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Painting American

Painting American

by Annie Cohen-Solal, Laurie Hurwitz Attias (Translator)
Shortly after the Civil War, a resurgent America strode brashly onto the hallowed ground of the Paris salon to present its most distinguished painters in the Exposition Universelle of 1867. Their offereings included majestic Western waterfalls, magnificent portraits, sprawling landscapes--the cream of a nation ready to assert itself culturally as it had begun to do so


Shortly after the Civil War, a resurgent America strode brashly onto the hallowed ground of the Paris salon to present its most distinguished painters in the Exposition Universelle of 1867. Their offereings included majestic Western waterfalls, magnificent portraits, sprawling landscapes--the cream of a nation ready to assert itself culturally as it had begun to do so economically. The Americans sat back to bask in anticipated applause.

But their confidence would be shattered when the luminaries of the French Academy condemned the spectacle as being unworthy of the great nation that had produced it. The rebuke provoked widespread soulsearching in America: Why was the land of Melville and Poe unable to produce paintings of comparable power? How was it to claim a place among nations producing art of real consequence?

In this magnificent historical panorama, Annie Cohen-Solal shows how American pragmatism furnished the solution: Learn from the best. The French were then the undisputed masters of painting, and so to France the Americans went in hordes, apprenticing themselves in the studios of reknowned masters--Gérôme, Cabanel, and others--or founding colonies such as the legendary one at Pont-Aven. From the seeds of their individual efforts would grow an extraordinary crop, one that included not only the great--Whistler, Cassatt, Sargent--but a legion of artists of all ranks who collectively pushed forward a bold new American enterprise. In two generations, Paris would be eclipsed, and the greatest French artists would begin coming to New York to be at the new center of everything.

Meticulously researched and presented as a captivating story, this book tells the saga of the rise of American artists as we have never had it before: a surging transatlatic ebb and flow of cultural energies, driven by innumberable fascinating individuals--painters, collectors, critics, titans of industry--some of them now famous, others forgotten. Informed throughout by the author's unique perspective as a scholar, a writer, and a cultural diplomat, Painting American offers an utterly new understanding of one of the greatest changes in cultural history.

Editorial Reviews

Ken Burns
Annie Cohen-Solal writes with the confident authority and mesmerizing observations of a modern-day de Tocqueville. With one brilliantly argued point after another, she has connected the two worlds of American and French (European) painting, exposed the obvious differences and demonstrated their utter independence. Though it reads like a page-turning detective novel, it is destined to remain the seminal work on this subject for a very long time. Bravo.
Publishers Weekly
French intellectual Cohen-Solal made a splash with a life of Jean-Paul Sartre over a dozen years ago, followed by high-profile cultural diplomat jobs, including a stint as cultural counselor at the French Embassy in the U.S. from 1989 to 1993. This heavily written, thoroughly researched look at how New York usurped Paris's position as trendy art capital over 100 years should attract attention among cognoscenti, though it fails to make this very worn story new. In episodic chapters, Cohen-Solal renders Paris's former art world glory. She is strongest on such familiar American subjects as Thomas Eakins, the Ashcan School and Jackson Pollock, and favors artists with gloomy, French existential-style philosophies, like Taos-based Agnes Martin, who broods, "For twenty years I destroyed all my work.... I am for a complete control of emotions, that's how you get happiness." Originally published by Gallimard in France last year, the translation here by various hands (with 20 accompanying color reproductions) is fairly consistent, even if occasional bloopers occur, e.g., people "disappear" when presumably the author meant that they died. This is certainly an erudite if unoriginal account of artistic modernism, and a safe bet for generalists and nonacademic libraries, but art lovers may be baffled by the book's absence of a distinctive art historical flavor. (Oct. 16) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.63(w) x 9.53(h) x 1.49(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


"O, That We Had Cathedrals in America"

Around 1867, American painters rose slowly from a silent past. Their status in the United States had hardly begun to change, and indifference had for many years been their daily bread. Their careers, like that of Thomas Worthington Whittredge, had until then developed within the narrow world that was America. Born in 1820 into a farm family, near Springfield, Ohio, Worthington Whittredge was a gifted child, clever at drawing. To avoid the wrath of his father, who considered all artists "lost souls," he chose to learn the craft of lettering and poster design. He produced for local artisans and tradesmen signs on doors and storefronts that read "Smith Carpenter" or "Thompson Grocery Store."

