Smithsonian Q & A: American Art and Artists The Ultimate Question & Answer Book
By Tricia Wright
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Tricia Wright
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780060891244
Early American Art
American art existed long before America was colonized, and possesses a rich history of its own.
Artistic expression and high levels of craftsmanship were integrated into many aspects of Native American life. The Native American population used materials found in nature—wood, grass, feathers, bone, sinew, and clay—to make simple baskets and blankets or elaborate ceremonial artifacts and monumental dwellings.
In the 1500s, the story of American art also becomes a European story, in which these earliest settlers uprooted their own traditions and transplanted them to American soil. The establishment of European colonies in the early 1600s signaled an irreversible shift in Native American life, one that was ultimately devastating. Colonial art was, like its Native American counterpart, primarily utilitarian in the beginning. By the 1700s, a wealthy merchant class had emerged in the bustling town of Boston, stimulating a demand for more elaborate art and heralding the beginning of a new art tradition in America.
Precolonial American Art
Q: What characterizedprecolonial American art?
A: The art of the indigenous American peoples was deeply connected to their land. Their art was of the land itself, fashioned into pots, woven into baskets, carved and shaped into dwellings. The art made up the fabric of their lives and reflected their relationship to the land.
Q: What was the art of precolonial America?
A: Native American art boasts a rich tradition of ceramics, particularly in the Southwest, characterized by the distinctive pink clay of the arid region. There was also a sophisticated weaving tradition that grew out of the ancient practice of basket making, which can be traced back to the early "Basket Maker" culture, c. 500 CE, that existed in the Southwest region where present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado converge. Despite their sophisticated decoration and invention, these art forms served practical functions such as storage, shelter, and transportation. Pictorial art forms, however—notably the petroglyphs and pictographs found carved and painted onto rocks, and ancient and enduring traditions such as sandpaintings, were ceremonial forms of art, not intended for everyday use.
Q: How do petroglyphs and pictographs differ?
A: The main distinction between these two forms of ancient American imagery is that petroglyphs are carved directly into the rock face, and pictographs are painted onto the surface. The majority of petroglyphs and pictographs are concentrated in the Southwest United States, and though they can be found across the country, some of the best-preserved examples of pictographs are in Utah's Glen Canyon. This ancient visual expression employed a diverse range of imagery, from abstract designs to rudimentary human and animal figures. They are thought to have served a symbolic or ritualistic function and were not intended as art, at least as the term is understood today. This does not diminish their visual power or innate artistic impulses. Pictographs were more susceptible to the elements, and the best-preserved examples have been discovered under overhanging rocks and in caves. The "paints" used were produced by grinding naturally occurring mineral pigments together with a binding substance, and they were applied to the walls with hands or with brushes made from animal hairs.
Q: What is sandpainting?
A: This ancient Native American art form was practiced mainly by the Navaho and Hopi tribes. It is a ceremonial art, performed by a shaman or medicine man, in which colored sands of subtle and delicate hues made from crushed rocks are poured onto the ground or another horizontal surface. The high degree of skill involved in making these elaborately structured paintings is especially remarkable, given their ephemeral nature. Intended to address the spirit of a sick person, the paintings are erased when the person recovers.
Q: What is Pueblo architecture?
A: The high achievement of Native American art was architectural, reaching its peak in the Anasazi culture between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries. Two distinct branches of Anasazi culture represent this achievement: the cliff dwellers and the pueblo builders. The ruins built high up into the sheer rock of Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, for instance, are remarkable not only in their technical innovation but also for their harmonious integration within the form of the canyon itself. The other great architectural phenomenon to be found are the fortified villages, or "pueblos," built on the South-west plains. The oldest continuously inhabited town in the United States is the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, occupied since around 1150. The Acoma Pueblo is built on a mesa, a gigantic solid rock that provided its inhabitants a stronghold against invaders.
Q: How did Franciscan missions impact the native population?
A: Before the first Pilgrims stepped off the Mayflower in 1620, an earlier European presence had already made its mark in the Southwest. Indeed, a French artist was responsible for the earliest known painting of America by a European. A watercolor by French cartographer and draftsman Jacques Le Moyne, done in 1564, depicts the allegiance between the Native American chief Athore and the leader of a French Protestant colony in Florida, René de Laudonnière. By the beginning of the 1600s, under King Felipe II, the Spanish had established a Catholic presence in the Southwest. Spanish rule was missionary in nature, and by 1640 they had erected the Church of San Esteban Rey on the Acoma mesa.
Spanish influence played a large part in the adobe construction of this mission church, which remains the largest of its kind in New Mexico. In addition to bringing their religion to the Native Americans, the Spanish introduced innovative tools and machinery to use in adobe construction.
Art in the Colonial Era
Q: Which settlers exerted the strongest influence on art during the colonial era?
A: The arrival of small groups of settlers from England and Holland started as a trickle in the first decades of the seventeenth century, but it gathered momentum as the century progressed. The most famous of these early settlers were, of course, the "Pilgrims," who arrived in 1620 after sailing from England to Plymouth . . . Continues...
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