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American Art and Its Critics, 1826-1925

The National Academy of Design

1083 Fifth Avenue, New York

September 20-December 31, 2000

Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma

January 31-April 1 2001

Indianapolis Museum of Art

April 29-July 1, 2001

"Farmers Nooning" by William Sidney Mount

"Farmers Nooning," by William Sidney Mount, oil on canvas, 20 ¼ by 24 ¼ inches, 1836, The Museums at Stony Brook, New York

By Carter B. Horsley

This fascinating exhibition and its accompanying catalogue is the first comprehensive study of the history of American art criticism. It covers the first hundred years of exhibitions at the National Academy of Design in New York, which coincides with the emergence of the Hudson River School of landscape painting and continues through to American modernists.

The exhibition itself contains many masterpieces of American painting by such artists as Thomas Cole, Eastman Johnson, William Sidney Mount, Winslow Homer and Childe Hassam, with labels that give some indication of how the works were reviewed by contemporary critics, but its catalogue is even better as it has numerous fine essays on the nation's cultural history that are invaluable, very interesting and well-illustrated with graphics not included in the exhibition as well as very detailed entries on the works in the exhibition.

"Since relatively little art was produced in America during the Colonial and early Federal periods – and far less was publicly displayed – the erudition and refinement required for…evaluation and analysis was slow to develop here," David B. Dearinger, the organizer of the exhibition and the chief curator of the National Academy, wrote in his introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue.

In the 1810s and 1820s, however, annual exhibitions of art were established in various venues in New York, Philadelphia and Boston and pride in the establishment of the nation’s first "school" of painting, the Hudson River School of landscape painting led by Thomas Cole, gave impetus to an expansion of art criticism in various periodicals and newspapers. "As American art increased in quantity and in quality, and as its very existence seemed less tenuous, critics were more willing to make astute and precise observations, and to move beyond puffery and hyperbole," Mr. Dearinger wrote.

"The trend toward professionalism continued after the Civil War when the art critic - widely recognized by name and attitude - finally emerged," he continued, adding that as artists began to travel abroad extensively they began to "expound a new aesthetic that emphasized formal and expressive qualities over subject matter…[and] new ways of creating and looking at art demanded new forms of art criticism." "Art reviews became more impersonal and began to focus on the object and its style rather than on the personality of the artist," Mr. Dearinger wrote, observing that "The last three decades of the nineteenth century were also the time of the birth of the modern American art museum and the growth of commercial art galleries."

Prior to the Civil War, discourses on art were published, often in pamphlet form, by connoisseurs, collectors, poets and even some artists, such as Samuel F. B. Morse. The Boston Magazine began printing articles on art in the mid-1780s and by 1807 a dispute broke out between Francis Guy, the artist, and Eliza Godefroy, the editor of The Observer in Baltimore who wrote under the name of Beatrice Ironsides. Periodicals sprouted up in Eastern cities and 1839 the first publication devoted to art appeared and was known as Transactions of the Apollo Association, which in 1844 became the American Art-Union. In the next decade, The Crayon became the first art magazine in the country to align itself with a particular aesthetic, one that had been formulated and promoted in the writings of the great British artist and art theorist John Ruskin, and its contributors included Asher B. Durand, Rembrandt Peale, and William Cullen Bryant. Harper's New Monthy Magazine was founded in 1850 and the Century in 1881.

William Dunlap published his two-volume "History of the Rise and progress of the Arts of Design in the United States" in 1834. Charles Edwards Lester published "The Artists of America" in 1846 and in 1847 Henry R. Tuckerman published "Artist Life, Sketches of American Painters," which he expanded into "Book of the Artists" in 1867, which remains a very important resource. Other important books on American art history were published by Samuel W. G. Benjamin in 1990 ("Art in America"), Sadakichi Hartman in 1903 ("History of American Art"), Samuel Isham in 1905 ("History of American Painting") and Charles Caffin in 1907 ("American Masters of Painting").

From 1881 to 1889, Charles M. Kurtz published "American Academy Notes," "Illustrated Art Notes" and National Academy Notes" that discussed the annual exhibitions at the National Academy of Design.

