1815-1850: The Arts: Overview
1815-1850: The Arts: Overview
Republican Ideology. The end of the War of 1812, with Andrew Jackson’s decisive defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815, brought a burst of American national pride along with crucial economic, political, and cultural changes. Victory over England dealt a deathblow to the Federalist Party, whose flirtation with New England secession in 1814 had been sidelined by Jackson’s victory. Thomas Jefferson’s embargoes and sharply diminished trade with Europe during the war had triggered a considerabel increase in American manufacturing in order to supply goods that would otherwise have been imported from Europe, laying the groundwork for the American Industrial Revolution. As the nation’s cities grew larger, more impersonal, and more threatening, however, the faith Americans had placed in the ideal of the independent citizen-farmer became shakier. The republican ideology that had buttressed the American Revolution had rested on the belief that private interest must be restrained and subordinated to the public good. Since private virtur and the public good could always be undermined by uncontrolled ambition, greed, or desire for luxury, a republican basics for nationhood required that citizens always work to restrain their own desires and consciously cultivate the willingness to sacrifice their own interests to the common good. The nation’s economic success and the concurrent rise of liberal ideology (which held that by pursuing one’s private interests one automatically pursued the public good) seemed to threaten the foundations of republicanism.
Art as Luxury? Americans wondered if any nation could flourish economically and still hold to republican virtue. John Adams wrote to Jefferson, “Will you tell me how to prevent riches from becoming the effects of temperance and industry? Will you tell me how to prevent riches from producing luxury? Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from becoming effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, Vice and folly?” During the first half of the nineteenth century many Americans viewed art as a form of luxury and a waste of time and energy needed for other pursuits. Even after the nation reaffirmed its independence by defeating the British for a second time, this traditional republican hostility toward art continued to pervail. Cultural achievement for its own sake was little valued, as demonstrated by the diffculties writers and artists had in trying to earn their livelihoods from their art. Ultimately, however, cultural production was justified as a form of moral education; the “best” American art would be art that was at once pleasing to the senses and inspiring to the mind and heart. Art was to be useful as well as pleasurable.
Republic of Letters. American struggled with the problem of establishing a distinctive national culture. Attempting to answer the sharp question put by British observer Sidney Smith, “Who reads an American book?”, Americans began to discuss why there were not more artists, authors, and poets in the new nation and to debate the shape that an American architecture might take. Many saw the “republic of letters” as an international community of writers (and readers) and argued that the United States needed to prove that it was capable of entering that community by producing art and literature that met universal (largely European) standards.
Rise of Romanticism. Yet even as Americans considered this position, European art and literature were moving in new directions. The emergence of Romantic thought, particularly as put forth by English poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, strongly affected several generations of American artists. Emphasizing the individual thought and subjective feeling of the artist, Romantic thinkers argued that literature and art should be expressions of strongly and spontaneously felt emotion, often best experienced in connection with the observation of nature. Other Romanticists, especially Madame de Stael, suggested that each nation had its own particular way of thinking and feeling that would shape its national art and literature. Romantic thought prompted different ways of thinking about an American culture by suggesting that there might be particularly American ways of thinking, feeling, and behaving. During the first half of the nineteenth century American artists and writers tried to reconcile two different goals; they wanted to write in accordance with universal (European) standards while also working toward the development of a particularly American voice.
Character of America. The desire to reflect the distinctive elements of American character permeated many of the artistic developments of the early nineteenth century. The painters of the Hudson River school of painting produced powerful, evocative views of American landscapes that not only celebrated the beauty of the land but also implied that these landscapes reflected and symbolized the power and beauty of the nation itself. American poets infused their descriptions of landscapes and historical events with morally uplifting sentiment. In accounts of journeys both within the United States and abroad, Americans used travel narratives to reflect on American life and manners. The emerging American theater took folk characters, including frontiersmen, working-class heroes, and even noble savages, and presented them to their audiences as distinctively American figures. Minstrel shows, a uniquely native cultural product, presented comic yet complex caricatures of both free and enslvated Africa Americans.
European Influence. In spite of the quest for a distinctively American culture, artistic development in the United States continued to respond and react to developments in European art and aesthetic thought. Yet if some Americans were perhaps too inclined to value European culture over American art and literature, Americans also adapted various aspects of European aesthetic styles to suit their own needs. Artists who studied in Europe mixed European styles with American content and ideas. Architects followed European models and modified them to American uses. American writers experimented with literary forms inherited from English literary history, adapting well-known forms to American themes. European actors, musicians, and dancers toured the United States; American minstrel performers toured Europe. Overall, Americans drew on European models primarily for the purpose of shaping an artistic culture of their own.
Popular Culture. American culture exploded in the early nineteenth century. Technological changes made books, magazines, and newspapers cheaper to produce and easier to buy. Rising literacy rates meant a broader range of readers. Lithograpic techniques made visual art easier to reproduce and distribute. As cities grew, large theaters became more economically viable. Greater availability of all forms of culture led to splist between “high” and “low” cultural forms. City theaters graduallu began to segreagate by class and were successful enough to do this and still profit. The high literary productions of a Ralph Waldo Emerson appealed to a different audience than that of the low sensational works of a George Lippard. And yet a middle level remained, in novels, lithography, photography, poetry, and other arts, that attested to the complexity of culture and the arts in the antebellum United States. “Better” literature came packaged in inexpensive paperbound volumes as well as in more-expensive tranditional formats; so-called female novels were read by both men and women; and members of the cultural intelligentsia attended minstrel shows as well as Shakespearean plays. The many artistic forms that developed during these decades made for a rich and distinctive, if still evolving, American culture.
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