Following the Civil War in America, people all over the United States had to learn how to trust each other again and to fairly champion the reality of what liberty and freedom was really all about to themselves and the rest of the world. It would take a long time.
It was a tall order and a huge enterprise that adventurous Americans of the time embarked upon, which was supported and reflected in the work of a rapidly growing number of artists.
The subject was a huge challenge for any artist to record, a fact accepted by the members of America’s first artistic fraternity The Hudson River School.
They were a group of artists who stylistically and socially were of one mind, with many of them working at the first purpose-built art space in New York City.
Their earliest, best-known exponent was Thomas Cole, who would render dramatic depictions of the American wilderness, helping to spread the popularity of grand sweeping American landscape views.
In his ‘Indian Pass’ of 1847 he created a scene of the primeval past, when majestic mountains, brilliant skies, an abundant countryside, flowing rivers and autumn trees were dressed in all their glory, presenting a wonderful wilderness scene you wanted to be part of.
As America as a country gradually developed, paintings of uninhabited places pushed and expanded the ideas of the European enlightenment and ideas about the sublime to a higher place than ever before.
Its great expanse of wide-open spaces represented to the viewer the boundless opportunities available for all those who sought them in America.
Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) also became a central figure in the Hudson River School. He was Cole’s pupil, a man considered as a student as having ‘the finest eye for drawing in the world’.
His landscapes on a grand scale left spectators feeling awestruck at the majesty of their country’s natural beauty. He offered them a point in time where Americans could pause and consider their past, present and future.
On the Genesee River at Rochester, New York were three thundering waterfalls.
Church, who was interested in natural phenomenon, sought them out to record over the course of his travels during 1848.
This was a scene Cole new well and Church was very much influenced by his views and eager to please. Working en plein air he rendered the powerful cascade, punctuating the powerful landscape around it.
He bathed the rocky bluff in rose coloured afternoon sun and then insinuated a small boy into a scene where he’s revealed fishing happily in a wonderfully harmonious environment.
It’s meant to convey to the viewer the nineteenth century fascination with nature and geology as well as re-inforce the idea that one could escape from the growing ugliness of an Industrial revolution causing havoc in Europe, by seeking to make a meaningful life in rural, carefree even idyllic America. And it worked.
As more people poured in through the portals of Ellis Island at New York from an unhappy Europe, awe inspiring and such beautiful scenes were gradually replaced by views of farms, towns, and factories, although most American artists always retained their sense of awe about the landscape.
The Romantic Movement in Europe that was in play a part to some extent also gave credence to views that were a panacea to the heart and soul. It affected and influence some artists and their sensibilities, including American landscapist Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904).
Born in Pennsylvania to a prosperous farming family, Heade spent his early years learning to love nature so that he could paint in landscape and still life.
He was more widely traveled than most, living variously in Europe and America, and traveling to South America on three occasions.
Heade moved in 1883 to Florida, where his interest in natural history flourished and he painted fabulous flowers, including exotic orchids and magnolias, creating compositions that today still appeal to our modern sensibilities.
The golden glow of the rich velvet stuff and the soft creamy nuances of the magnolias work so beautifully together in this image, that you can almost feel the waxiness of the leaves and the flesh of the flowers.
Although Heade’s work received only limited artistic acclaim during his lifetime, his paintings were “rediscovered” during the 1940s, and he has since evolved into an undisputed modern American master.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was active during his career in London, Florence and Paris not his home country, although American. He grew up roaming Europe with wealthy expatriate American parents, who gave complete support to his passionate pursuit of light and shadow.
He painted a wonderful portrait of his lifelong friend Sarah Sears, now in the Museum of Fine Arts at Houston.
She was one of those ladies who set the social scene in Boston, together with a friend and sometime rival Isabella Stewart Gardener.
In this work Sargent reveals his wonderful skill at painting textures and rendering white, nuanced beautifully with the addition of soft tones of lavender, blue and pink delineating her elegance and refinement of both taste and style.
Australians should know a little about Sargent, through his fantastic portrait of Lord Ribblesdale, which is now in the National Gallery of Australia. Painted in 1902 it reveals the public face, rather than the private life of a man we are invited to ponder.
There are many indicators in the portrait that tell us a terrific tale about life at the top and that Milord is very aware, as indeed is the artist, that an image is all about other people’s perceptions.
Sargent was very intuitive of life in the social milieu of which he belonged.
However he eventually became weary of ‘face’ painting and from about 1900 began changing his rhythm of work. He completed portraits and murals during the winter at London. Then travelling and painting en plein air in summer, he worked alongside Claude Monet in France and his many American colleagues in rural England.
He painted his sister Violet’s daughter Rose-Marie Ormond draped in an elegant fashionable cashmere shawl during one of his vacations with their family in the Alps, near Val d’Aosta and Simplon.
It’s a wonderful example of his virtuoso brushwork, infused as it is with his continual brush with Monet and Impressionism.
The shawl from Kashmir also reflects the fact she is reading ‘Mughal’ poetry, a favourite pastime.