Kenneth John Myers has contributed an excellent essay in the catalogue that is entitled "The Public Display of Art in New York City, 1664-1914)" that has many early views of the city that are very interesting. He provides a superb history of the art business in New York City:

"After the War of 1812, a group of leading citizens concerned that the city was not doing enough to promote republican virtue among the people of the city convinced the Common Council to convert the old municipal almshouse into New York's first non-profit cultural center. Located on Chambers Street behind City Hall, the new facility was formally known as the New York Institution for the Promotion of the Arts and Sciences. …The original tenants were the American Academy of the Fine Arts, the Literary and Philosophical Society, the New York Historical Society and John Scudder's American Museum….In 1817, the Common Council granted John Vanderlyn a nine-year lease on a site next to the New York Institution to erected a building for the display of panoramas and other works of art…Based on the design of the Pantheon, it was fifty-six feet in diameter and forty-five feet in height….Establishment of the National Academy of Design in 1825 was made possible by and contributed to the growth of the New York art market….The Academy's first annual exhibition was held in a twenty-five by fifty-foot room on the second floor of a private residence located at the corner of Broadway and Read Street. A more suitable location was founded the following year, when the exhibition was held in a similarly sized room on the top floor of the Arcade Baths on Chambers Street….In the spring of 1831, the exhibition was moved to the second floor of a new building known as Clinton Hall…, located at the corner of Beekman and Nassau streets. That structure was built to house the New York Mercantile Library….In 1840, the Academy joined forces with the New York Society Library, which was completing a new building at the corner of Broadway and Leonard Street, five blocks north of City Hall Park. Academy members designed and decorated their new gallery, which offered four hundred running feet of wall space lit by a skylight, with gaslights for night viewing.…The American Academy died because most local artists would not support an organization reflecting the hierarchical values of an older patrician elite, but its death was hastened by economic hard times that undermined the vitality of the entire art world in the late 1830s and early 1840s.…The number of professional artists living in New York remained small throughout the 1830s. For example, as late of 1840, Thomas Cole was the only full-time professional landscape painter based in the city. The ranks of local artists grew in the mid 1840s, however, as improved economic conditions convinced aspiring young men (almost all were men) that they could make a living as professional painters….From the mid-1840s until the Civil War, many of the most active New York collectors were primarily interested in contemporary American art. Several of the galleries specializing in European art, including Knoedler and Williams, Stevens and Williams, recognized the trend and began to offer some America art. As in the 1810s and 1820s, contemporary American art was also available from local art supply stories and frame shops….What seems to have been the first art gallery dedicated to the sale of American art was created by the portrait painter and print-seller James Herring in 1838. Herring's Apollo Gallery was located above his lending library at 410 Broadway. But commercial sources for American art remained limited because collectors preferred to buy American works directly from the artist. …The [American] Art-Union grew out of the ashes of James Herring's Apollo Gallery. In 1839, Herring reorganized his gallery as a non-commercial joint stock company. Except for Herring, who eventually gave up his position in the Art-Union, the managers were merchants and professional men, committed to patrician ideas of stewardship and moral uplift. Herring and the other managers raised capital by selling annual subscriptions that cost five dollars. With these funds, they published a magazine, commissioned engravings, and purchased recent American paintings and sculptures that were put o display in the organization's exhibition room….Members received free admission to the exhibition, a subscription to the magazine, a copy of the year's engraving, and a chance to receive one of the art works, which were distributed by lottery at the end of each year….the success of the Art-Union was short-lived. In 1852, anti-gambling organizers convinced the New York State Court of Appeals that the annual distributions violated state laws governing lotteries….In 1844, a group of wealthy businessmen led by Jonathan Sturges purchased a large collection of European and American art assembled by Sturges's former partner Luman Reed and opened a non-profit museum they called the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts. Reed was born in rural New York in 1785. By the mid-1820s, he had become one of the most successful wholesale dry goods merchants in New York….By the 1830s, he had begun to focus on contemporary American art and especially on works by the New York painter George Whiting Flagg, Thomas Cole, and William Sidney Mount. Reed died in 1836, at the age of forty-one. His family maintained the collection for eight years, until they sold it to the group led by Sturges. The first exhibition of the New York Gallery of the Fine Arts was held in rooms leased from the national Academy of Design during the winter of 1843-1845….The demise of the New-York Gallery of the Fine Arts coincided with the reinvigoration of the New-York Historical Society, which soon become on one of the most important venues for the display of art in the city….In 1858, the leaders of the moribund Gallery of the Fine Arts donated their entire collection to the Historical Society so that it could be exhibited in the Society's new building at the corner of Second Avenue and Eleventh Street….By 1868, the Historical Society had outgrown its Second Avenue building and received permission from the New York state legislature to build on a large site on the eastern edge of Central Park, between Eighty-first and Eighty-fourth streets. But the leaders of the Historical Society failed to raise the necessary funds. Construction had still not begun in 1872, when the state legislature changed its mind and gave the Historical Society rights to its current site on Central park West….In 1851, the [National] Academy moved to Greenwich Village, where the Academicians purchased a building at 663 Broadway, between Bleecker and Amity streets. Within a few years, the Academy sold this building at a substantial profit and moved even farther north, renting space on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Tenth Street. But the Academy did not stay on Tenth Street long. By 1865, the Academicians had used the profits from the sale of 663 Broadway to construct a large building at Fourth Avenue and Twenty-third Street….By the end of the 1850s, the focus of artistic life had shifted north to Greenwich Village, with may of the leading artists congregating in a handful of older buildings in which developers had created studio spaces. ...John Kensett and several of his close friend worked out of the Waverly, at 697 Broadway, on the corner of Fourth Street. Others rented space in the Dodsworth Building, at 806 Broadway between Eleventh and Twelfth streets. The most influential of these enclaves, however, was the Studio Building, on Tenth Street between Fifth and Six avenues, the first building anywhere in the world specifically designed for the use of artists….The civil war slowed the development of studio buildings, but immediately after the war, the YMCA completed a large building that included twenty studios and an exhibition gallery modeled on the one in the Tenth Street Studio. Often referred to as the Association building, it was located across Twenty-third Street from the National Academy of Design…"

