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13.1: American Apprenticeship to European Modernism

  • Page ID
    232341
    • 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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    American artists have always taken what they needed from the European tradition, recombining various sources, and choosing those elements of European art that best suit their own purposes. Until Alfred Stieglitz began a series of exhibitions at his 291 Gallery in 1908, works by the leading French modernists were unavailable to the art-going public. Private collectors began to acquire late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European art only after World WarI, as Old Master works exceeded their budgets. The opening of the Museum of Modern Art in 1929 and the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1931 signaled the beginning of a large-scale institutional commitment to collecting modern art, although the ground had been laid by more informal exhibition spaces (see page 426).

    Before the Armory Show

    The first generation of American modernist artists underwent their earliest exposure to modern art movements by going to Paris, where they had direct contact with European ideas and experimentation. They also learned of developments in French modernism through foreign journals carrying reproductions. At the home of expatriate Americans such as the brother and sister Leo and Gertrude Stein, many Americans first confronted the work of the masters among foundational modernists. At the Paris Salon d' Automne they could see the work of the Fauves, above all Matisse, whose non-naturalistic use of color proved liberating. American artists eager to try new approaches to pictorial space learned by imitation, studying the Cubist fracturing and faceting of the picture plane, as well as the uses of abstraction among the international avant-garde who gathered in Paris. Whether their masters were Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso, or Kandinsky, the results were often awkward and plainly derivative. For the strongest artists, however, such transitional work was a necessary stage on the path to a more personal style.

    Figure 13.1: MARGUERITE ZORACH & WILLIAM ZORACH, Maine Islands, 1919. Needlepoint and pencil on canvas, 17¾ x 49¾ in (45.2 x 126.4 cm). National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 13.1: MARGUERITE ZORACH & WILLIAM ZORACH, Maine Islands, 1919. Needlepoint and pencil on canvas, 17¾ x 49¾ in (45.2 x 126.4 cm). National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
    Figure 13.2: HENRI MATISSE, Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-6. Oil on canvas, 69⅛ x 94⅜ in (175 x 241 cm). The Barnes Foundation, Lincoln University, Merion, Pennsylvania.
    Figure 13.2: HENRI MATISSE, Le Bonheur de Vivre, 1905-6. Oil on canvas, 69⅛ x 94⅜ in (175 x 241 cm). The Barnes Foundation, Lincoln University, Merion, Pennsylvania.

    AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. European modernism proved a flexible language that could accommodate a range of materials and idiomatic expressions. Among the young artists who traveled to Paris in search of new artistic worlds was Marguerite Thompson (1887- 1968), from northern California. Studying briefly at Stanford University, she spent the years from 1908 to 19n in Paris. Like so many other young American artists there, she visited the Salon d'Autornne, where she saw the work of the Fauves. She visited Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), a friend of her aunt, and there gained further exposure to Matisse, whose work helped form her as an artist. She met her husband, the sculptor William Zorach (1887-1966), among the Parisian community of American artists. Returning to New York in 1912, Marguerite and William Zorach joined the bohemian culture of Provincetown, where they shared a life of art that accommodated their growing family and limited income. Marguerite, trained as a painter, took up embroidered tapestries in the 1910s; in tapestry wools she found colors more vibrant than she could find in paint, satisfying her Fauvist influenced sense of color and her growing modernist taste for abstract pattern. Into the traditional needle arts mastered by generations of American women, she incorporated the joyous themes of earthly bliss and voluptuous pleasures in nature first explored by Matisse. Maine Islands (fig. 13.1) was done in collaboration with her husband, an American version of Matisse's Le Bonheur de Vivre (fig. 13.2). As William wrote of the paintings they both did on related themes, "There were no problems in them ... only a joyous awareness of the world about us. Flowers bloomed, wildlife carried on, clouds floated .. . Nude figures lay around pools, played with children, made love, dreamed."2 Maine Islands also reflected the growing vogue for American folk art in its naive style and in the patterned qualities of the tapestry yarn. Marguerite Zorach would continue to work in embroidery for several more decades; in a medium long associated with the feminine (therefore minor) domestic arts, she found the same formal challenges as those posed by modernist painting. Years later she wrote that ''.All the constructions and relations you find in painting are in the tapestries-just the technique and the materials are different."3

    The Armory Show

    Figure 13.3: Armory Show, International Exhibition of Modern Art, 1913. Photograph. Museum of Modern Art, New York.
    Figure 13.3: Armory Show, International Exhibition of Modern Art, 1913. Photograph. Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    In 1913, the level of public exposure to European modernism-already prepared by a decade of cultural exchange-increased exponentially. The International Exhibition of Modern Art, known as the Armory Show for its location at the 69th Street Armory in New York City, brought together some 1600 paintings and sculptures by artists on both sides of the Atlantic (fig. 13.3). The previous generation of American artists had stood as equals in the art worlds of France and Germany. Now in 1913 they found themselves once again in a position of tutelage to developments occurring elsewhere. For some, the Armory Show was an infuriating spectacle of lapsed values, of artistic individualism run amok, an assault on the universal and timeless traditions of form serving moral decency and cultural enlightenment. Others protested that it made the American art world once again a colony of Europe. But for many younger artists, the experience of the Armory Show was liberating, transforming their fundamental understanding of art as an autonomous language no longer tied to nature. For example, Stuart Davis (1894-1964) was particularly impressed by the paintings of Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), Vincent van Gogh (1853-90), and Matisse, whose broad generalizations of form and non-imitative use of color resembled approaches he had begun to explore in his own practice. Across a wide spectrum of responses, the cultural impact of the Armory Show was unprecedented. After 1913, no one could afford to ignore its lessons.

