Communicating the values of society and culture through the philosophies and attitudes, the fashions and passions that artists have for thousands of years reflected in their work, is the mission of art.
American Artist Henry Inman (1801-1846) was a great proficient at portraiture. He recorded No-Tin (Wind), a Chippewa American Indian chief between 1832-33 when he was part of a tribal delegation having an audience with the President in Washington during the mid 1820’s.
These important and landmark events led to Thomas L McKenney, who was the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the U.S. Department of War at the time, making it his mission in life to collect and preserve Native American materials for a national collection. They also inspired him to add portraits to the collection, so that he could capture the faces of the indigenous people for posterity in an era long before photography.
The ‘Chippewa’ whose tribal name was Ojibwa were very influential in establishing an American European fur trade. No-Tin was a progressive chap, one who wanted to improve the conditions for his people that had been endured since the advent of white supremacy.
He’s depicted wrapped in a green blanket of a type traded on the open market, although wearing decorations worn only on special occasions.
Henry Inman, one of the most sought after portraitists of his day, produced a wonderful image, one that gives us a glimpse and insight of a man whose strength of character is conveyed to us in a direct gaze, one that captures and holds our attention, letting us know what a respected leader of his people he was.
From the enlightenment to gritty realism, the iconic works of American artists record their rich and turbulent history from the mid eighteenth century at the height of the so-called enlightenment in Europe.
Then there are those who reacted to the tremendous changes wrought by the Industrial revolution throughout the nineteenth century, the turmoil of the first half of the twentieth century during two world wars, and then those in the 1960’s who heralded that the whole world had changed forever.
John Singleton Copley, Frederic Edwin Church, Martin Johnson Heade , Eastman Johnson, John Singer Sargent, James McNeil Whistler, Mary Cassat and Georgia O’Keefe are all artists well known in America, who have put their own stamp and influences on the history of art in a global context defining their own culture, while being influenced by, as well as influencing other artists.
Charles William Peale painted a portrait of John and Elizabeth Lloyd Cadwalader and their daughter Anne in 1772. The Cadwaladers were great patrons in Philadelphia, the fourth largest city in the British Empire at the time. Their wealth was derived from business interests.
Peale placed the family in a scene where they could almost be part of the aristocracy of England or Europe where maintaining conventions were of great importance. However this was not a rigid scene, but one in which the family appear both happy and relaxed, completely at ease with each other and living in a climate where change was beginning to forge an all new American character.
Wealth, ambition and a unique set of cultural circumstances set the scene in pre-revolutionary America for a model modern family, one where rigid aristocratic rules practiced by the English could be finally set aside and a whole new value system based on wealth arising from commerce could take its place, one people could feel proud of.
It’s not surprising that the American Dream was born at this time; an idea that despite where you came from, anyone could achieve anything in a life that they wanted, even become President of this whole new brave world.
John Singleton Copley (1738-1815) illuminated that period of American history where images that combined symbolism with social identity in portraits for the Boston and New York elite were preferred.
He had a unique ability to blend easily into their world of privilege, which only served to confirm their own values and hopes for the future.
Born a son of poor parents Copley would rise to unprecedented heights through his art.
Aged 36, John Singleton Copley sailed for Europe spending a year studying, particularly at Rome.
Eventually he arrived in England where he was elected to the Royal Academy and won royal patronage, which would keep him painting in London until the end of his life.
He portrayed Hugh Montgomerie from Ayrshire Scotland in the grand manner of works by Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy at London.
Montgomerie saw action in the French and Indian War against the Cherokees and was a major when Copley painted his portrait as a man of energy and bravery.
He also elevated him so as to flatter the subject, taking his stance from the Apollo Belvedere one of the most important ancient Roman sculptures of that period.
A steady expansion of immigrants from Europe into America during the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century meant a great deal of hardship but restless settlers kept coming, pushing further inland ensuring that remoteness became an aspect of the character of life itself in a country of seemingly unending reach.
On such a vast abundant continent natural conditions stressed the importance of the individual.
Being at home on the range became an important focus. Great ranch houses sprang up all over the countryside supporting the local community where life on the prairie was often very hard indeed.
The renowned American character was in the main forged in the ‘wild west’, where disputes over land rights and water were commonplace.
Morality, honest work, sound principles and piety were values embraced by those living at the frontier of 19th century American life, where folk tales and music reflected, just as their art often did, their puritan legacy of all those immigrants who had arrived via the Mayflower in 1620.
They were influential in establishing democracy and self government in North America at first under the British and now in the new and flourishing independent world they wanted to call their own.
Thomas Jefferson, one of the great creators desperately wanted to open a window or a door onto a world that was all about founding a ‘new Rome’, one with a truthful vision, one that offered liberty, freedom and justice for all.
Jefferson voiced the aspirations of a new America as no other individual of his era, preferably in writing a skill at which he excelled. As public official, historian, philosopher, and plantation owner, he served his country for over five decades.
