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10.1: The Cosmopolitan Spirit in American Art

  • Page ID
    215495
    • 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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    Throughout the history of the United States, Americans have defined their culture in terms of its relationship to Europe. Europe was the "old home." From its beginnings, the nation's ambitious artists sought out European training, and self-consciously positioned themselves in relation to European art and history. From London in the late eighteenth century, to Rome in the early nineteenth, to Düsseldorf in the mid-nineteenth, to Munich, Paris, and Venice in the post-Civil War period, European cities had long offered prominent art academies, private collections and museums, exhibition possibilities, patronage, and international communities of artists. European study was widely regarded as a necessary apprenticeship on the way to becoming an artist.

    But, while recognizing this debt, American artists found the burden of European tradition stifling. The cultural nationalism that dominated the decades before the Civil War had established "American" priorities. Advocates of nationalism imagined America-with its unsettled frontier and dawning democracy- at the vanguard of history, representing the future, while Europe represented the past.

    In those years, most American artists who studied abroad returned home, although some remained, especially in Rome. Yet staying on in Europe always involved a difficult decision to turn away from the pursuit of a national art.

    The Civil War initiated massive changes in American culture and society; the nationalistic sentiments of the prewar years gave way to the feeling that American history was after all an extension of European history rather than separate from it. The notion that American art and literature needed an identity in opposition to Europe gave way to a growing sense of America's involvement in a transatlantic world. No longer culturally and geographically isolated, America was becoming more cosmopolitan (the word derives from the Greek words for "world" and "citizen"-thus "citizen of the world," lacking in national attachments).

    What changed as well was the sheer volume and success of young American artists in Europe. Formerly considered barbarians from the wilds of North America-or worse, provincials-they now routinely won prizes at the Paris Salon, the most prestigious venue for artists on either side of the Atlantic, and gold medals at the many international expositions. "When to-day we look for 'American art,"' wrote Henry James, "we find it mainly in Paris. When we find it out of Paris, we at least find a great deal of Paris in it."2 Often staying abroad for years, Americans frequented the same art colonies as French artists, traveling to the Barbizon, Brittany, and Giverny. Many never returned; not since the late eighteenth century had the nation exported so many leading artists to Europe. Others, however, eventually did return, pursuing successful careers.

    In addition to this more open embrace of European culture, artists and writers had come to recognize that America's materialistic and utilitarian civilization did not support the arts. From John Singleton Copley forward, American artists had carried on a long quarrel with their own country. Copley lamented that in the colonies, the skill of the artist was considered "like that of a Carpenter tailor or shoemaker."3 Nathaniel Hawthorne contrasted the sensitive "artist of the beautiful"4 with the men of iron and brawn who cared only for the things of this world and had little time for imagination or beauty. Such feelings multiplied in the later nineteenth century. Writers and critics pointed to the crass newness of American cities, and bemoaned the utilitarian and business values of the United States, which gave no quarter to aesthetic cultivation. They lamented the absence of public patronage on the scale available to French, German, and British artists. As the pace of modernization quickened, creative people increasingly envied Europe's ties to history, and the institutions and traditions that sheltered art, aspects of European culture they had previously rejected.

    Generational Divisions

    In the 1870s a split emerged among artists, as well as between factions of the art going public. These differences were generational in part. Artists who had made their careers in the mid-century remained devoted to older traditions of storytelling, or narrative, and to what were termed "home subjects." These artists painted in a highly detailed, smoothly finished style prevalent in American art during the 1840s to 1860s. They remained loyal to the idea that art should place the individual imagination of the artist at the service of collective uplift and moral education.

    Figure 10.3: WILLIAM MERRITT CHASE, Still Life with Fruit, 1871. Oil on canvas, 30½ X 25 in (77.4 X 63.5 cm). The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York. Littlejohn Collection.
    Figure 10.3: WILLIAM MERRITT CHASE, Still Life with Fruit, 1871. Oil on canvas, 30½ X 25 in (77.4 X 63.5 cm). The Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York. Littlejohn Collection.

    A younger generation of artists rejected the requirement that art remain loyal to American themes. Increased travel and study abroad-particularly to Munich, Paris, and Venice-brought artists into conversation with a wider world and longer history. American art increasingly addressed themes shared in common across national boundaries. The younger generation favored newer "painterly" methods that highlighted the paint surface rather than disguising the artist's hand in order better to mirror nature itself. William Merritt Chase (1849-1916)- one of the leading "new men," as critics termed them to distinguish them from the older artists of the Hudson River School-summed up his philosophy as artist and teacher in 1899: "It is never the subject of a picture which makes it great; it is the brush treatment, the color, the line. There is no great art without a great technique back of it."5 How one saw rather than what one painted became the focus of a new cosmopolitan art. The shift from the mid-century aesthetic to a more painterly and fluid brushwork is evident in comparing the meticulous enamel-like finish of Chase's early work (fig. 10.3) with the work he did after his return from Munich. In figure 10.3, forms are clearly bounded, and color seems to reside in the objects themselves. A mere decade later, the boundaries between object and environment give way to an overall pattern of light and shadow, and local colors are muted and tonally harmonized.

