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The Birth of a Culture

John K. Howat graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1959 and Harvard University in 1962, after which he joined the Metropolitan Museum of Art staff in 1967, where he worked for 33 years. He is a noted expert on American landscape painting, and author of The Hudson River School and Its Painters and 19th Century America: Paintings and Sculpture.
William S. McFeely graduated from Amherst College in 1955 and received his Ph. D. from Yale University in 1966. He quickly associated himself with the Civil Rights movement, and wrote several books on Africa-American history. At Yale he helped create an African-American Studies program, and has since taught at Mount Holyoke College, University of Georgia, and Harvard University.

At the dawn of the 19th century, the young United States had no cultural standing in the community of nations. Though famous American artists like Gilbert Stuart and Benjamin Rush painted portraits of Revolutionary heroes and scenes of the short American history, they did so largely in the English style and in “international obscurity.”1 In their books, Frederic Church and Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins, John K. Howat and William S. McFeely trace the origin of a unique American artistic culture to the emergence of romantic and realist painters of the mid nineteenth century.

Howat’s biography of Frederic Church reveals Church as the first world-renown American artist and thus a towering figure in the creation of unique American art. Born in 1826 in Hartford, Connecticut, Church matured in one of the most prosperous and beautiful regions of the nation; Church’s affinity for the wilderness was born in his, “love [for] the landscape of the Connecticut River valley.”2 Church’s talent for painting was quickly recognized by his father, who sent him to the Catskills to receive the tutelage of the Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, who taught Church how to appreciate the artistic integrity of the wild. After his first art show at age 19, Church made his way to New York City to start a serious career. Church’s skill in painting –particularly in his vivid portrayal of skies –brought him great acclaim in New York; Church was praised for  paintings like New England Scenery, in which he, “[brought] together humble motifs that illustrate daily country life…as well as beautiful elements of nature.”3 After minor criticisms for a perceived lack of artistic meaning in his paintings, Church began to lose faith in landscape painting, but his enthusiasm was quickly revived by the writings of his idol, Baron Alexander von Humboldt, who called for a more detailed representation of nature in contemporary art. Thus inspired, Church traveled to South America, to find subjects in the unspoiled wilderness of the Andes. Church took an almost scientific approach to painting, making countless sketches and studies to capture every detail of the land. Upon returning to the States, Church began a flurry of painting, producing numerous New England and South American landscapes, “establish[ing] him even more firmly in the New York mind as a fashionable painter.”4 During this period, Church completed his first masterpiece, Niagara, a monumental and highly detailed panorama of Horseshoe Falls. The public response to the painting was blissful, as thousands viewed the canvas in New York. Niagara also toured in England in Scotland, spreading Church’s fame to Europe, and forcing Europeans to recognize the independence of American culture, and, “the thriving state of American landscape painting.”5 After Niagara, Church took a second, shorter trip to South America, where he found the inspiration for his second international sensation, The Heart of the Andes, at the exhibit of which he met his future wife, Isabel Carnes. But Church, an artist in pursuit of beauty, was not content to rollick in fame in New York; he set off for Labrador by sail, where he made artistic studies of the icebergs. After a dangerous and highly productive journey in the frozen north, Church returned home to his fiancée in 1860, just in time to see the country he loved and painted fall apart.

While Church – and the nation – nervously watched sectional tensions reach a boiling point, he married Isabel Carnes and created The Icebergs, a colossal oil painting based on his studies in Labrador, which received international acclaim comparable to Niagara, and The Heart of the Andes. The Icebergs was received particularly well in England, where it was popularized by scores of British Arctic explorers. As war broke out over the ramparts of Fort Sumter, Church began to paint in a more nationalist style to support the Union, evidenced in Our Banner in the Sky, which shows the sunset as a majestically waving American flag. In 1862, Church received a commission to paint the Andean volcano Cotopaxi; the resulting painting shows a tumultuous scene of eruption, in which, “the powerful image of nature exploding is a visual metaphor for the Civil War.”6 Even in foreign scenes, Church included his American heritage. As the war continued, Church accepted more commissions – Mt. Chimborazo and the Aurora Borealis – and bought a farm in the Hudson River Valley, from which he could view his beloved New York landscapes and raise his newly born son and daughter. But tragedy struck the Church’s in 1865, when diphtheria claimed the lives of both children. To escape the emotional turmoil and to grieve, Church and his wife took a trip to Jamaica, where Church distracted himself with studies of Jamaican landscapes. By 1867, Church had returned home, where he began to rebuild his family and reaffirm his religious spirit. As part of this revival, Church, Isabel, and their newborn son, Frederic Joseph, set off on a pilgrimage to the Middle East: Beirut, Jerusalem, Petra, and Alexandria. Church was awed by the beauty of the desert, and created numerous sketches and oil studies, which would be the basis for his 1870 work Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives. From the Middle East, the Churches travelled to Greece, Germany, and Rome, where Church met many of his European admirers, taught lessons on painting nature, and discovered the Vatican galleries and the style of fresco.  Church returned to America freshly inspired, ready to flavor hi late works with, “religious and antiquarian fervor, and… robust orientalizing style.”7 inspired by the art collections of the Vatican, Church became a leading figure in the establishment of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, founded in 1870. Church also used the 1870’s to explore his interest in Persian architecture, which he applied to the construction of his home at Olana. The 1870’s and 1880’s see the decline of Church as a painter; though he painted several more South American and Mid-Eastern landscapes, he became, “badly handicapped by arthritis and unable to paint more than sketches and minor canvases.”8 Church retreated from the art world, dedicating himself to his family and home at Olana. He died in 1900. Even in Church’s final years, the American art world began to reject his style in favor of French Impressionism and Fauvism. Not until the 1930’s would Church regain the prestige he once held in American art. Today, Church can be viewed, not only as an original American painter, but as a representation of his nation’s “fidelity to principle and excellence.”9