This very limited trade soon bored him. In Indianapolis, a photographer introduced him to the technique of daguerreotype, in which he naturally progressed to portraiture. A few months later, benefiting from the dynamism of Cincinnati and its blossoming art school, Whittredge took some classes before opening his own portrait studio in Charleston, Virginia. Thanks to quick mastery of the technique, he made a decent living. But before long he began to paint; he produced landscapes, showing three works at the Cincinnati Academy of Fine Arts and about ten others at the National Academy of Design in New York. In 1849, honored with commissions and letters of credit from Joseph Longworth and William Scarborough, two Cincinnati patrons who had secured work for him, he was drawn into a current that would carry most painters of his time and struck out for Europe.

With the help of fellow Americans already abroad, Whittredge toured the main European academies. In the autumn of 1849, he spent a few days in the Barbizon artist colony, in the Fontainebleau forest near Paris. He was remembered by local painters as being "on his way to Dusseldorf." His memoirs note that while at Barbizon in the company of Jean-Francois Millet, he met a group of French artists who impressed him as genuine iconoclasts. Although he appreciated their spirit, their painting left him cold. With Emanuel Leutze, he spent five years in and around the Dusseldorf Academy, made friends with the painter Karl Friedrich Lessing,and worked studiously on his landscape technique. After that, he traveled to Italy, where-with his friends Buchanan, Haseltine, Gifford, and Bierstadt-he sketched innumerable landscapes around Naples before repairing to Paris, Brussels, and London.

In 1859, back in the United States after ten years in Europe, Whittredge settled with other landscape artists in New York City, at 15 West Tenth Street, a magic address in the history of American art; this handsome building of studios was to become the center of the New York art world in the coming years. Suddenly feeling himself at the heart of everything, the boy from Springfield, Ohio, had trouble getting his bearings. "This was the most crucial period of my life," he wrote. "It was impossible for me to shut out from my eyes the works of the great landscape painters which I had so recently seen in Europe, while I knew well enough that if I was to succeed, I must produce something new and which might claim to be inspired by my home surroundings. I was in agony."

His European experience had been a culture shock, a total upheaval, a bout of vertigo. He needed five full working years to get back on his feet. Then, supported by the fraternity of John W. Casilear, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford R. Gifford, and Jervis McEntee, he traveled as much as he could, absorbing his own country, from the Mississippi River to the deserts of New Mexico, from the Catskills to the Rocky Mountains, from the Rio Grande to the Shawangunks. Managing at last to "shut out from his eyes" his memories of his master, the painter Claude Lorrain, he was able to develop a very personal sensitivity to the American landscape. In 1864 came his first post-European success, The Old Hunting Grounds. The painting depicted a stand of somber birch trees, with a splash of light at its center; in front, a riverbank and an abandoned old Indian canoe. This canvas, shown at the National Academy of Design, was promptly acquired by the collector James W. Pinchot and, three years later, was exhibited at the Paris Exposition Universelle. American critics wrote that by including the Indian canoe, the painter had made an important political and historical comment. For many years, they considered this work an icon.

In 1860, Worthington Whittredge was elected to the National Academy of Design. At age forty, this tall, striking man appeared strangely grave, an eccentric with a colossal forehead, a gigantic black beard, and somber, protruding eyes under immense eyebrows. In fact, his face tempted many a portraitist, such as his friend Leutze, who dressed him in an old uniform as the father of the American nation for Washington Crossing the Delaware, his most famous canvas. Whittredge was well-liked, generous, hard-working, studious, and considerate toward his peers; in 1875 they elected him president of the National Academy of Design, a position he held until 1877.