"Most of the best-known American painters thrived during the boom years of the Civil War," Mr. Meyers continued, "but even before the fighting ended the winds of aesthetic change were blowing. In 1863, a group of mostly young New York artist formed a new arts organization that they grandly named the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art. The first self-conscious 'school' of artists to form in the United States, these self-described American Ruskinians immediately established a monthly art journal in which they attacked the leading American painters as formalists who thought they were painting nature but were only marshalling a set of outmoded pictorial conventions The editor of the group's journal was a Harvard-educated architect named Clarence Cook. Cook gained a more prominent pulpit in 1864, when he became art critic for the New York Tribune and quickly established himself the most influential commentator o f his generation. …Although Cook abandoned his Ruskinian insistence on minute fidelity to observed nature by the end of the 1860s, he continued to criticize many of the better known American painters as provincial artists whose work lacked the creative power of the best contemporary European art. Cook's criticism expressed a new cosmopolitanism that transformed the New York art world in the decades following the Civil War….In 1867, many of the most important New York collectors of American art lent painting to the American art section of the Universal Exposition in Paris. They followed their paintings to Paris, met leading European artists, and returned home eager to acquire more European art….Threatened by the growing demand for foreign art, American artists sought government protection by lobbying Congress for increased tariffs. Cook and other leading art journalists described these efforts, insisting that American artists had lived too long in a protected provincial market and were' in serious need of competition and rivalry.'…From the mid-1860s until World War I, most of the major New York collectors focused their buying on European art that thy displayed in large private galleries in their palatial homes. One of the earliest of these large-scale collectors was A. T. Stewart….In the late 1860s, he built a grand mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Forth Street. Stewart's collection included some major mid-century American works such as Hiram Powers's Greek Slave (1847; Newark Museum, Newark, New Jersey) and Frederic Church's Niagara from the American Side (1867; National Gallery of Scotland). Stewart continued to purchase American works in the late 1860s, but after the war he began to focus on contemporary French art, acquiring numerous important works, including Rosa Bonheur's Horse Fair (1853; Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Meissonier's Friedland 1807 (1875; Metropolitan Museum of Art).….Increased demand for European art purred expansion of the commercial art market. Several of the new dealers announced that they were going to specialize in American art, but until the 1890s everyone who tried to do so discovered that the market was too weak to be relied on."

