1878-1899: The Arts: Overview
1878-1899: The Arts: Overview
A New World. “Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” said John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Winthrop spoke these words in a sermon he delivered on shipboard as he and his fellow Puritans crossed the Atlantic to the New World in 1630. Two and a half centuries later the “eyes of all people” gazed once more on America—specifically on Chicago, site of the spectacular World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. On the shores of Lake Michigan fair organizers had erected a White City, symbol of a gleaming past and a sparkling future. America in the late nineteenth century stood poised to enter a new era of world prominence, and it hoped to demonstrate its worthiness through its art. On both sides of the Atlantic many still considered the American arts second rate copies of European models. Yet some Americans were creating works that rivaled the Europeans’ in style and sophistication. At the same time, in American music, art, literature, and architecture, new styles were emerging from uniquely New World roots, setting the stage for the international prominence of American arts and letters in the twentieth century.
Spectacle in Chicago. Visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair witnessed the wealth—and variety—of American artistic genius. In the Woman’s Building Modern Woman, a luminous murai by American Impressionist painter Mary Cassatt, depicted American women at work and play. Thomas Eakins, a pioneering realist from Philadelphia, displayed The Gross Clinic (1875) and The Agnew Clinic (1889), his defiantly unsentimental portraits of medical science. The Beaux-Arts exhibition buildings designed by McKim, Mead and White—the preeminent New York architectural firm—flashed their gleaming facades beneath the electric lights of the White City. Architect Louis Sullivan, the father of the skyscraper, lured visitors into the Transportation Building through a massive “Golden Doorway.” Sullivan’s building faced a large lagoon—one of many fairyland touches orchestrated by landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. Should a visitor tire of the fair and wander into the city proper, young musicians such as Scott Joplin and Otis Saunders waited in the entertainment districts, playing the syncopated strains of early ragtime.
Another Pageant. The aura of optimism and creative vitality projected by the World’s Columbian Exposition could not dispel the darker currents astir in American society. North and south, east and west, American citizens faced the specter of financial ruin. During 1893 Americans experienced the most devastating depression to hit ! the nation to that time. As young Ray Stannard Baker walked the streets of Chicago as a reporter for the Daily ! Record, he passed tramps, starving urchins, and displaced families. Shaken, Baker watched the “bright banners, the music, and the tinsel” of the Columbian Exposition yield to “another pageant, sombre and threatening, that of the depression and panic of 1893-94.”
The City. As Baker’s observation suggests, the financial troubles of the 1890s brought into focus the “problem” of the American city. Once primarily an agricultural nation, the United States had increasingly acquired an urban cast. The percentage of Americans residing in cities of one hundred thousand or more skyrocketed over the second half of the nineteenth century: from one in twelve in 1860, to one in eight in 1880, to one in five by 1900. Cities large and small swallowed—metaphorically, if not literally—small towns and rural communities. Fiction, photographs, and architectural plans helped to record this urban transformation. When journalist Jacob Riis invaded the slums of New York City with his flash camera, the American public became alerted to, in Riis’s words, “How the Other Half Lives.” Novelists such as Stephen Crane, Henry Blake Fuller, Frank Norris, and Theodore Dreiser weighed the perils and prerequisites of city life. Frederick Law Olmsted—the mastermind behind Central Park in New York City in the 1860s and Boston’s Emerald Necklace park system in the 1890s—heralded communal space as an antidote to urban pressure. Daniel Burnham, the Chicago-based architect who oversaw planning for the Columbian Exposition, helped spearhead a “City Beautiful” movement that, by the early twentieth century, had salvaged such decayed metropolitan areas as Washington, D.C. In time, a generation of city planners maintained, urban misery might give way to urban renewal.
A Melting Pot. In the minds of many Americans, the growth of the cities went hand-in-hand with another development: immigration. During the late nineteenth century there was an unprecedented influx of foreigners into the United States. Some twenty-five million newcomers, the majority from southern and eastern Europe, crossed the Atlantic between the end of the Civil War and the start of World War I. Less imposing in number but still forceful in presence were the approximately 110,000 Asian immigrants (mostly Chinese and Japanese) who crossed the Pacific during this same period. Immigrants to America were inspired by symbols as compelling as the Statue of Liberty (dedicated in New York Harbor in 1886) or by needs as mundane as shelter, sustenance, and employment. First- and secondgeneration Americans created some of the nation’s most enduring cultural monuments of the 1880s and 1890s: German-born John Roebling and his son, Washington, built the Brooklyn Bridge; German-born Leopold Damrosch and his son Walter nursed the Metropolitan Opera House through its infancy. At the same time the theory that America could serve as a “melting pot”—assimilating individuals of all racial and ethnic origins—was examined, and challenged, by artists of many persuasions. As Russian-born Abraham Cahan observed in Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto (1896), America in the 1890s had become home to “people with all sorts of antecedents, tastes, habits, inclinations, and speaking all sorts of subdialects of the same jargon, thrown peli meli into one social cauldron—a human hodgepodge with its component parts changed but not yet fused into one homogeneous whole.”