    THE ARTIST AND HIS STUDIO. Nowhere are these differences between the pre- and post-war generations of artists more apparent than in the appearance of the artist's studio as a new subject in post-war art. For the older Hudson River School painters, the "studio" of the landscape painter was nature itself. Artists such as Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand had claimed their artistic authority directly from nature-and nature's divine source-rather than from cultural institutions. By contrast, William Merritt Chase's famous studio embodied his belief that art drew inspiration not from nature but from other art. Located on the top floor of the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York City (built 1858; demolished 1956), where many of the leading painters (including Winslow Homer, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt) had their studios, Chase arranged his as an artwork in its own right, an aesthetic sanctuary of exquisitely coordinated colors and textures.

    Figure 10.4: WILLIAM MERRITT CHASE, In the Studio, 1882. Oil on canvas, 28⅛ x 40 1/16 in (71.3 x 101.8 cm). The Brooklyn Museum, New York.
    Figure 10.4: WILLIAM MERRITT CHASE, In the Studio, 1882. Oil on canvas, 28⅛ x 40 1/16 in (71.3 x 101.8 cm). The Brooklyn Museum, New York.

    His 1882 In the Studio (fig. 10.4) is one of a series of paintings in which the studio itself becomes the subject. In an asymmetrical composition, a young woman studies prints in a large bound volume. She is surrounded by the works of art from which Chase drew his inspiration: a print after his beloved Frans Hals, landscapes, Japanese woodblock prints, and portraits. Chase's studio also contained Persian, Chinese, and Japanese ceramics, Renaissance bronzes and carved chests, Mexican retablos, and a range of other artifacts he had collected during his years in Europe for the express purpose of creating his aesthetic sanctuary. His studio paintings announce an artist comfortable with the cultures of East and West, ready to put all of history to the service of his cosmopolitan art, linked by a kindred spirit to the great artists of the past. At home in the world, Chase considered himself a member of an elite international brotherhood of artists whose ties reached across the Atlantic. For him, being an American now offered the freedom to explore all of history; to choose, to select, and to create new identities from its rich storehouse.

    The only figure in Chase's studio, the elegantly attired female friend or patron, is both an object of beauty in her own right-a part of the aesthetic ensemble of the studioand one who has the leisure and the financial means necessary for the cultivated appreciation of art. Repeatedly in the "new art" beginning in the 1870s, the artist who creates is male, the audience who consumes is female, a pattern that registers a significant shift from the older traditions of elite male patronage and art appreciation. The reasons for this "feminization" of artistic consumption touch on both gender and class definition in the late nineteenth century, reflecting structural shifts in American society. The art world of these decades increasingly withdrew from the public and national realm, and into rarefied environments populated by like-minded people. A mark of difference separating upper-class Americans from all the rest was the privileged condition of elite women, now assigned the role of cultural refinement and uplift. Cultural endowments-the ability to appreciate fine art and music in particular-came to be a mark of superiority among the nation's upper classes, and the symbol of such superiority was the aesthetic woman, meditatively engaged with works of art. Nevertheless, however exalted her symbolic place, such a position did nothing to encourage women's movement into artmaking, where males continued to dominate.

    Though advanced art in these decades defined itself in contrast to the vulgar world of business and money-getting, the "new men" nonetheless learned a variety of ways to promote themselves and market their art. They threw their studios open to the public, showcasing their talents. Exhibition spaces, both private and public, came to resemble the material delights of a well-stocked department store in their lavish display of beautiful objects. Artistic studios resembled the bazaar of exotic objects readily seen at the great international expositions of the later nineteenth century. The fashion for the "artistic studio" drew on the collectible goods acquired during travel, and united artists with their wealthy patrons who were also furnishing domestic interiors arrayed with objects from around the world.

    Figure 10.5: THOMAS HOVENDEN, Breaking Home Ties, 1890. Oil on canvas, 52⅛ x 72¼ in (132.3 x 183.5 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania.
    Figure 10.5: THOMAS HOVENDEN, Breaking Home Ties, 1890. Oil on canvas, 52⅛ x 72¼ in (132.3 x 183.5 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania.

    BREAKING HOME TIES. Despite the growing international stature of American art, much of the public continued to prefer paintings with storytelling power. Though trained in Paris, Thomas Hovenden (1840-95) adopted a style and subject matter easily accessible to a broad middle-class public. Following his return from Paris he directed his art toward the broadest public appeal. The enormous popular success of his Breaking Home Ties (fig. 10.5), shown at the World's Fair or Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, retells the well-worn story of the country boy leaving his family to seek fame and fortune in the great city. Despite his European training, Hovenden maintained his ties with an older narrative and democratic art, speaking to the popular preference for art that was accessible in meaning and meticulously detailed.

    Many other artists returning from Europe, however, resisted the notion that they should appeal to the aesthetically untutored masses. Preferring the company of those already initiated into the mysteries of art, they took refuge in a self-created social world inhabited by other artists and punctuated by studio visits and summers at artistic colonies throughout Long Island and New England. The painter Arthur Hoeber wrote of one such gathering, "There were glorious nights . . . when they painted tiles, made monotypes and etchings and discussed art .... It was true Bohemia when all the world was young and the possibilities were unlimited."6