"The last quarter of the nineteenth century," Mr. Meyers continued, "was a difficult time for most American artists. The old art market founded on the personal encounter of the individual artist with a buyer was passing away….A more highly structured and depersonalized art market focusing on the dealer as mediating expert was being born. James McNeill Whistler, William Merritt Chase, and a few other leading artists were able to take advantage of the new mass media to turn themselves into well-known celebrities. But even artists who attained celebrity could not command the high prices paid for important old master and contemporary French art….For many American artists, one of the first clear signs that the art market was changing was the unexpected decline of the studio receptions.….Artists sought to reinforce the fraying bonds inking them with their patrons by inventing new social occasions in which they could display their work to potential buyers.….The most important institutional innovation of the post-Civil War period…was the development of temporary exhibitions sponsored by several of he city’s leading men’s clubs. The Union League club organized the first of these in February 1867….Another influential club, the Century, began organizing monthly exhibitions in 1870….Even the best connected New York artists realized that the private cub exhibitions did no offer a long-term solution to their difficulties. During this period, numerous artists tried to take the marketing of their work into their own hands by forming new artist-run organizations, the main purpose of which was to mount annual exhibitions. The first of these new organizations was the Artists’ Fund Society. Founded in 1860, it held exhibitions and auctions in order to raise funds for the support of indigent artists and their families. It was followed by the Brooklyn Art Association in 1861, the American Watercolor Society in 1866, and the Society of American Artists in 1877….The market for American at bottomed out in the mid-1880s. In the late 1880s, a new generation of collectors, led by Thomas B. Clarke, William T. Evans, George A. Hearn, and John Gellaty, began to focus on contemporary American art….In 1892, William Macbeth founded the first successful commercial gallery for American art."

The catalogue includes several other essays that assess the impact of the academy, note the Armory Show of 1913, and an interesting article by William H. Gerdts on early 19th Century portraiture through poetry. It also includes brief biographies of the leading art critics, a list of the academy's exhibitions including a breakdown of exhibited works by subject matter, and a bibliography of reviews of its exhibitions.

"The Last of the Mohicans" by Thomas Cole

"Last of the Mohicans," by Thomas Cole, oil on canvas,36 by 38 inches, 1827, Annenberg Rare Book and Manuscript library, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

"As a founding member of the National Academy," the catalogue noted about "The Last of The Mohicans," a 1827 work by Thomas Cole (1801-1848), shown above, "Thomas Cole was an active participant in its early exhibitions. Between 1826 and the year of his death, he sent works to all but one (1839) of the Academy’s annuals….Typically, the reviews of Cole’s Mohicans were positive but cautious. For example, Samuel Morse, although he was not willing to deify Cole quite yet, noted, I the United States Review and Literary Gazette, Cole’s "fine feeling for the picturesque, and good management of chiaro oscuro." It was generally agreed that Cole’s talents were best used when he stayed close to nature’ adding tiny figures to paintings, as he did in The Last of the Mohicans, only ‘deformed the noble landscape,’ according got a writer for the New-York Mirror. Morse thought that, although the figures were nicely subordinated to their surroundings, they were badly drawn. Despite these opinions, Cole, like many of his contemporaries, felt that when possible, a painting should be more than a picturesque view of familiar terrain. Art could fulfill its traditional purpose to teach and inspire by having a historical or literary source that would furnish the requisite moralizing lesson."

Cole did several versions of this painting and this is probably the best because of its unusually rugged mountaintop and the fact that he has a couple of trees rising way above others at the top right, an indication that he did not depict a "perfect" nature.

