working in London and Dublin, Stuart made himself the master of early Republic portraiture,

particularly with his most difficult subject, George Washington. Trumbull used the modern-dress history painting genre that West had pioneered to remember and idealize the events of the Revolution. The Declaration of Independence (1786–1797), painted at the instance of Thomas Jefferson, shows the committee that Jefferson led presenting the text to Congress. As literal representation, it bears as much relation to the actual event as West's Death of General Wolfe (1770) did. But in symbolic terms, both West's painting and Trumbull's assert the importance of American events.

Taken together, these painters provided lasting, sophisticated images both of the Revolutionary era's social and political elites and of that groups "official" memories of the transforming events through which it had lived. As a whole, their work amounted to a meditation on the meaning of American independence. Not all the memories that the painters recorded were stately. The Death of Jane McCrea (1804), by John Vanderlyn (1775–1852), shows a frontier Loyalist woman's widely publicized murder during the Revolutionary War in lurid, highly sexualized detail. The reputed killers were Indians; the effect is to link the Revolution itself to sexual threat by Native American males, implicitly justifying their people's fate at the hands of the triumphant Republic.

The same quality can be seen developing in how artists handled African American images. One of Copley's great canvases after his emigration, Brooke Watson and the Shark (1778), includes a carefully studied black man. Trumbull included an equally detailed African American in The Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill (1786). The Revolution began the process of slavery's destruction, and like their white counterparts, black leaders wanted portraits, sometimes by prominent artists. Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825) represented a dignified Reverend Absalom Jones in 1810. But by then, images of black Americans were descending from serious portraiture to supposedly comic caricature, evidence that like Indians, they were excluded from white America's vision of itself.

The next great burst of "high" American painting, the Hudson River school of landscape artists, would sidestep the question of race in American life altogether. Virtually abandoning individuals and specific events, its practitioners—including Thomas Cole (1801–1848), Frederic Church (1826–1900), Asher Durand (1796–1886), and George Bingham (1811–1879)—would celebrate the contrast of nature and civilization, often in the same canvas. John James Audubon (1785–1851) excluded humanity from his majestic Birds of America (1827–1838). The richly ethnographic illustrations in George Catlin's North American Indians (1844) show a people whom the Republic was excluding as policy.

folk art

Untrained "folk" or "primitive" artists have been part of American cultural life from the beginning. In their work one can see the visions of nonelite white men, white women, and both African and Native Americans. Sometimes the artist can be identified. But frequently she or he remains anonymous. Working in paint and other media, these artists too considered the meaning of the American experiment.

Sometimes the theme might also have appeared in West or Trumbull. General George Washington (after 1795) by Frederick Kemmelmeyer (c. 1760–1821) shows an outsized president reviewing the American army in September 1794, during the Whiskey Rebellion. But others adopted quieter themes. Jonathan Fisher (1768–1847), a talented minister in Maine, produced secular landscapes that celebrated life in his village, closely observed nature images, and didactic book illustrations. He had many counterparts, whose work is preserved in many small-town museums.

Indians across the continent expressed their sense both of themselves and of the contact and colonization that were under way. One of their many genres, particularly on the Plains, was the painting style called a "winter count," which recorded a group's history on buffalo skin. Wampum belts, highly decorated costumes, memory sticks, pottery, and metal reliefs all served similar purposes. Once understood, these can reveal as much about native consciousness of the young Republic as any Trumbull history painting does about white elite thought. African American art from the slavery period is harder to recover. But one can get glimpses. Mulberry (c. 1800), a painting of a South Carolina plantation house by Thomas Coram (1757–1811), shows slave quarters in the foreground. Their design is African, particularly their sharply pitched thatched roofs. Black New Englander John Bush decorated Revolutionary army powder horns to express his sense of the struggle with Britain. It is possible that a black artist produced The Old Plantation (c. 1800), which features a black celebration and relegates the great house to the distant background.

The most notable early folk artist was Edward Hicks (1780–1849) of Pennsylvania, a Quaker who pondered incessantly on America's place upon the earth. Hicks drew much of his inspiration from one of West's history canvases, William Penn's Treaty with the Indians (1772). He reproduced it as one element in his oft-repeated The Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1833 and other dates), which also drew on the biblical image of the lion lying down with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). In these and in his secular landscapes, such as The House of David Twining in 1787 (c. 1846), Hicks portrayed the early United States as an essentially good society.

belles lettres

Viewed against these achievements, literary output seems thinner. The creation of the United States saw a great burst of political thought, whose high point was The Federalist (1787–1788). The French migrant Michel-Guillaume Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813) used his Letters from an American Farmer (1782) to present an ever-darkening picture of a New World poisoned by racism, slavery, and war. Overcoming a long-standing taboo, a few Americans began to dabble in fiction, most notably Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748–1816) and Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810). They pointed toward the large achievement of James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851), whose output reached deeply into American history and culture. Among early dramatists was Mercy Otis Warren (1728–1814), who also produced a history of the Revolution. Her fellow New Englander, Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820), developed many of the same ideas about women's civic rights as the more famous Englishwoman, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–1797).

The enslaved poet Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753–1784) found wide readership. So did the intensely partisan Jeffersonian Philip Freneau (1752–1832). Among other poets were the "Connecticut Wits," who poked fun at what they regarded as American pretence. Washington Irving (1783–1859) followed their caustic example. But one of the wits, Joel Barlow (1754–1812), exemplified American writers' early republican dilemma. Struggling hard, he produced a triumphant American epic, The Vision of Columbus (1787). Widely read in its time, it later was virtually forgotten. Not until Walt Whitman (1819–1892) began to compose Leaves of Grass (1855) did an American poet find a voice and a style fully suited to his subject.

See alsoArchitectural Styles; Fiction; Painting .


Davidson, Cathy N. Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Ellis, Joseph J. After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture. New York: Norton, 1979.

Kammen, Michael. A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination. New York: Knopf, 1978.

Montgomery, Charles F., and Patricia E. Kane, eds. American Art: 1750–1800, Towards Independence. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1976.

Prown, Jules David. American Painting from its Beginnings to the Armory Show. New York: Skira Rizzoli. 1977.

——John Singleton Copley in America. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1995.

Silverman, Kenneth. A Cultural History of the American Revolution. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Edward Countryman

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Art and American Nationhood

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