Art of the American Spirit: A Practical Introduction to
American and California Painting
For me, one of the most exciting things about American
painting is its glorious variety. From the stiff, but remarkably effective,
portraits of the Colonial era through the Romantic landscape painters of the
19th century and into the cool modernist style of 20th century artists like
Georgia O'Keeffe and Edward Hopper, American paintings are a remarkable
narrative of the evolution of the nation's character.
For us at Butterfields, and for most collectors, the term
"American art" represents a tradition of landscape and portrait
painting developed in this country. The international style of Modern art,
though replete with some of the brightest starts of 20th century American art,
is usually considered separately.
American art, at least in the European tradition, began
shortly after the arrival of the first Colonists. In the late 16th and early
17th centuries, prosperous settlers commissioned portraits to mark the good
fortune they had found in the New World. These paintings, designed for the
hallways of town houses in Boston and country manors in Virginia, usually
depicted their subjects posed stiffly in their most formal attire. While often
flat and rigid, these paintings offer a fascinating glimpse at the earliest
American families. And the later Colonial painters, such as John Singleton
Copley, were able to marry the requirements of formal portraiture with
remarkable psychological insight into his subjects.
The birth of the nation launched a new form of American
painting as artists sought to record the experience of Independence and the men
and women who fought for it. Think of famous portraits, like those of George
Washington done by Gilbert Stuart and Charles Wilson Peale. While these were
mostly European-style works, they show artists trying to convey the excitement,
and the challenge, of a new country embarking on the untried path of democracy.
Next: An American