When it was exhibited at the academy in 1837, Farmer’s Nooning by William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), shown at the top of this article, received "instant acclaim at one of the artist"s masterpieces and it was described by the Knickerbocker as a ‘gem of the first water.’ Another writer called the paining ‘admirable’ and declared that ‘the black fellow is the masterpiece of the composition; - the nettled expression of his countenance as he feels the straw – the foreshortening of his figure – the delighted appearance of he boy – all speak the fact that Mr. Mount is indeed a great painter,’" the catalogue noted.

"Farmers Nooning" still ranks as one of the supreme masterpieces of 19th Century American genre painting.

"The City and the Country Beau" by Francis William Edmonds

"The City and the Country Beau," by Francis William Edmonds, oil on canvas, 20 1/8 by 24 ¼, 1840, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusets.

Francis William Edmonds (1806-1863) was a banker by profession, but based on this and another painting he showed at the academy the same year, which is also in the collection of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., Edmonds was elected a full Academician.

"In choosing a courtship scene," the catalogue noted, "Edmonds was reacting to an art market that craved humorous or satirical genre paintings, often with ambiguities that kept audiences guessing at meaning….Critics, however, commented primarily of the stylistic attributes of the painting, lauding the high degree of finish and Edmonds’s impeccable attention to detail."

Edmonds was consistently charming and simple in his paintings and this is a quite subtle and fine composition with the open door and the various angles of the figures.

"Columbus Before the Queen" by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze

"Columbus Before the Queen," by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, oil on canvas, 38 ¾ by 51 3/16 inches, 1843, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Dick S. Ramsay Fund and A. Augustus Healy Fund.

Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze (1816-1868) is best known for his enormous painting of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but this painting shows that he was a very capable artist indeed. The work is the second of a three-part series on the explorer’s wrongful arrest in San Domingo in 1500 and his exoneration by Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand upon his return to Spain. The catalogue notes that the "most likely source for these paintings is Washington Irving’s best-selling Life and Voyages of Columbus, published in 1828." One of the other pictures was known as The Return of Columbus in Chains to Cadiz and the catalogue notes that "Even before its much anticipated arrival in New York, The Return of Columbus in Chains to Cadiz was exhibited in Brussels, where it received a medal a vermeil from the King of Belgium." "By early May 1843," it added, "the work had been purchased out of the Academy’s exhibition by the Apollo Association for distribution in its annual lottery. It achieved such acclaim that in 1847 Henry Tuckerman wrote that it was ‘too well known, and justly appreciated, to require any description’ for his readers to call it to mind.’" This work clearly indicates that Leutze had a gift for lush interiors and groups.

"The Golden Horn, Constantinople" by Sanford Gifford

"The Golden Horn, Constantinople, by Sanford Robinson Gifford, oil on canvas, 9 by 16 inches, 1880, Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York

While it received general favorable reviews at the time of its exhibition at the academy, "The Golden Horn, Constantinople" by Sanford Robinson Gifford (1823-1880) got some unfavorable reviews. The catalogue notes that "The New-York Times called the atmosphere ‘sickly’ and the New York World accused Gifford of simply ‘throwing off’ this type of picture ‘to appease the appetite for color which he has himself created.’" It is, of course, a very lovely work that reflects not only Gifford’s fine luminism of which this is a modest example, but also the fact that many American artists traveled extensively.

"The Birth of Our Flag" by Henry Peters Gray

"The Birth of Our Flag," by Henry Peters Gray, oil on canvas, 72 by 48 inches, 1874