    Japonisme: The Meeting of East and West

    Even though racial theories relegated non-Western cultures to the historical margins, artists throughout America and Europe studied and assimilated the aesthetic products of these very cultures, especially Japan, which held a place of honor. Following centuries of self-imposed isolation, Japan was forced to reopen relations with the West by the American fleet under Admiral Perry in 1854. Japanese prints, lacquerware, ceramics, and textiles quickly found wide appreciation, first through collectors and galleries, and later through Japanese participation at universal expositions. The vogue for things Japanese was dubbed Japonisme by a French critic, Philippe Burty, in 1872. American audiences and designers first encountered Japanese arts at the 1876 Centennial Exposition. The Japanese Pavilion, one of the most popular, exhibited a range of ceramics and textiles the aesthetic refinement of which forced the reassessment of entrenched attitudes about European cultural superiority: "How can [one] longer think of a nation as semi-civilized that makes the finest porcelain, while we in America have not advanced beyond the common kinds of pottery ... that sends us silks that vie with the products of the looms of Lyons ... ?"7

    Exposure especially to Japanese woodblock prints opened up an alternative way of thinking about pictorial composition that departed from the Renaissance-derived idea of the picture plane as a window into fictional space. Instead, the prints of Hokusai (1760-1849), Hiroshige (1797-1858) (see fig. 10.13), and others organized forms according to their two-dimensional relationships on the plane of the image. Artists who came under the Japanese influence showed a pronounced interest in abstract pattern, simplified forms, and silhouettes. While these images could still be read dimensionally and narratively, they exchanged a sense of deep space for an interest in the play of shapes, line, textures, and flat color harmonies. Pushing the arts beyond naturalism, Japanese influence fed formal experimentation that emphasized the autonomy of the image as distinct from nature.

    In New England in particular, the interest in Asian culture and philosophy had a long history, prompted in part by the long-established trade with the Far East among New England merchants centered in Boston. Ernest Fenellosa (1853-1908), who traveled to Japan in 1878, stayed for many years, converting to Buddhism, assuming a Japanese name, and becoming a passionate collector and student of Japanese culture who broadened appreciation of its artistic traditions in both Japan and the United States. Ironically, he played a key role in the revival of traditional Japanese painting in Japan at a time when artists there were coming under Western influences. Returning to Boston, he became curator of Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts. The industrialist Charles Lang Freer collected Asian arts along with the work of such artists as James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and Thomas Wilmer Dewing (1851-1938), two painters influenced by Asian visual principles. He combined this passion for collecting with a belief in the role of Asian aesthetics as an agent of cultural refinement in the United States. Fenellosa, Freer, and others made careers out of educating American audiences to the philosophical and spiritual refinements of Japan.

    Despite this admiration for Japanese aesthetics and culture, subtle forms of condescension placed Japan in a subordinate position vis-a-vis the "progressive" West. Japan, along with the rest of Asian culture, was associated with the feminine realm of aesthetic refinement. This viewpoint saw Asia as ineffectual-offering beauty and exotic pleasures but lacking the masculine muscularity of modern nations. Artworks frequently draw an iconographic link between women, Japanese objects, and aesthetic interiors, instances of the feminized Orient and the orientalized feminine (see fig. 10.9).

    Framing the Discourse

    Race and Class: "Highbrow" and "Lowbrow"

    THE DIVISIONS in artists and publics that emerged in the late nineteenth century persisted well into the twentieth. "High brow" came to be associated with the intellectually challenging and difficult, resisting easy comprehension or clear narrative. Where did the term come from? "High brow" originated in the discourse of late-nineteenth century pseudo-scientific race theory, which ranked the cultures of the world according to an ascending scale linked to intelligence and aesthetic achievement. This theory postulated that the lighter-skinned races had high foreheads, and were correspondingly more evolved and higher on the scale of culture. By extension, the more "primitive" (i .e., less evolved) races of Asia, indigenous America , and Africa (in descending order) were associated with progressively more sloping or low-browed crania, and were therefore less prepared by nature to advance alongside the progressive march of Western culture. The term "highbrow" thus derived from upper-class preferences for the physical characteristics associated with northern European ancestry. Around 1900, the term "lowbrow" would be added to this cultural map, associated with the preferences of the "vulgar" classes, and increasingly, in the twentieth century, with those who consumed the products of mass culture.

    American Impressionism

    Among the challenges of the new cosmopolitanism was the encounter with the more artistically radical styles of the French avant-garde. Beginning in the late 1860s, French artists such as Claude Monet (1840-1926) and Edgar Degas (1834-1917) embraced subjects of urban modernity, centered in Paris, and explored in views of urban work and leisure, boulevards, outdoor concerts, and train stations. Their paintings registered the flux of sensation as the individual was bombarded by the fleeting impressions of the modern city. French Impressionism grounded vision in the optical experience of the individual, viewing reality through a subjective lens. The authority of the "real" gave way to the primacy of sensory experience.

    The influence of French Impressionism came slowly to the United States. Unlike French Impressionists, American artists kept modern life at arm's length. In the decades after the Centennial of 1876, American Impressionists favored rural landscapes and New England themes, cast in a perpetual autumn glow. In formal terms they were conservative as well. Retaining a sense of stable form and conventional composition, American Impressionists resisted the breakup of the visual field before the flow of optical sensation.

    Figure 10.6: CHILDE HASSAM, The El, New York, 1894. Oil on canvas, 18¼ X 14¼ in (46.3 X 36.1 cm). Private Collection.
    Figure 10.6: CHILDE HASSAM, The El, New York, 1894. Oil on canvas, 18¼ X 14¼ in (46.3 X 36.1 cm). Private Collection.

