Beyond Romanticism in Art
Beyond Romanticism in Art
Epic Landscapes. American painting at midcentury was dominated by the Hudson River School: Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Asher Durand (1796-1886), Frederic Church (1826-1900), and other artists whose epic landscapes reflected a young nation’s sense of manifest destiny. The poet William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) gloried in the “scenes ol wild grandeur” that Cole painted. The “mountaintops with their mighty growth of forest never touched by the axe,” “banks of streams never deformed by culture,” and “depths of skies bright with the hues of our own climate” were signs of paradise on earth. Over time, of course, the earthly Eden celebrated by the Hudson River painters gave way to the urban, industrial realities of the post-Civil War period. Two American artists who came of age in the late nineteenth century pioneered a realistic style of painting that more accurately represented a changed American “landscape.”
Winslow Homer. At the start of the Civil War Harper’s Weekly hired a young illustrator from Massachusetts to serve as its wartime artist-correspondent. In ink sketches and oil portraits Winslow Homer (1836-1910) captured the bleakness of the battlefield. At the end of the war Homer began to work primarily in oils and watercolors; he started out by painting the farms and fields of his native New England. Critics, accustomed to the romantic vision of the Hudson River School, struggled to comprehend Homer’s perspective. “Mr. Homer goes in, as the phrase is, for perfect realism,” commented novelist Henry James in 1875. “He not only has no imagination, but he contrives to elevate this rather blighting negative into a blooming and honorable positive.” James took little pleasure in Homer’s “barren plank fences,” “glaring, bald, blue skies,” “big, dreary, vacant lots of meadows,” or “freckled, straight-haired Yankee urchins.” Homer’s “vigorous way of looking and seeing” made him “an almost distinguished painter,” James admitted, but his work remained “damnably ugly.” Over the years
Homer’s reputation improved, but never to the point of universal appeal. From the early 1880s Homer worked out of a studio at Prout’s Neck, on the Maine coast. From this permanent base he remained a wanderer, visiting—and painting—in the Adirondacks, the Catskills, Virginia, Florida, England, Cuba, and the Bahamas. Sympathetic toward human frailty and ever-conscious of human dignity, Homer nonetheless avoided overt displays of sentiment. The individuals he painted— the schoolboys at play in Snap the Whip (1872), the clustered women and children in Waiting for the Return of the Fishing Fleet (1881), the lone hunter dwarfed by his surroundings in Winter Coast (1890), the fisherman awaiting death at sea in The Gulf Stream (1899)—are subject to the unyielding forces of time and of nature.
Thomas Eakins. If Homer was known for his revision of the American outdoors, his contemporary Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) was notorious for a different sort of realism. Following his graduation from high school, Eakins studied art and anatomy. After three and a half years of further training in Europe, Eakins returned to his hometown of Philadelphia. Eakins’s early portraits of athletes—including Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871) and Baseball Players Practicing (1875)—explore the physical, functional aspects of the human body. With The Gross Clinic (1875) Eakins extended his anatomical studies in new directions. The Gross Clinic shows an operation in progress: a surgeon explains procedure to an audience of medical students, and his assistants probe at the surgical incision while the patient’s mother recoils in fear. Critics called Eakins a butcher; at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia administrators buried The Gross Clinic in the medicai (rather than arts) section. The Centennial did not mark Eakins’s last conflict with a hostile arts establishment. A teacher since 1876 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts—and director of the academy school since 1882—Eakins was forced out in 1886 for insisting that female students study anatomy from nude models.
An Altered Tradition. Eakins did find a measure of acceptance in his lifetime. In major works such as Crucifixion (1880), The Swimming Hole (1883), The Agnew Clinic (1889), and Salutat (1898), he continued to probe physical form and function. In time he earned the respect of his peers. He won a gold medal at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, had a one-man exhibit in Philadelphia in 1896, and was elected in 1902 to the prestigious National Academy of Design. By the turn of the century the realism of Homer and Eakins had supplanted the romanticism of the Hudson River School. Artistic conventions continued to change. As the nineteenth century slipped into the twentieth, a coterie of experimental artists—George Inness (1825-1894), John La Farge (1835-1910), Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919), and the visionary Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917)—helped American art take its first steps toward the abstract, surrealistic forms of the future.
Jean Gould, Winslow Homer: A Portrait (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1962);
Gordon Hendricks, The Life and Works of Thomas Eakins (New York: Grossman, 1974);
Hendricks, The Life and Works of Winslow Home (New York: Abrams, 1979);
Donelson F. Hoopes, Eakins: Watercolors (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1981);
Richard McLanathan, The American Tradition in the Arts (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968);