    Among these was a new way of understanding the history of art. The organizers of the Armory Show-Walt Kuhn, Arthur B. Davies, and Walter Pach, all of them members of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors-spent months in Europe surveying the latest developments and securing loans for the show. They took their lead from a series of large-scale exhibitions held in London (1911 and 1912) and Cologne, Germany (1912), whose purpose was to ground modernism in a longer perspective reaching back to the early nineteenth century. Artists such as Goya, Ingres, and Delacroix now appeared as grandfather figures; their interest in "plastic values" - the internal composition of line and volume which, wedded to content, offered the artist a new form of communication-gained them a place in the modernist pantheon. They were followed by Corot, Manet, and the Impressionists, opening into a now familiar canon of artists linked to a heroic history of modernism.

    Framing the history of modernism in this way validated a tradition of artistic experimentation. Modernism found a place not only in the longer history of European culture but in an American history of revolutionary change from old to new orders. The organizers of the Armory Show took as their symbol the uprooted pine used on the flag that the rebelling colonists from Massachusetts carried into battle. Mabel Dodge, already immersed in modernism through her friendships with Gertrude Stein and others, compared the Armory Show to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Dodge's euphoria exposed a wider faith in the transatlantic nature of modernism, transcending national identities. For her, the Armory Show signaled a triumph of the new over the stultified cultures of both Europe and the United States. Echoing this vision, the collector John Quinn insisted that Americans need not react defensively to the lessons of the Armory Show: "Tonight will be a red-letter night in the history not only of American but of all modern art."4 On the closing night, fueled by bottles of champagne, and accompanied by a fife and drum corps, artists, guards, and onlookers snake-danced their way through the exhibition, cheering the paintings.

    Modernism was more than the latest import from Europe, however. It fundamentally transformed the way people saw. As Quinn wrote afterwards, "When one leaves this exhibition one goes outside and sees the lights streaking up and down the tall buildings and watches their shadows, and feels that the pictures that one has seen inside after all have some relations to the life and color and rhythm and movement that one sees outside."5 Yet not everyone was prepared to accept the overthrow of the naturalistic language of representation evident at the Armory Show. Conservative members of the National Academy such as Kenyon Cox saw the new art as "the total destruction of the art of painting,"6 a form of individualism that challenged received cultural authority. Humorists ridiculed the strange new styles, calling Cubism "an explosion in a shingle factory." Some, respecting the authority the new art carried with critics, were prepared to accept it on trust as the prelude to serious and original work by American artists, to paraphrase ex-president Theodore Roosevelt's skeptical reaction to the exhibition. No doubt, a feeling of cultural inferiority propelled a desire to understand, along with frustrated outbursts.

    Figure 13.4: MARCEL DUCHAMP, Nude Descending a Staircase, no. 2, 1912. Oil on canvas, 58 x 35 in (71.1 x 88.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania.
    Figure 13.4: MARCEL DUCHAMP, Nude Descending a Staircase, no. 2, 1912. Oil on canvas, 58 x 35 in (71.1 x 88.9 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania.

    DUCHAMP'S NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE NO. 2. One of the great sensations of the Armory exhibition was Marcel Duchamp's (1887-1968) Nude Descending a Staircase no. 2 (fig. 13.4). As the high-end gossip magazine Vanity Fair reported, "it was discussed at dinner parties, at dances, ... in editorials . .. . It caused more disputes than politics.''7 What was so troubling about the painting? Nude Descending was inspired not only by Duchamp's interest in Cubism but also by his fascination with stop-action photography as it developed simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic. His painting was a shocking departure from the venerable tradition of the nude in European culture, in which the body is shown as a sensuous unity. In place of "the human form divine" is a series of overlapping planes, reduced to underlying geometries. The movement of the body is rendered into component parts that resemble the rhythms of a machine. And-most disturbing- Duchamp's nude is neither identifiably male nor female , suggesting, once again, the genderless character of a machine. Behind Duchamp's concept were the photographs of Jules Etienne Marey in France, and Eadweard Muybridge in the United States (see fig. n.28), which broke continuous movement down into discrete photographic moments. Working on opposite sides of the Atlantic, these photographers brought two modes of seeing into dramatic confrontation: analytic vision-furnished by the camera-and the organic language of the body. But it was a European artist Duchamp-who explored the implications of this shift in perspective on traditional notions of the body. Muybridge demonstrated the capabilities of photography to seize an image of life from the stream of perception, allowing study, analysis, understanding, and a renewal of vision. By the mid-1920s, stop-action could capture bullets passing through soap bubbles, at exposure times of 1/3,000,000 of a second.8 Yet many among those who celebrated Muybridge's achievement in.the realm of technology repudiated its applications to art, demonstrating once again the considerable gap between artistic/ aesthetic culture in the United States and the scientific and social energies that would shape the nation in the twentieth century. Duchamp's Nude reunited the divided spheres of art and machine, and offered an alternative version of a new modern American art untethered from earlier histories.