    CHILDE HASSAM: AESTHETICIZING THE CITY. Following a sojourn to Paris from 1886 to 1889, Childe Hassam (1859-1935) pursued his career in New York. His paintings, such as The El, New York, locate the more disruptive features of the new city-the elevated rail, for instance-within a stable perspectival space, often from a slightly raised point of view and shrouded in fog or snow (fig. 10.6). Hassam used the loose brushwork and the urban themes associated with French Impressionism in tandem with softening veils of twilight, fog, or muted color. Like his fellow Impressionists John Henry Twachtman (1853-1902) and Julian Alden Weir (1852-1919), Hassam generally renounced the chromatic purity of the French Impressionists in favor of muted color harmonies. The effect was to aestheticize the city, redeeming its raw appearance during a time of rapid construction and demographic change. In the next few years, Hassam retreated to the uncomplicated rural environments of coastal New England, where artists gathered in colonies as they did in Europe during these same years in a turn away from modern urban subjects.

    Figure 10.7: JOHN TWACHTMAN, Winter Harmony, c. 1890- 1900. Oil on canvas, 25¾ x 32 in (65.3 x 81.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Avalon Foundation.
    Figure 10.7: JOHN TWACHTMAN, Winter Harmony, c. 1890- 1900. Oil on canvas, 25¾ x 32 in (65.3 x 81.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of the Avalon Foundation.

    JOHN HENRY TWACHTMAN: BEYOND IMPRESSIONISM. Like Monet's "Grainstack" series or Hassam's Church at Old Lyme, Connecticut (1905), Twachtman's Winter Harmony exudes a timeless mood (fig. 10.7). His mature art distilled the international influences of his training in Munich, Paris, and New York; born in Cincinnati, he frequented the American artists' colonies in Florence, Venice, Normandy, and Holland before settling in Greenwich, Connecticut, where his work drew from the pastoral and domesticated nature near his home. Throughout the 1890s, Twachtman pursued what the scholar Kathleen Pyne has noted as a sense of duration, in which the isolated moment of perception gives way to a more complex, layered time, infused with memory. 8 Unlike earlier French Impressionism, his surfaces are textured and dense; only touches of green enliven a scene of nature, stilled and muted by winter. Low light, delicate color harmonies, and restricted hues contribute to an effect of intimacy and mental calm far removed from the heroics of the mid-century panoramic landscape. In psychological retreat from the intensities of the city, Twachtman's painting mingles introspection and retrospection, drawing sustained attention not through detail or optical interest, but through meditative absorption.

    American Expatriates: At Home Abroad

    These years saw greater numbers of American artists choosing to spend their careers in Europe. The decision to live abroad was nothing new for American artists: Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley had established this pattern in the late eighteenth century, and, trading on their novelty as Americans (New World primitives who could paint!), they became leading lights of the London art world. The late nineteenth century once again witnessed the phenomenon of the American artist as international art star, in the figures of James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent. For Copley and West, born during the colonial period, England was the mother country, and the colonies a distant outpost where they found themselves by accident of birth. In the late nineteenth century, Paris was the heart of the international art world. For Whistler and Sargent, the decision to remain in Europe was prompted by a sense that Europe was their true artistic home, which they sought by fleeing the United States, a culture alien to their ambitions and creative needs.

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    Figure 10.8: JOHN SINGER SARGENT, Fumée d'Ambregris, 1880. Oil on canvas, 54¾ x 35⅝ in (139 x 90.4 cm). Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts.

    JOHN SINGER SARGENT. Sargent ranged freely through the artistic cultures of the world, unencumbered by the restrictions of nationality or nationalism. Born in Florence, Sargent (1856-1925) was the son of parents who had left the United States to wander restlessly through Europe with their three children. A precocious talent, Sargent painted with miraculous fluency, honing his technique first through travel and self-study with his parents, and then through academic study in Florence and at the Parisian atelier of the academician Carolus-Duran (1837-1917). From the start, Sargent drew omnivorously on the history of art, ranging from Egypt to Greek vase painting, from Renaissance and Baroque art-Piero della Francesca and Velázquez most notably-to Japanese woodblock prints and the art of his own contemporaries. From such eclectic sources, Sargent developed into the leading portraitist of his generation. His social and artistic career was as fluid as his paint handling, his style suiting both the nervous intensity of the bohemian art world and the modern temperament of the Paris and London upper classes. But his success was due as well to his keen ability to tailor his artistic approach to his subject and his audience. Style was something to be worn lightly, taken on and off depending on the occasion, like a suit of clothing. Sargent embodies the way that art in an increasingly commercialized setting comes to rely on effects calculated to appeal to specific audiences.

    A much acclaimed work Sargent did following a trip to North Africa, Fumée d'Ambregris (fig. 10.8), depicts an exotic young woman perfuming her clothes and opening her senses to the stimulating properties of the fumes issuing from a small lamp. Ambergris, excreted from the sperm whale, was highly valued on an international market controlled by American whalers, and Arab traders paid considerable sums for it, as an ingredient in perfume and as an aphrodisiac. Ambergris thus represented an Atlantic circuit of exchange linking Europe, America, and North Africa- a symbol of the cosmopolitan world within which Sargent himself operated.

    Fumée d'Ambregris demonstrates Sargent's mastery of the most advanced forms of international art. The subject suggested the sensuous delights and sensual pleasures associated with Mediterranean Africa and other regions on the periphery of Europe. Such themes, loosely linked under the term "Orientalism," had their origins in early nineteenth-century French art. American Orientalism coming decades later-represents another episode in the internationalization of American art, as painters such as Sargent traveled beyond Europe in pursuit of exotic subjects. Fumée d'Ambregris, with its elegant modulations of white and its harmonious integration of figure and setting, demonstrates Sargent's stylish approach, in which storytelling matters less than the sheer beauty of light and color, and the pleasures of the eye.