In 1863, Henry Peters Gray (1819-1877) exhibited at the academy a small version of this painting, which was inspired by the first stanza of Joseph Rodman Drake’s 1843 poem, "The American Flag," and Harper’s Weekly admired the "fine dashing movement in the erect figure." Perhaps in anticipation of the coming centennial of the country’s founding, Gray decided to return to the subject on a larger scale and exhibited the 72-by-48-inch version at the academy in 1975. The academy gave it a place of honor in its large South Gallery. "From the start, it received much attention from the public; but its prominence …also seems to have made it an easy target for the critics. One of these was Clarence Cook, who was especially vitriolic, lambasting the painting not once but twice. His first ranting against it was in a report he filed to the New York Daily Tribune. He told his readers that on entering the South Gallery where the painting hung, he felt like the newly awakened Rip Van Winkle. The Birth of Our Flag, he said has ‘no more relation to the nineteenth century and to America than a stuffed Dodo would have.’ Cook bemoaned the lack of growth and development in Gray’s talents, concluding that the artist’s problems stem from his faith ‘more in Titian than in Nature’ and his preference for the ‘so-called ideal’ over the real. Cook failed to see nobility or beauty in the head of the female figure and thought the eagle looked like an ‘exasperated crow.’ ….derision of The Birth of Our Flag did not end with Clarence Cook. When the painting was shown at the Union League Club in 1877, a writer for the New-York Times advised his readers to look at it only on ‘the Fourth of July, in the morning.’ To do otherwise, he stated, might cause the viewer to ‘fall into vain and annoying speculations as to how a handsome girl came to be caught out on a windy slope, a very windy slope, ‘mid modings on’ but the American flag, and why she smiles and looks so sweet, when, beyond all doubt, the large and determined looking eagle over her head is to about to bury his hooked beak in her right shoulder."

It is interesting how few nudes were painted by 19th Century American painters and for that matter how few patriotic paintings. The drapery of the flag is admirably done, although the blue and white stars section is almost obscured in shadow near her head under the ominous eagle who in fact has the end of the flag in his talons and has apparently flown around her to drop her quite voluptuous body.

"Corn Husking at Nantucket" by Eastman Johnson

"Corn Husking at Nantucket," by Eastman Johnson, oil on canvas, 27 5/8 by 54 ½ inches, 1875, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Roger Fund, 1907

Eastman Johnson is one of American’s greatest mid-century genre painters and "Corn Husking at Nantucket," shown above, is a study for a larger work now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. The work is Chicago is bit more detailed and brighter, but here the impressionistic treatment of the strewn husks is fabulous and the asymmetrical composition draws the viewer into the social fabric of the event.

"The Life Line" by Winslow Homer

"The Life Line," by Winslow Homer, oil on canvas, 28 3.4 by 44 5/8, 1884, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The George W. Elkins Collection.

From the time of its debut at the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition in 1866 and for almost twenty years afterward, Winslow Homer’s Prisoners From the Front, which is also included in the exhibition and is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, remained his greatest critical success, the catalogue noted. In 1884, however, it continued, when The Life Line debuted at the Academy, Homer again enjoyed the level of popular acclaim he had reaped with the earlier painting. The Life Line also announced to the world that he was moving away from the more predictable genre images that had dominated his work of the 1870s. Critics hailed The Life Line as ‘the most important and the most hopeful picture in the exhibition,’ "a remarkable success, and "the picture of he year.’ Most critics recognized immediately hat the true subject of Homer’s painting, and the obvious protagonist, is the sea…In fact, the critics’ responses, positive or negative, to The Life Line were often guided by their opinion of the manner in which Homer handled the water. The New York World, for example, called the viewer’s aural as well as visual attention to the power of the water in the painting. "One can almost hear the angry roar of the breakers,’ the paper claimed, ‘as they dash around the two figures of the rescuer and the girl in his arms, suspended by the line between sky and sea.’ On the other hand, the New York Daily Tribune, which otherwise praised he painting, thought the water looked ‘motionless’ and the waves ‘absurd."….Even more vitriolic in this regard was a writer for the New York Post who called Homer’s sea a "smooth, slaty mass, heaved into artificial billows.’

The reproduction of the painting does not indicate how Homer has painted drops of water on the ropes, which is quite startling in person. One could argue that the tall vertical pile of surf in the central background is a bit too conveniently placed to highlight the towing gear and that the power of the composition is a bit confused by the fine details of a part of a ship at the left and the rocky coast at the right. It is not Homer’s masterpiece of the sea, but it is still a very powerful painting.

This is a very important reference work for all who are interested in American art, and indeed for all those who are interested in art as it helps put into perspective the influence of critics, which varies considerably. The superb catalogue is $39.95.

See The City Review article on a major exhibition on the famous Tenth Street Studio Building in New York that was home to many of the country's leading artists

 

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