Concentrating on the panoramas of his homeland, he steadfastly pursued a career as a landscapist. Carrying his gun, stool, umbrella, and paint box, he set out on often dangerous expeditions to discover new subjects. He worked particularly hard on a canvas called Crossing the Ford, struggling especially with one obsessive detail: a stand of cottonwood trees. Determined to get it right, he consulted guides of the region, traveled back to Colorado, and, between Denver and Loveland Pass, searched for several months for a particular group of trees he had discovered four years earlier along the banks of the Cache la Poudre River. He finally found the place and worked desperately, producing sketch after sketch, to render an accurate version of this singular group of trees. Only after two years' effort could he assure himself that he had succeeded.

At the 1876 Centennial Philadelphia Exposition, a critic hailed Crossing the Ford as a "model of excellence." Two years later, another one described it as "the archetype of American landscapes." No wonder, therefore, that it was acquired by the greatest collector of Whittredge's work, Othniel C. March, a paleontologist at Yale and director of the university's Peabody Museum. As a scientist, March passionately admired Whittredge's work both for his topographical precision and his feeling for local atmosphere. In 1901, Whittredge received a silver medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, before showing one hundred and twenty-five landscapes at the Century Association in New York City.

A dedicated and hard-working craftsman, Whittredge won national acclaim and recognition-through numerous sales and honors-long before his death in 1910. His rise from a dutiful midwestern farm boy hinged on his success in merging the techniques he had acquired in Europe with the natural realities of his native land, producing abundant and popular works in which he developed a distinctive pictorial vision. In effect, his was the classic trajectory, flat and unadorned-the archetypal career for an American painter of his time.

With rare exceptions, those who came of age during America's colonial period could not hope for a career even remotely like Whittredge's. Their efforts were regarded as "no more valuable than any other useful trade . . . like that of the carpenter, tailor or shoemaker, not as one of the most noble arts in the world." Artists committed themselves above all to documenting reality, depicting a scene, a face, a place as accurately as their skills permitted. They mastered a technique, using it as a tool. "The democratic nations," Tocqueville wrote, "will cultivate those arts which are likely to render their life comfortable, rather than those whose aim will be to render it more beautiful; they give the edge to the useful over the beautiful and want the beautiful to be useful."

As early as 1766, the great American portrait painter John Singleton Copley was complaining about working "among people entirely destitute of all just Ideas of the Arts." "I think myself peculiarly unlucky in living in a place into which there has not been one portrait brought that is worthy to be called a Picture within my memory," he wrote to his colleague Benjamin West. The nineteenth-century American critic John Neal described what he regarded as his own true moment of "artistic initiation," which occurred during a visit to the local shoemaker when he was a child living in a small town in Maine: "I saw pasted on the wall, over the shoemaker's bench, a pen-and-ink head, which delighted me beyond measure . . . this little affair, though unfinished, I looked upon as a marvel. I went up to the garret, and there, seating myself on an old leather trunk, near a little window, covered with dust and cobwebs, went to work and made copy after copy, some of which were traced . . . until I had every scratch of the pen daguerreotyped upon my memory. This, I believe, was the beginning of my experience in art."

Certainly, exceptional cases existed, such as Copley himself, who had great success attracting wealthy patrons; and Benjamin West, who, thanks to the support of his Philadelphia patron, traveled to Italy as early as 1760, before being appointed History Painter to the court of George III in England in 1772, and twenty years later, president of the British Royal Academy. As the first celebrated American expatriate artist, West welcomed generations of young American painters in London, eager to work on large historical canvases.

The American Revolution spurred history painting, then the most prestigious of all genres in the world. "I could not be happy unless I am pursuing the intellectual branch of the art," wrote Samuel Morse to his parents from London in May 1814. "Portraits have none of it; landscape has some of it; but history has it wholly." In 1825, he became a founder and the first president of the National Academy of Design in New York, but ten years later, when Morse completed his vast Salon du Louvre, he was unable to sell it. Disheartened, he abandoned his career as a painter and decided to go back to science, since he was also an "engineer of considerable talent."

American paintings of the antebellum years fell into three categories: portraits, landscapes, and history. Portrait craftsmen were usually itinerant artists who, like James Guild or William Dunlap, did portraits on demand. For years, from Portland to Boston, from Boston to Newport, then to Utica, Saratoga, New York, or Philadelphia, Dunlap set up his easel and sold his works, before being elected in 1826 to the National Academy of Design. Recognizing that the areas of production and consumption did not coincide, certain portrait artists of the North established themselves in Southern cities such as Baltimore, Charleston, Norfolk, or New Orleans, meeting other painters and seeking new clients. Similarly, Southern portraitists migrated north to centers such as Philadelphia, New York, or Newport to seek out the wealthy collectors.