    Sargent's advanced aesthetic suited his flamboyant European patrons. As a portraitist he studied the dress, gesture, attitude, and social space through which cosmopolitan men and women came to know one another. Madame Merle, a worldly expatriate in Henry James's 1881 novel Portrait of a Lady, expressed the essence of this cosmopolitan view: "What shall we call our 'self? Where does it begin? where does it end? ... One's self- for other people is- one's expression of one's self; ... one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps-these things are all expressive." Sargent shared with James a piercing eye for the socially constructed self that came from a more European understanding of how society defined-and often limited-individual choice and the formation of personality.

    Figure 10.9: JOHN SINGER SARGENT, Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882. Oil on canvas, 87⅜ x 87⅝ in (221.9 x 222.6 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. (See also p. 320)
    Figure 10.9: JOHN SINGER SARGENT, Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, 1882. Oil on canvas, 87⅜ x 87⅝ in (221.9 x 222.6 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts. (See also p. 320)

    At the same time, Sargent had a brilliant ability to use interior space to suggest the psychology of his sitters. Reflecting how selfhood is shaped by social circumstance, his Daughters of Edward Darley Bait (fig. 10.9 and p. 320) sensitively portrays the development of femininity from childhood to adolescence. In his portrait of the four daughters of an American artist living in Paris, Sargent tells his tale by moving from the clear light and gracefully awkward pose of the small girl in the center, wearing a white pinafore and clutching her doll, to the dawning reticence of the girl on the left, who still engages us directly. Furthest from the viewer, the two oldest girls hover on the edge of a shadowed room defined by two enormous Chinese vases, symbols of their future as maternal "vessels," increasingly withdrawing into a private world no longer engaged with ours. The older Boit daughters stand on the threshold of a world in which their selfhood will be defined by their gender and limited by their status as exquisite possessions-like the vases whose shapes they resemble-of a husband. Sargent presents the passage into womanhood as a gradual tightening of boundaries. From foreground to background, and from childlike receptivity to growing reserve, the painting charts the age-old theme of innocence and experience, in which the originally unencumbered self encounters increasingly restricted possibilities. And here, the growing conviction that individuals cannot control their own destinies becomes even more pronounced when those individuals are female.

    Figure 10.10: JOHN SINGER SARGENT, Portrait of Madame Virginie Gautreau (Madame X), 1883- 4. Oil on canvas, 82⅛ x 43¼ in (208.6 x 109.9 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund.
    Figure 10.10: JOHN SINGER SARGENT, Portrait of Madame Virginie Gautreau (Madame X), 1883- 4. Oil on canvas, 82⅛ x 43¼ in (208.6 x 109.9 cm). Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Arthur Hoppock Hearn Fund.

    Sargent cultivated celebrity, gambling on winning public attention through displays of virtuosic skill. In one notorious instance, he hitched his ambitions to a celebrated Parisian beauty (fig. 10.10). In Parisian high society, Virginie Gautreau had traded on her exotic looks and New World origins (she was from New Orleans) to win a wealthy French husband. Virginie, who- was- like Sargent twenty-six at the time, proved a perfect collaborator. Sargent showed her (the portrait is now known as Madame X) dressed in a revealing but stark black dress, in which she strikes a highly unnatural pose, her torso twisted and held in place by her splayed hand. Defying the gaze of her admirers, she presents a profile view showing expanses of violet-tinted skin with vermilion highlights. Sargent originally painted the strap of her dress slipping off her shoulder, increasing its provocative appeal. Challenging propriety and the ideals of feminine grace, the portrait offended the public, and sent the artist packing to London to escape the shadow of scandal. Despite this lapse in judgment, Sargent went on to a brilliant career furthered by his uncanny ability to match style to audience.

    JAMES ABBOTT MCNEILL WHISTLER. Like Sargent, Whistler (1834-1903) was American by parentage and education. And like Sargent, he chose to spend his life abroad. Educated first in St. Petersburg, Russia (where his father worked as a civil engineer), and then in the United States, he was thrown out of West Point Military Academy for failing chemistry. Eventually he made his way to Paris in 1855, where he learned to be an artist by visiting the Louvre, and by studying contemporary French art. In 1859 he moved to London, his primary base for the remainder of his career. Whistler invented an artistic persona, practice, and aesthetic philosophy that synthesized the most progressive ideas about art in these years. He melded influences from Japanese woodblock prints, aestheticism in which subject matter carried less importance than aesthetic effects-and European Symbolism, in which mood and suggestion took the place of realist detail, allowing room for imaginative engagement. Famous for his unconventional personal behavior, flamboyant dress, and bold pronouncements, as well as his highly recognizable style (so distinctive that it gained its own adjective- "Whistlerian"), Whistler enlivened his international career with a flair for self-invention. He excelled in several media, leading the late-nineteenth-century revival of etching (see The Fine Art Print, page 334).

    In the 1870s Whistler moved away from more densely painted and observed pictures to thinly washed landscapes and portraits-images that worked not through description but through evocation and suggestion, like music. Reacting against the idea of art as a mirror of nature, he diluted his paints and restricted his palette to a narrow range of chromatically muted tones. Tonalism, as this style came to be known, would have an international influence. Whistler also began calling his works by musical names: symphonies, harmonies, arrangements, variations. At times, his paintings bordered on abstraction. The way in which music echoes the effects of color, and color the effects of music, is known as synaesthesia (a union of different sensations). Whistler's exploration of synaesthesia, with its emphasis on the evocative qualities of color, anticipated the concerns of modernism.