His ideas for the new republic helped him to produce “a new experiment in self-governance, an experiment he understood could succeed only if enlightenment prevailed over ignorance”
Charles William Peale (1741-1827) of Philadelphia’s image of his two sons on an enclosed spiral staircase is a rare example of a full length portrait c1795 and trompe l’eoil, tricking the eye into believing that the scene is real.
Peale actually set it into a doorframe within his studio with a real step in front. ‘Rembrandt Peale, another son, recalled that his father’s friend George Washington, misled by Peale’s artifice, tipped his hat and greeted the two young men as he walked by’*.
Peale worked as a saddler, watchmaker and silversmith in his career, inspired by a meeting with John Singleton Copley, he became the most fashionable portrait painter of the middle colonies.
After moving to Philadelphia he was part of the revolutionary movement and served with the city-militia. He opened a portrait gallery of Revolutionary heroes in 1782 and founded an institution for the study of natural law and display of natural history and technological objects in 1786.
In his long life, Peale painted about 1,100 portraits, including sitters such as George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams.
His portrait of himself, with Angelica his daughter with a portrait he is painting of Rachel his wife is vibrantly alive, and a highly sophisticated work.
It is considered as one of his most complex ‘revealing of the artist’s statements about his art and its close relationship to among such issues as family domesticity, family enterprise, and the educational role of science and art’.
The British colony of Pennsylvania in North America was created in 1681 by English real estate entrepreneur and philosopher the confirmed Quaker William Penn on land granted by England’s King Charles II as a haven for people of his religion who were being persecuted.
An early champion of democratic and religious freedoms, William’s father Admiral Penn had taken an active part in the restoration of England’s King Charles II to the throne in 1660.
Penn reputedly made a treaty with native Americans, meeting that fulfilled the biblical prophecy of Isiah that a peaceable kingdom on earth could and would be a reality. It was the subject of a painting by Edward Hicks (1780-1849) although no documentary evidence of the actual treaty exists.
Everyone wanted to live in that ‘Peaceable Kingdom’, the subject of another painting by Hicks, who had a perchance for conveying complex stories in art. that suited his own Quaker beliefs.
Passionate, charming they evoked that idea of a Utopia on earth, one where universal harmony would always reign.
In America during the period Henry Inman had been painting his portraits, he had dominated only a small field of paintings.
However that was now all changing as the fledgling democracy was fast gaining a new national pride and confidence in its independence and wanted to record it.
During the nineteenth century in America artists would paint views of the countryside and its inhabitants who changed the focus of their nation with American virtues of industry, innovation and ingenuity coming to the fore.
Genre pictures, with people involved in everyday activities provided an insight into family and frontier life.
Allen Smith Jnr (1810-1890), whose life spanned much of the 19th century, produced landscapes, still life and genre paintings, in addition to portraits. He moved the midwest and exhibited his genre paintings, such as this one of The Young Mechanic, with its wonderful light, warm tonality and textures and the realism for the young man working in a woodworking shop.
His master is the older young man in the straw hat, proving the point that everyone can support everyone else in a world where freedom and liberty are at the forefront of style and where children are taught to respect and honour each other.
The War of 1812 had brought the fledgling democracy greater confidence and new national pride. By 1829, when Andrew Jackson assumed the presidency, the foundations for an independent culture were securely laid and this sort of art represented the best of Jacksonian led America.
The industrial revolution would only begin in the United States after the War of 1812 and during the following three decades economic change, especially in the north significantly affected working conditions and social structures as paintings illustrated American virtues as well as the pleasures of country life.
Philosopher-poet Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed the mood of the country in 1837 when he said, “our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands is drawing to a close.”
America’s was busy embracing its “manifest destiny” wholeheartedly as it grew vastly both in economic strength and cultural attainment as it entered the nineteenth century.
Eastman Johnson (1824-1906) had produced iconic images of the civil war and he was one of those artists that would rise to the challenge after it was over to produce depictions of rural life that appealed to a period of nostalgia.
This is when the rustic ideal of country life was considered, best illustrated by Johnson’s ‘Barn Swallows, a family of children depicted inside a barn on a summer day perched high on a beam. They were the children of his sister Harriet May playing in their summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
Co-Founder of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, his name is inscribed over its entrance.
He portrayed portraits of prominent Americans such as President, Abraham Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose poetry was integral to his age and he was known as the ‘American Rembrandt’ in his day.
During the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865, when brother fought brother on a bloody battlefield, using the specialized equipment of 19th century warfare, 750,000 American lives were lost.
The all-new nation became involved in a bloody internal conflict as it attempted to grow its ‘united’ vision of itself.
Eighteenth century enlightenment, it seems, had a very high price to pay as everyone wrestled with ideas of conscience, class, race, human frailty and societies mores and concerns. Addressing societies concerns about how, after such a bitter and bloody conflict as their Civil War would be a huge task.
The war left a very large and grievous wound that had been at best only cauterized, although it had not destroyed the American belief in progress.
Young Americans began flocking overseas to Rome, to Paris, to Florence, London and Berlin and by the 1870’s the single minded idea of purpose that had inspired its first American painters changed dramatically, as European ideas and aesthetics began to influence their very real choices in both life and art.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014