Art: Romanticism and Genre Art

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Art: Romanticism and Genre Art


Celebrating the Common Man. Genre painting, which focuses on scenes from everyday life, was a strong force in American art during the nineteenth century. By the 1840s it rivaled portrait and landscape painting in popularity. Its practitioners ignored specific names and


Photography was born in France in 1826, when a chemist made the first surviving photograph by exposing a pewter plate for eight hours. Soon after and with great excitement, Louis J. M. Daguerre (1789-1851) introduced the daguerrotype, a more practical photographic process that required exposure times often to fifteen minutes. The invention of the photo negative came in 1839, followed in 1851 by a wet-plate process that Civil War photographer Mathew Brady used successfully to take more than seven thousand photographs of the American conflict. By the 1850s photography had established itself as a legitimate commercial enterprise. The tintype, introduced in 1855, was a fast and cheap method of making portraits. Although tintypes often produced poor-quality images, they were extremely popular and readily available to the masses.

Another large market for photography was travel pictures. Nineteenth-century audiences hungered for the exotic, and scenes of foreign countries and the American West were in constant demand. Timothy OSullivan (1840-1882), who had worked with Brady during the war, became one of the first leading travel photographers, documenting his journeys to Arizona, Nevada, and Panama.

Sources: George M. Craven, Object and Image: An Introduction to Photography (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975);

Phil Davis, Photography (Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown, 1982);

Carol Strickland, The Annotated Mona Lisa (Kansas City, M¿.: Andrews & McMeel, 1994).

places in favor of depicting general, everyday occurrences. While there were exceptions, most genre scenes conveyed an optimistic or sympathetic view of American life. A particularly favored subject was rural America, especially the hardworking, rustic lifestyle of the farmer. With industrialization slowly changing the face of America, genre artists nostalgically captured the fading heritage of rural America. William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) preserved one country tradition in The Banjo Player (1858), while Eastman Johnsons The Old Stage Coach (1871) was painted as railroads expanded nationwide, replacing that older mode of travel. George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879) was the first important genre painter of the American West. In frontier scenes such as Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845) and The Wood Boat (1850), he heroicized the grizzled traders, riverboat men, and pioneers who ventured into unknown territories.

The Rise of Printmaking. The popularity of genre subjects increased dramatically with technological developments in the field of printing. Industrial growth had spawned a large, literate middle class, which demanded printed news, books, and eventually graphic arts. Metal engraving, which used strong steel plates, enabled images to be mass-produced at affordable prices. The introduction of lithography in 1818 provided another efficient medium for reproduction. Perhaps the most notable lithographers of the second half of the nineteenth century were Nathaniel Currier and Merritt Ives, who formed Currier & Ives in 1857. Covering almost every subject imaginable to suit a wide range of tastes, the firm created more than four thousand images during its production life. Their pictures of ships and prairies, cities and farms, firefighters and fisherman chronicled American life and endeared Currier & Ives to the American public. Their series of prints depicting battles of the Civil War was overwhelmingly successful.

The Civil War. In his 1859 painting Old Kentucky Home Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) compared a grand southern manor with less-than-ideal quarters for slaves. Depicting southern slavery in a poignant way, Johnson recorded the nations bloodiest conflict. The devastation of the South and the repercussions following the Civil War were not lost on genre painters. We Both Must Fade (Mrs. Fithian) (1869), a portrait by Lilly Martin Spencer (1822-1902), shows a southern belle looking in a mirror while clutching a crumbling rose in her fingertips. Not just a commentary on the fragility of life, the work also seems to suggest the fading away of genteel southern life. Spencer, a child prodigy born to intellectual parents, was the first American woman painter to be acknowledged

on an equal footing with her male peers, setting an important precedent for women artists of future generations.


Daniel M. Mendelowitz, A History of American Art (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1970);

John Lowell Pratt, ed., Currier & Ives, Chronicles of America (New York: Promontory Press, 1968);

Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art, volume 1 (Secaucus, N.J.: Wellfleet Press, 1987).