    Figure 10.11: JAMES ABBOTT MCNEILL WHISTLER, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, 1871. Oil on canvas, 56¾ x 64 in (144.3 x 162.5 cm). Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
    Figure 10.11: JAMES ABBOTT MCNEILL WHISTLER, Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, 1871. Oil on canvas, 56¾ x 64 in (144.3 x 162.5 cm). Musée d'Orsay, Paris.

    In 1877, Whistler's loose style provoked the wrath of the leading Anglo-American writer on art and aesthetics during the second half of the nineteenth century, the Englishman John Rusk.in. A deeply reverent man who felt that art should serve nature through humble observation, Rusk.in publicly accused Whistler of "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." Whistler took Rusk.in to court for libel, arguing that his art, though executed quickly, drew upon a lifetime of aesthetic expertise. The Ten O'Clock Lecture (1885, published in 1892) was Whistler's aesthetic manifesto, written in the wake of the court trial. Dispensing with the moralism that had underpinned art in both England and America-most fully expressed by Rusk.in-Whistler emphasized instead that nature was no more than raw material for the artist, whose authority now came from his heightened aesthetic sense. ''.Art should be independent of all clap-trap-should stand alone, and appeal to the artistic sense of eye or ear, without confounding this, with emotions entirely foreign to it, as devotion, pity, love, patriotism, and the like. All these have no kind of concern with it, and that is why I insist on calling my works "arrangements" and "harmonies." 9 Whistler's portrait of his mother (fig. 10.11) is a good example of his emphasis on form over content. The cultural image of the mother carried a long and charged history, burdened with sentiment of the kind Whistler denounced as irrelevant to art. Here he reduces the subject of his mother to a severe arrangement of shapes against a stark background, forming an elegant silhouette. Even so, Whistler's minimal means fully realize his subject: a New England woman of puritanical austerity, given new life through aesthetic language, freed from the crutch of narrative and symbolism.

    Figure 10.12: JAMES ABBOTT MCNEILL WHISTLER, Nocturne: Blue and Gold- Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-7. Oil on canvas, 26⅞ x 20⅛ in (68.3 x 51.2 cm). Tate Gallery, London.
    Figure 10.12: JAMES ABBOTT MCNEILL WHISTLER, Nocturne: Blue and Gold- Old Battersea Bridge, 1872-7. Oil on canvas, 26⅞ x 20⅛ in (68.3 x 51.2 cm). Tate Gallery, London.
    Figure 10.13: ANDO HIROSHIGE, Ohashi, Sudden Shower at Atake from the series One Hundred Views of Edo, 1857. Woodblock print, 13 3/16 x 8 11/16 in (33.5 x 22.3 cm). Private Collection.
    Figure 10.13: ANDO HIROSHIGE, Ohashi, Sudden Shower at Atake from the series One Hundred Views of Edo, 1857. Woodblock print, 13 3/16 x 8 11/16 in (33.5 x 22.3 cm). Private Collection.

    Japanese art greatly contributed to Whistler's development. His Nocturne: Blue and Gold-Old Battersea Bridge (fig. 10.12), indebted to the Japanese artist Hiroshige (fig. 10.13: Ohashi, Sudden Shower at Atake), transforms a gritty industrial section of the Thames River in West London into a fairyland of shadowy shapes and magical pinpricks of light. The darkness compresses the sense of deep space, inducing us to focus on the patterns created by the bridge against the muted background of bank and river. The subdued palette of blue-grays also pares away distracting visual details in favor of abstract forms. Whistler distilled not simply the motifs, but the underlying principles of Japanese art. The scholar of Japanese art and culture Ernest Fenellosa paid tribute to him at the end of his career: Whistler, he wrote, "stands forever at the meeting point" of Asia and Europe, "the interpreter of East to West, and of West to East."

    Methods and Techniques

    The Fine Art Print

    THE SAME YEARS that saw the popularity of the "chromo" as a form of middle-class decoration also witnessed the emergence of the "fine art print" centered around the revived interest in etching. Inspired by Whistler, who learned to etch in the 1850s at the beginning of his career, artists in Europe and the United States produced prints that-unlike the chromo-were intended for a select audience of those who could appreciate the fine handling of the medium and the subtle line value and tonal effects of a well-executed print (fig. 10.14). Further reinforcing its differences from the "vul&ar" chromo, Whistler devised the strategy of striking plates-crossing them out-so that they could never be printed again, thus controlling the market for a print edition by limiting the supply. The production of a "limited edition" increased the value of individual prints by artificially maintaining their scarcity.

    Figure 10.14: JAMES McNEILL WHISTLER, The Rialto, 1879- 80. Etching and drypoint, 11 7/16 x 7⅞ in (29 x 20 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Rosenwald Collection.
    Figure 10.14: JAMES McNEILL WHISTLER, The Rialto, 1879- 80. Etching and drypoint, 11 7/16 x 7⅞ in (29 x 20 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Rosenwald Collection.

