Culture and Community . After the War of 1812 several organizations dedicated to the cultivation of an American artistic culture were founded. While their primary goal was the development of the arts in America, many of these organizations also helped to shape a nascent American arts community. By helping to connect artists with other like-minded men and women, these institutions helped to foster an increasingly national minded sense of culture and drew attention to the uplifting effects aesthetic culture could have on American audiences.
Fine Arts Academies. The American Academy of Fine Arts in New York was founded in 1802 by Edward Livingston and others, originally for the purpose of housing casts of such works as the Apollo Belvedere, Dying Gladiator, and Laocoön Group, sent home from the Louver by Livingston’s brother Robert in the hope that “a constant view of the finest Models” would bring about a great appreciation of the arts in the United States. The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, founded in Philadelphia in 1805, also acquired a respectable collection based on casts from the Louver. These early academies were established as gentlemen’s clubs, more concerned with Americans as patrons than with Americans as artists. Many of these early arts academies, including the Boston Athenaeum and academies in Charleston and Baltimore operated as joint-stock companies with subscribers owning a share of the property and receiving privileges such as free admission to exhibitions. Shares in the American Academy were twenty-five dollars apiece, not a small sum.
Artists. In 1826 a group of New York artists grew dissatisfied with the American Academy. Led by portraitist Samuel F. B. Morse (eventually more famous for his inventions than his painting), they established the National Academy of Design as an artist-run organization that put on a series of exhibits limited to contemporary works by American painters, sculptors, and craftsmen. Philidelphia artists established a similar organization in 1835, the Artists’ Fund Society. In 1838 the American Art-Union opened in New York as the Apollo Association established to stimulate interest in national art expression through regularly changing exhibits of works by American artists on explicitly American subjects and through annual raffles open to Union members. Members
were entitled to an engraving from one of the works shown and a chance in an annual lottery for an original work of art. By 1849 the Union had over eighteen thousand members, substantial annual receipts, and a daily attendance of several thousand. In 1848 the popular New York City periodical the Knickerbocker reported that the gallery had become “part of the public property as much as the fountains, the parks, or the City-Hall.” The success of the New York Union triggered the rise of similar organizations in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Boston, Newark, and Brooklyn, where Walt Whitman would become involved in the Brooklyn Art Union, associated with the Brooklyn Institute (originally founded in 1823 as the Apprentices’ Library Association).
Literary Associations . Other cultural associations grew out of shared literary interests. Several authors’ groups published journals while others served as networks for their members, helping them to find likeminded colleagues and collaborators. Boston’s Anthology Club, a literary association whose reading room would become the Boston Athenaeum, published the early literary journal Monthly Anthology. In 1815 a handful of former anthologists began publishing the North American Review, which became the nation’s dominant literary review and survived into the twentieth century in spite of its later reputation for dullness and pomposity. In New York, James Fenimore Cooper presided over his Bread and Cheese Club, established in 1822, which included writers William Cullen Bryant and Fitz-Greene Halleck; artists Asher Durand, William Dunlap, and Morse; and many others. Led by Morse, the National Academy of Design was founded by members of the Bread and Cheese Club. The Transcendentalist Club, a loose organization of ministers and intellectuals based in Boston and Concord, Massachusetts, published their journal, The Dial, from 1840 to 1844. Further south, literary activity was centered in the region’s comparatively smaller cities, particularly in Charleston, where the Library Society and literary community clustered around lawyer Hugh Swinton Legaré and his journal, the Southern Review (1828–1832), and later around prolific author William Gilmore Simms.
Lyceum Movement . These artistic and literary organizations tended to function as communities of artists and writers, providing moral, intellectual, and in some cases economic support for their members. Other organizations focused more on the dissemination of art and literature among the general public. For example, the 1830s saw the rise of public lecturing through the agency of the lyceum movement. Lyceums, organizations dedicated to generalized adult education, sprang up in cities and towns throughout the country. Speakers traveled on an increasingly wide lecture circuit, holding forth on a broad range of scientific, literary, and religious subjects. Many, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, were able to make national reputations for themselves based on their lecturing. Minister Henry Ward Beecher was offered a prestigious position in Brooklyn based on his “Lectures to Young Men.” Towns often established lyceum associations and halls at public expense; the lyceum became an institution that served audiences and lecturers alike.
Mechanics’ Associations . In a similar vein, by the 1840s many cities boasted mechanics’ associations or young men’ associations, which sponsored lectures as well as other uplifting amusements for their members. These organizations were based on the belief that culture, especially literary culture, improved the minds and morals of impressionable young men and helped them to avoid the temptations of the city. In 1839 prominent Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing delivered a lecture titled “Self-Culture” to a Boston mechanics’ organization, urging the young working-class men in the audience to read frequently and carefully, noting that “The best books have most beauty. The greatest truths are wronged if not linked with beauty, and they win their way most surely and deeply into the soul when arrayed in this their natural and fit attire…. Of all luxuries, [literature] is the cheapest and most at hand; and it seems to me to be most important to those conditions where coarse labor tends to give a grossness to the mind.” Churches and businesses supported these organizations, hoping that cultural activity and association with similarly inclined young men would help keep clerks and mechanics
out of trouble and encourage them to be tractable and obedient workers.
James T. Callow, Kindred Spirits; Knickerbocker Writers and American Artists, 1807-1855 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967);
Donald Scott, “The Popular Lecture and the Creation of a public Mid-Nineteenth-Century America,” Journal of American History, 66 (March 1980): 791–809;