European Allure. The influx of European immigrants to America was paralleled on a much smaller scale by an exodus of American artists to Europe. When American painter William Merritt Chase commented that he would “rather go to Europe than go to heaven,” he spoke for an entire generation drawn to the educational and cultural offerings of the Old World. The painters Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent, and James McNeill Whistler, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and the novelist Henry James all spent substantial portions of their lives overseas—some settling permanently abroad, others shuttling back and forth between America and Europe. By the late nineteenth century a European education was nearly a necessity for ambitious American architects. Once a hobby for cultured gentlemen such as Thomas Jefferson and Charles Bulfinch or a trade passed from master to apprentice, architecture had become, by the 1890s, highly professionalized. Scores of Americans studied architecture at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. For many artists Europe liberated creative potential. Thus, the Impressionist movement, initiated by French painters, inspired Americans such as Cassatt, John Twachtman, and Childe Hassam to break with tradition and experiment with color selection and brush technique. In other cases, however, European influences proved less beneficent.
Highbrow versus Lowbrow. America at midcentury, Henry James observed, had known “no State, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no ! castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins. . . .” In 1880, James added, the United States remained a site of “terrible denudation.” Although James’s commentary may be overstated, it voices the anti-American mindset of certain American apostles of high culture. As popular entertainments such as dime novels, pop music, vaudeville, and ragtime proliferated in the late nineteenth century, high culture retrenched. Some critics saw sympathy for popular forms as suspect. When the Paris-trained H. H. Richardson identified two staples of Americana—the grain elevator and the steamboat—as compelling architectural designs, his status as the premier American architect excused such eccentricity. But after Richardson’s death in 1886, Beaux-Arts traditionalists attacked American eclecticism and launched a revival of neoclassic design. Indeed, across America, highbrow and lowbrow squared off in a struggle to define and control culture. Museum administrators wondered whether to welcome the “masses” to their temples of fine art while people’s advocates argued for lower admission costs and Sunday hours. Genteel composers such as John Knowles Paine and Edward MacDowell composed classical works in the European mold while John Philip Sousa set America marching to the beat of “The Washington Post March” (1889) and “The Stars and Stripes Forever” (1897). Novels by highbrow and lowbrow writers alike were commonly serialized in American magazines before their publication in book form, offering American readers a wide choice of inexpensive fiction. “No literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures,” James had complained. One critic’s wasteland was another’s land of plenty.
New Voices, Old Struggles. During the latter decades of the nineteenth century, “high” and “low” culture alike acquired a more multidimensional cast. New voices in literature and music included groups long excluded from the arts establishment: women, workers, and racial minorities. At midcentury female writers had flourished in the literary marketplace—Nathaniel Hawthorne, for one, groused about the “mob of scribbling women”—but nearly all were confined to the realm of sentimental literature. By the turn of the century women had expanded their literary sphere: Emily Dickinson with her stylistically innovative, emotionally compelling poetry (first published in 1890, four years after Dickinson’s death); Charlotte Perkins Gilman with her economic treatises and feminist utopias; Kate Chopin with her realistic stories of Creole life; and Pauline Hopkins with her novels, plays, and essays on the subject of race. Hopkins was just one of many African Americans to break new ground in the arts. Black performers, long typecast by the popular formula of the minstrel show, gradually took to new stages. Ragtime—syncopated piano music rooted in the banjo picking of the minstrel show—made national figures of musicians such as Scott Joplin. Drawing on ragtime rhythms, the classically trained violinist Will Marion Cook composed and produced the hit all-black musical Cloritidy (1898). Paul Laurence Dunbar, who wrote the lyrics for the show, went on to become one of the most popular American poets of his day.
Realism. Diversity enriched the American arts—and served as a reminder of the many perspectives bound up in the American experience. Post-Civil War America was a nation of many regions and many peoples, all struggling to define their roles in a newly reconstituted nation. In the search for self-definition many late-nineteenth-century artists rejected the romanticism of earlier periods, in which artists often glorified the grandeur of the American landscape and the heroism of its people. Instead of such romanticized views of American life artists of the late nineteenth century championed “realistic” representations of regional culture, contemporary social conditions, and individuai consciousness, even when these accurate depictions of everyday life revealed hardship and injustice. Literary realism assumed several forms—ranging from the local-color sketches of Sarah Orne Jewett, Hamlin Garland, Joel Chandler Harris, and Helen Hunt Jackson, to the genteel representations of William Dean Howells, to the psychological probings of Henry James. Over time early practitioners of realism were eclipsed by a bolder breed employing literary naturalism to examine the hereditary, economie, and environmental forces acting on humankind. Many visual artists also took up the banner of realism. Painters such as Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins produced realistic works that repudiated the romanticism of the midcentury Hudson River School. In architecture Louis Sullivan’s credo, “forai follows function,” challenged the neoclassic notions of those who designed banks and office buildings that looked like palaces and temples.
Liberty. In 1883 prominent American authors and visual artists were asked to donate token items such as letters, essays, and sketches to a raffle—the proceeds to be applied toward a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain), the leading American humorist, responded to the request with a characteristic mix of levity and insight. “Suppose,” he mused, “your statue represented [Liberty] old, bent, clothed in rags, downeast, shame-faced, with the insults and humiliation of 6,000 years, imploring a crust and an hour’s rest for God’s sake at our back door?—come, now you’re shouting! That’s the aspect of her which we need to be reminded of, lest we forget it—not this proposed one, where she’s hearty and wellfed, and holds up her head and flourishes her hospitable schooner of flame, and appears to be inviting all the rest of the tramps to come over. O, go to—this is the very insolence of prosperi ty.” As Clemens knew, lofty abstractions—Liberty, Justice, the American Dream—required more than faith to make them a reality. Late-nineteenth-century America was tested by depression and prosperity, by urban ills and urban energies, and by the manifold challenges of an increasingly diverse population. Their work reflecting the variety and vitality of contemporary life, American artists helped to shepherd the nation into the twentieth century.
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