    MARY CASSATT AND HENRY OSSAWA TANNER. While some artists left America to pursue European opportunities, others left to escape social conditions at home. For Mary Cassatt (1844- 1926) and Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859- 1937), gender and race imposed limits as long as they remained in the United States. The Parisian metropolis allowed Cassatt to be herself. Very early in her training, she determined that France was, as she wrote to a friend, a country where "[W]omen do not have to fight for recognition .. . if they do serious work."10 For Tanner, Paris afforded an opportunity to escape the "race prejudice" of the United States in a more cosmopolitan environment. For both Tanner and Cassatt, expatriation allowed them the freedom to become artists first and foremost, unqualified by the circumstances of gender and ethnicity.

    Figure 10.15: MARY CASSATT, Mother and Child, 1889. Oil on canvas, 35⅜ x 25⅜ in (90 x 64.5 cm). Wichita Art Museum, Kansas.
    Figure 10.15: MARY CASSATT, Mother and Child, 1889. Oil on canvas, 35⅜ x 25⅜ in (90 x 64.5 cm). Wichita Art Museum, Kansas.

    Freed by family money to pursue her career as a single woman, Cassatt first moved to Paris in 1865 and was exhibiting in the Paris Salon by 1868. Encountering the work of Edgar Degas shaped her emerging talent; beginning in 1879 she was the lone American to exhibit with the Impressionists, testing her talent within male-centered modernist art circles. Like her male colleagues, she claimed all of art history as hers. Best known for her paintings of mothers and children, Cassatt enriched this subject by looking back to the Madonna and child theme central to Christian art throughout the Renaissance. She coupled an interest in the Old Masters-studied during trips to Spain and Italy-with the newest currents in French art, including Japonisme, through stylistic experimentation in line and pattern. More than a mere follower of the French avant-garde, her artistic personality emerged through the combination of Impressionist brushstrokes with stable, solid structure, undercutting cliched conceptions about the woman artist as predisposed to the decorative and the ephemeral. Cassatt's 1889 Mother and Child (fig. 10.15) brings together strikingly abstract brushwork-especially evident in the water pitcher, which seems to be on the same plane as the mother's head-with the two fully realized figures in a still moment of intimacy. As if fending off sleep, the child rests his hand on his mother's chin, completing a circuit of linked arms and hands that expresses the bond between the two.

    Following study at the Academie Julian, Tanner established his career in Paris. There were many reasons for him to remain in Paris, not least of which was his feeling that there he would be taken first as an artist, and only secondly as a man of African American ancestry. Throughout his life, Tanner rejected the notion that his development as an artist had anything to do with his ethnic make-up. "I suppose," he wrote in 1914, "according to the distorted way things are seen in the States my blond curly-headed little boy would be 'Negro.'''11 The artificiality of racial labels in the United States struck him as absurd, even as he acknowledged their power to condition the reception of his art.

    Figure 10.16: HENRY OSSAWA TANNER, The Annunciation, Oil on canvas, 57 x 71½ in (144.7 x 181.6 cm), 1898. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania.
    Figure 10.16: HENRY OSSAWA TANNER, The Annunciation, Oil on canvas, 57 x 71½ in (144.7 x 181.6 cm), 1898. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania.

    In 1894, Tanner's painting The Banjo Lesson (see fig. 9.12) was accepted into the Paris Salon, the first of a string of successes. Celebrated at the highest levels, Tanner was considered by the French establishment to be among the greatest artists produced by the United States. Such recognition early on spurred Tanner's ambition to develop a style that was his own while building on the achievements of the Old Masters. After 1894, he turned his energies to New Testament subjects, one of a small number of contemporary European or American artists painting such themes. This choice drew upon the different strands of Tanner's identity as an artist: his turn to scriptural subjects was linked to the church he had known as a child through his father (see Chapter 9), but it also connected his work with subject matter venerated throughout European art history. The Annunciation of 1898 (fig. 10.16) was a strikingly original treatment of the theme. In 1897 Tanner had traveled to the Middle East; the impact of the trip is apparent in the new attention to the textiles, the dress, architecture, and ethnic appearance of the young Mary. In the spirit of nineteenth-century historical scholarship that transformed biblical studies, Tanner situated the Christ cycle in the historical environment of Palestine. Breaking with centuries of tradition, he painted the Angel of the Annunciation as a blindingly intense pillar of white light. Tanner's conception gave to the biblical story a new psychological immediacy and historical realism, while preserving its miraculous and sacred nature.

    While Tanner acknowledged his black cultural heritage both directly and indirectly, he resisted the role in which white American patrons and critics placed him, as representing the "race" potential of black artists. His expatriation and early success in France had given him, in the words of the black historian James A. Porter in 1943, "a sense of expanded manhood and a consciousness of self-responsibility,"12 words that convey the difference that expatriation made for him in his quest to transcend what W. E. B. Dubois would call in 1903 "the problem of the color line."13

    The Marketplace of Styles

    Figure 10.17: LOUIS COMFORT TIFFANY & CANDACE WHEELER, Mr. George Kemp's Salon, c. 1883, from Artistic Houses: Being a Series of Interior Views of a Number of the Most Beautiful and Celebrated Homes in the United States (1883- 1884), vol. 1, pt. 1, reprinted in Amelia Peck and Carol Irish, Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875- 1900. Photograph. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Thomas J. Watson Library.
    Figure 10.17: LOUIS COMFORT TIFFANY & CANDACE WHEELER, Mr. George Kemp's Salon, c. 1883, from Artistic Houses: Being a Series of Interior Views of a Number of the Most Beautiful and Celebrated Homes in the United States (1883- 1884), vol. 1, pt. 1, reprinted in Amelia Peck and Carol Irish, Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875- 1900. Photograph. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Thomas J. Watson Library.