William S. McFeely identifies Thomas Eakins as another forefather of American culture and the greatest American realist painter. Eakins was born in 1844 in Philadelphia to Benjamin Eakins, a jeweler of considerable financial means which secured the Eakins family in a comfortable middle class life. In his early life, Eakins spent much time outdoors and sporting with his father, which he balanced with a rigorous education at Philadelphia’s Central High School. A superb student, Eakins studied countless subjects and languages; he did particularly well in geometry and trigonometry, laying the foundation for his ability, “to make drawings and sketches for paintings of incredible accuracy.”10 During the Civil War, Eakins attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where he studied French painters. In 1866, he sailed to Paris, where he enrolled in the prestigious Êcole des Beaux-Arts, and studied under the Academician Gèrôme. During a trip to the Prado, Eakins discovered the wonders of Spanish Realism, and, “decide[d]…never to paint in the style of [his] master.”11 Eakins returned to Philadelphia in 1871to witness his mother suffer and die from debilitating depression; which he would soon begin to experience. Finding inspiration in familiarity, Eakins painted realistic –and painstakingly detailed – scenes of the American middle and professional classes. Eakins’ first great work was The Gross Clinic, which accurately showed the gritty drama of nineteenth century surgery; sadly, the canvas was treated more as a textbook image than a work of art. In 1878, Eakins became a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, where his relaxed unorthodox teaching style pleased students but worried administrators. Eakins continued to paint scenes of Pennsylvania life and painstakingly detailed portraits; his Mrs. Mary Arthur shows and old woman vividly, down to the knots on her arthritic fingers. In 1884, Eakins reached his peak; he enjoyed his job, was moderately famous, and had married his love, Susan MacDowell.

Through the 1880’s, Eakins explored new mediums, especially photography. In the classroom, he, “married his infatuation with anatomy with his infatuation with photography,” posing himself and his students in countless nude photos.12 Some of these studies would be the basis for Eakins’ masterpiece, Swimming, which shows Eakins and five if his students skinny-dipping and lounging in a secluded spot on Dove Lake. Often misinterpreted as a confession of homosexuality, Swimming is, “the appeal for freedom, for something truly natural.”13 In 1886, amidst the Victorian repression of Anthony Comstock, Eakins was fired from the Academy for stripping a male model in front of female students and for rumors of homosexual relationships with students. Crushed, Eakins slipped into the worst depression of his life, only to be revived by a trip to Dakota, where he was astounded by the beauty of the American West. Eakins returned to Philadelphia, where he struck up a friendship with the aging Walt Whitman, painting a portrait of the celebrated poet in 1888. Eakins lived happily until 1897, when his niece, Ella Crowell, committed suicide, for which Eakins was unfairly blamed by her parents. Succumbing to another bout of crippling depression, Eakins spent the summer with Dr. Harry A. Rowland in Mount Desert, Maine, where he recovered through biking, sailing, and painting a portrait of the physicist. The 1890’s were Eakins’ decline; he abandoned scene painting in favor of exclusively painting portraits as he began to retreat from the public eye. The portraits from this period show Eakins great skill in understanding people, as portraits like The Thinker, Miss Amelia Van Buren, and Mrs. Edith Mahon betray sadness and weakness that only a painter as mentally scarred as Eakins could detect. After the turn of the century, Eakins’ body began to deteriorate, possibly a result of lead poisoning from his paints. He died in 1916, leaving behind his wife and a legacy of realism unparalleled by any other American painter.