In 1803, under Thomas Jefferson's presidency, the United States doubled its territory through the Louisiana Purchase, negotiated with France, thus extending its western frontier to the Pacific. An image of American democracy-its ethical principles, its history, its territory-began to emerge, drawing on a new conception of Nature, all-powerful and pure, the antidote to European corruption. In 1804, Jefferson dispatched Meriwether Lewis and William Clark up the Missouri River, with the objective of finding the route through the Northwest Territory that would join the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The project, lived as a national adventure, aroused the imagination of the American people and made them aware of the immensity, beauty, and abundance of their country. "The eyes of your countrymen are turned toward you," wrote Jefferson to the leaders of the expedition. During the voyage, Clark noted excitedly in his diary: "I don't believe that in the whole universe there could be landscapes comparable in sumptuousness with these which we are seeing at the moment." In this very young democracy, with scarcely any historical tradition, a veritable cult of the national geography took root: among the marvels of America was the land itself. A prejudice against the artifice of European landscapes, transformed by the human hand, echoed the criticism of the continent's corrupt monarchies: America's Nature became a metaphor for democracy.

The painter Thomas Cole developed a metaphysical concept of the American landscape, this "oasis that yet remains to us, and thus preserves the germs of a future and purer system." The natural majesty of the Hudson River struck him as more impressive than that of the Rhine, for "its shores are not besprinkled with venerated ruins or the palaces of the princes," and the Connecticut River, whose surroundings remained "trackless wilderness." Cole went further, pointing out to his fellow painters that landscape, the only domain in which they could excel, remained the very solution to religion's dilemma, since the affinity between the painter and Nature was identical to the relationship the Puritans had posited between Man and God. Nature painters such as John James Audubon and George Catlin continued to depict bison hunting, Indian rituals, and the astonishing range of rare American flora and fauna in a precisely detailed style. All in all, landscape artists remained the lucky ones. During the Civil War, American history painting enjoyed a last, brief vogue: battle scenes allowed painters or illustrators to work while expressing support for whatever political cause they believed in, until the newly invented medium of photography brutally drove them out of business.

Not incorrectly, local artists identified their pathetic status in America-and its sharp contrast to that of their brethren in Europe-with their country's religious past. "The religion practiced by the first emigrants and the one that they are bequeathing to their descendants," wrote Tocqueville, "simple, austere, nearly primitive in its principles, is an enemy to outward signs of pomp and ceremony, and generally little favorable toward the fine arts." Since the seventeenth century, when America was a territory of scattered farming communities, religious leaders wielded enormous influence over their flocks. In sermons, they would recount the stories of the first Pilgrims, these men "of small account at home. . . . If you will follow them back to their homes, you will now and then find a mansion, never a castle, but almost always a yeoman's house or a laborer's hovel," the minister Henry Ward Beecher recalled during the commemoration of the 240th anniversary of the landing at Plymouth Rock. "It is hardly possible to make barrenness more bare of all appliances for the senses than was New England," he added. "Yet there arose in the popular mind a vast and stately system of truth."

Meet the Author

Annie Cohen-Solal was born in Algeria and received a Ph.D. in French literature from the Sorbonne. She has taught at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, at the Universities of Berlin, Jerusalem, Paris XIII, Caen and is currently Visiting Arts Professor at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, where she teaches seminars on Cultural Policy and on the Globalization of the Visual Arts. She first came to New York in 1989 as the Cultural Counselor to the French Embassy in the United States, after her acclaimed Sartre biography, Sartre: A Life, had become an international best seller, translated into sixteen languages. Her encounter with Leo Castelli prompted a shift of her interest to the art world. Cohen-Solal was awarded the Prix Bernier of the Académie des Beaux Arts for the French edition of Painting American in 2001 and won the Art Curial Prize for the best contemporary art book for the French edition of Leo Castelli and His Circle in 2010. She lives in New York, Paris and Cortona.

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