    World's Fairs were crucial incubators of the influences that transformed European and American art and design in the final decades of the nineteenth century. The opening up of new markets in Asia and the Middle East enriched the range of styles available to artists, stimulating consumer taste in exotic objects and leading to a vogue for incorporating Japanese and Islamic influences into domestic interiors (fig. 10.17). World's Fairs began as international trade fairs with London's Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1851, showcasing industrial and artisanal goods from around the world as a way of promoting domestic crafts and industries to international audiences. The display of the most characteristic products of a culture helped to establish categories in which the diversity of market goods from around the world could be organized. World's Fairs fueled consumer fantasies of exotic locales and peoples. Yet while providing entertainment, the international exhibitions of goods at the World's Fairs also connected the industrialized, developed nations to the less "advanced" cultures of North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. These non-Western participants occupied a subordinate position as colonies supplying the growing consumer appetites of a prosperous middle class in Europe and the United States. World's Fairs promoted the idea that the more advanced nations were entitled to assimilate goods and materials from around the world, and claim all of history and geography as their own. This imperial attitude was linked to racial ideas that- as we have seen- also shaped social and class difference on the national level.

    The scholar Anne McClintock identifies the World's Fairs of the late nineteenth century as primary sites of what she terms "commodity racism."14 World's Fairs displays and advertisements visualized the racial hierarchies around which the national cultures of these years were organized. Western commodities such as soap were advertised as missionaries of enlightenment, extending influence around the globe from the metropolitan centers of London, Chicago, and Paris to the benighted colonial hinterlands of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The geographical reach of Western goods and markets subsumed the world's cultures into a single ascending scale of development, measured by Western standards of progress.

    THE CRAZY QUILT MANIA AND THE PHILADELPHIA EXPOSITION. The international influences of the World's Fairs expanded the vocabulary not only of fine artists but also of designers and quilt makers, who were endlessly resourceful in incorporating new approaches to pattern making. From 1876 on, motifs derived from Japanese decorative arts enriched the domestic arts of women. The flat, two-dimensional design sense of the Japanese woodblock print became part of the everyday visual landscape of the urban home.

    By the 1870s, classic patchwork quilts were out of fashion among the urban middle class, though they continued to be popular in rural areas. A new fad seized America's middle-class women, inspired by the Japanese art displays at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, which were visited by more than nine million spectators. American quilt makers devised a new quilt form: the Crazy Quilt, a name thought to derive from its lunatic visual extravagance. While this interpretation is not wrong, the term is actually derived from "crazed," as applied to the all-over crazing in some Japanese ceramics where the surface glaze is cracked or broken up into an irregular pattern. Indeed, some contemporary accounts even referred to this type of textile as "Japanese patchwork."

    Seldom bedcovers, these were smaller, ornamental throws, draped over the back of a sofa or screen in the parlor, or laid atop a plain bed coverlet as a decorative accent. Crazy quilts were usually made of fine silks, sometimes dressmaker's scraps, but more often fabric bought specifically for the purpose. The extravagant use of silk was a result of developments in international trade and manufacturing that made this formerly costly material affordable to middle-class women. American trade with China, the world's great silk producer, increased in the second half of the nineteenth century, and imported silks became widely available. By the 1880s, Chinese silk thread was being woven into cloth within the United States, and this reduced the cost even further.

    Figure 10.18: M.M HERNANDRED RICARD, My Crazy Dream, 1877- 1912. Silk, velvet cloth, embroidery thread, 74¼ x 68¾ in (188.5 x 174 cm). University of Nebraska, Lincoln. International Quilt Study Center.
    Figure 10.18: M.M HERNANDRED RICARD, My Crazy Dream, 1877- 1912. Silk, velvet cloth, embroidery thread, 74¼ x 68¾ in (188.5 x 174 cm). University of Nebraska, Lincoln. International Quilt Study Center.

    When M. M. Hernandred Ricard (1838-1915) began the work she entitled My Crazy Dream in Boston in 1877 (fig. 10.18), she surely never imagined it would take thirty-five years to complete. In the center, she embroidered an odd scene in which a giant peacock and a small elephant share the landscape with a house, six human figures, and a dog. The sky is composed of various light blue silks with embroidered clouds. An embroidered rainbow arcs over the scene, separating it from the wild patchwork of the rest of the coverlet.

    Sometimes individual squares of crazed patchwork overlaid with embroidery were organized into a grid pattern, like other classic American quilts. But in this case, the artist took pains to conceal the fact that her masterpiece is composed of individual blocks fitted together: she overlapped the silks and the embroidery stitches to make an asymmetrical mosaic over the entire surface. Three corners are filled with Japanese fan designs; in the lower left corner the artist has embroidered her name and the title of her work. Amid the profusion of embroidered flowers, animals, and insects, Ricard included a signed photolithograph of herself (lower right).

    In 1912, when she finally finished the handsewing on her Crazy Dream, silk had become more costly and difficult to obtain, because of civil war in China, and it came to be used less often in quilts. Though the Crazy Quilt fad was over, many families handed these valued coverlets down through the generations.


    This page titled 10.1: The Cosmopolitan Spirit in American Art is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Angela L Miller, Janet Catherine Berlo, Bryan J Wolf, and Jennifer L Roberts.