Sargent’s superb rendition of an Alpine ‘Waterfall’ where a glacial stream is cascading over rocky terrain was considered “a sincere and brilliant experiment” and Sargent began to also be described as “a landscape artist of the first rank”.
Purchased by an American collector, Sargent’s A Waterfall became the first major landscape by the artist to be widely exhibited in the United States.
One critic in the New York Times completely carried away in the moment perhaps went as far as acknowledging it as a ‘masterful model’ for all other artists.
He rendered the falling water as skillfully as he handled the silk finery worn by Mrs Joshua Montgomery Sears and his sister’s daughter.
He deftly depicted the sunlight seen through the rising mist and glinting off the wet rocks with just a hint of the azure blue of the sky above.
Equestrian bronzes by Frederic Remington demonstrate that at the turn of the century there was a continuing enthusiasm for heroic depictions of the West despite the increased internationalism of American taste.
Remington highlighted the ever present possibility of dying still in the western territories, despite it being the first decade of the twentieth century.
An illustrator, painter, sculptor and writer, he travelled widely in the west making sketches, taking photographs and presenting images of the cowboy as a national folk hero.
His Fight for the Waterhole 1903 is considered one of his masterpieces.
Mary Stevenson Cassat (1844-1926) was also part of the milieu surrounding impressionists Camille Pissarro (1830 – 1903), Claude Monet (1840 – 1926), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919).
She was one of the women who turned their heads and hearts.
Her ‘woman with a Pearl Necklace in a Loge, is one of a series of theatre scenes she created, showing a woman on the balcony of the Paris Opera House.
The work demonstrates the influence of her friend Edgar Degas’s influence, with an emphasis on superb flesh tones and when exhibited at the Paris Salon it was given a great deal of praise.
In 1877 Edgar Degas invited her to join the ‘impressionists’.
She was interested in figure compositions and Degas became her chief mentor, encouraging her efforts.
She became an advisor to art collectors in the United States and encouraged them to collect old master paintings and the works of the contemporary French avant-garde.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an early twentieth century American painter whose creative brilliance revolutionized modern art in her own country.
Over her very long lifetime (98 years) she became one of its most important cultural icons.
She enlarged and expanded the European tradition of flower painting during the 1920s in America by making large-format paintings of beautiful blooms presenting them up close and personal and as if seen through a magnifying lens.
She became celebrated for her exceptional powers of observation highly visible in the boldness of her brilliant flower paintings that were richly coloured and very erotic.
She was entranced with landscape and when she visited New Mexico in 1929 responded quickly to the arrid terrain of the Southwestern desert.
Georgia O’Keefe’s ‘Horse’s skull with pink rose painted in 1931 pays homage to her own history as she made her way to New Mexico, after abandoning the crowds of New York city for the wide open spaces of this mountain state where the culture is unique for its strong Hispanic and Native-American influence, where she wanted to embrace a new life.
Her pallette of colours changed and she moved into whites, blacks, beiges reflecting the dramatic and dark drama of the desert and her fascination with bones, using windbleached skulls to represent the vast dry bare country that captivated her and reflected her interest in abstraction.
‘Art for Art’s sake’ was the credo of American born British based artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) who brought his mother into the equation while she was living with him at London.
Paraded and parodied for generations, she finally appeared on a postage stamp in 1934 ‘In Memory and In Honor of the Mothers of America’. Today Anne McNeil Whistler has become an icon in the USA standing up for family values and urging and winning respect for parenting.
Whistler also became renowned for his cutting edge comments, especially when in conversation with fellow wit Oscar Wilde. A friend of impressionist painter Claude Monet, Whistler, along with Wilde were both well known in the café society at Paris.
Wilde once responded to a remark Whistler made at a dinner party saying “I Wish I’d said that” to which Whistler bit back “You will Oscar, you will”.
Following World War II American abstract art attempted to remain connected to modern American realities, appealing to the avant-garde and hipster for whom colour, energy and vitality an aspect of street life was highlighted by harsh neon lighting and advertising hoardings.
Abstract means that the image has been dramatically changed so that there is little or no association to representational forms. Non-objective is the term that defines works with no association to representational imagery.
Psychic automatism also uses the sub-conscious mind to create imagery and artist Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) used this process to create his large drip action paintings.
His No 22, completed in enamels on Masonite, like many of his works have been the subject of intense critical debate. There are those who believe his work is not art, but rather a joke in bad taste. Yet others believe he placed the USA at the ‘forefront of global art in his day.
Certain scholars believe Pollock’s work became a ‘weapon of the Cold War’ pitting the US Government and a wealthy elite against art. Dying aged 44 in an alcohol haze related single car accident certainly did not affect the sort of prices his works now receive.
When auctioned in May 2012, No 28 painted in 1951 reached $US58.4 million, twice its pre-sale estimate.
Now a household name in America, Pollock would be well surprised I am sure.
The idea of the ‘manifest destiny’ of Americans where they were able to capitalize on nature’s abundance for nearly two centuries, has now been replaced by Americans embracing the idea of ‘manifest responsibility’.
Today they are looking to ensure that its land and resources are managed in mindful and sustainable ways and it will be interesting to follow just how their visual artists of the future will continue to record such events
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-2014