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Humanities LibreTexts

5: Art, Revolution, and The New Nation, 1776-1828

  • Page ID
    • Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts
    • Washington University in St. Louis, University of Rochester, Stanford University and Harvard University

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    THIS CHAPTER EXAMINES the ways in which artists influenced the American Revolution and then helped shape life in the early republic. In the years leading up to the Revolution, artists on both sides of the Atlantic provided cartoons, prints, and images satirizing relations between Britain and the colonies and justifying rebellion. In the years after the Revolution, American artists proceeded to create myths to celebrate the new nation. For this, they turned to the art of Greece and Rome, finding a model of moderation, stability, and balance in classical forms.

    During the early years of the republic, the taste for classicism swept through all facets of daily life, from the look of government buildings to the designs of women's needlework. Neoclassicism, as it was called, was not unique to America. It was part of a transatlantic culture in the throes of war and revolution, beginning with the American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth century and continuing through the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century. Characterized by symmetry and order, Neoclassicism offered people threatened by social turmoil a countervailing vision of timeless values and universal truths, a vision linking America's present and future with the achievements of ancient history. Neoclassicism allowed rival geographical regions, as well as different social classes and competing commercial interests, to see themselves as part of a single nation unified by shared values dating back to antiquity.

    By the close of the eighteenth century, however, American society was changing. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, virtually doubled the size of the United States by purchasing the lands between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains from France (see Chapter 3). The Louisiana Purchase marked the end of the French Empire in North America and transformed the young nation's outlook, encouraging westward expansion and multiplying its resources, but also providing new territories for slavery and intensifying regional competition among the states. For $15 million (3½ cents per acre), Jefferson changed the destiny of America.

    By 1828 (the year in which Andrew Jackson was elected president), Americans themselves had changed. The world of the American Revolution-with its language of civic virtue, its emphasis on universal values, and its faith in the classical past-looked increasingly quaint to new generations accustomed to political factionalism, rising immigration, growing cities, and the first stirrings of industrialization. Neoclassicism started to seem less like a shared set of values than a nostalgia for an idealized past.

    Thumbnail: MARIA CROWNINSHIELD, Allegory of Female Education, 1804. Silk, watercolor, metallic thread and reverse painting on glass, 24¾ x 19¼ in (62.8 x 48.8 cm). The Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.