In his biography, Howat posits that Frederic Church aided in building a unique American culture by consciously painting with American values: respect for God, nature, and country life. Nineteenth century America was largely rural, and gained inspiration from the vast tracts of wilderness that lay in the westward path of Manifest Destiny. This connection to unspoiled wilderness greatly separated America from the overcrowded and metropolitan societies of Europe, thus a uniquely nature-oriented art was necessary to demonstrate America’s cultural independence. Church’s landscapes – even those of foreign lands – fulfill this need by romanticizing the, “period of meteoric growth in industry…farming, iron mining, smelting, and manufacturing.”14 McFeely also professes the importance of nature in Eakins’ works; Eakins’ believed art should, “stay true to nature and say something ‘big.’”15 Rather than use his art to glorify the wilderness – as Church did – Eakins painted to reveal the sadness in the world and to call for greater social freedoms. McFeely somewhat ineffectively argues that this desire for “natural” freedom stemmed from Eakins’ hidden homosexuality. By exploring uniquely American subjects, artists like Church and Eakins freed the United States from the cultural shadow of Europe and created distinctive American art.

Howat’s praise for Church and his contributions to American art are unsurprising as Howat is an experienced expert on American art, serving for 33 years in curatorial positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was created in part by the efforts of Church to provide New York with a source of “moral, educational, and aesthetic improvement.”16 At the Museum, Howat dealt solely with the American Wing, instilling in him a great appreciation for American art and leaving his taste in European art underdeveloped. McFeely, influenced by activist historians like C. Vann Woodward  and an active participant in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960’s presents a typically New Left view of Eakins’ work. His insistence on Eakins’ homosexuality with only circumstantial evidence suggests a desire to rewrite the traditional view of Eakins and nineteenth century art.

In American Artist, Lynne Moss Perricelli reviewed Frederic Church, praising the detail and research that Howat put into his book.     After summarizing the aspects of Church’s life depicted in the book, Perricelli notes Howat’s emphasis on Church’s, “inquisitive mind and varied interests,” and lauds Howat’s examination of individual paintings to find the deeper meaning behind Church’s artistic philosophy.17 McFeely, too, received praise for Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins. In an issue of American Scholar, Brenda Wineapple praises McFeely’s skillful narration and success in portraying Eakins as an artist, “of tragic grandeur.”18 Wineapple’s one reservation about McFeely’s book is his failure to explore the uncharacteristically, “nonromantic metaphor” suggested by Eakins’ “attention to proportion, ratio, and scientific measurements.”17 Howat and McFeely both succeed in proving Church and Eakins as founders of American culture.

Frederic Church convincingly argues the importance of Church in American artistic history. Howat skillfully weaves between narration of Church’s life and character, and analysis of his canvases, providing deep insight into Church’s nature-oriented artistic philosophy and technical perfection as an artist. As a professional art historian, Howat’s examination of Church’s paintings can be, at times, a bit esoteric for the average reader, but otherwise Howat’s writing is consistently interesting. By characterizing Church as, “a great artist; an ardent traveler; an assiduous devotee and student of religion, history, literature, music, architecture, science…,family relationships, excellent food and drink, and trout fishing… mirror of his time,” Howat not only reveals the polymathic qualities of the greatest American landscape painter, but also the excitement and promise of the nineteenth century.19

McFeely also succeeds in conveying the importance of Eakins’ art to American culture. Like Howat, McFeely emphasizes the varied interests of his subject, noting Eakins’ studies in photography, sculpture, architecture, anatomy, film and sport as important influences on Eakins painting style. Despite an irksome tendency to mingle fact with speculation –such as his theories of Benjamin Eakins’ income, Thomas Eakins’ homosexuality, and Susan Eakins’ sexual relationship with her friend and roommate of twenty years, Mary Adeline Williams – McFeely offers discerning insight in Eakins’ troubled mental state and the transcendentalist motivations behind his art. McFeely’s description of Eakins’ portraits as, “too real,” to the point of being painfully truthful, forces the reader to recognize the power of a talented realist to recreate the world on canvas.20 Painters like Eakins were more than artists; they were visionaries, yearning for a better and freer world.

In the early nineteenth century, the United States had asserted its status as a nation free of European political influence, but remained dependent on nations like England and France for cultural and artistic direction. Amidst the political, technological, and social development that would sweep the nation between the War of 1812 and 1900, a generation of American artists emerged to create a uniquely American style of art and thus make the United States a truly independent nation, able to fulfill its “obvious and important international roles.”21 John K. Howat and William S. McFeely identify the landscape painter Frederic Church and the realist Thomas Eakins as leaders of this cultural genesis, and the forefathers of American art.

1. Howat, John K. Frederic Church. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2005. ix.
2. Howat, John K. 4.
3. Howat, John K. 37.
4. Howat, John K.  61.
5. Howat, John K. 73.
6. Howat, John K. 109.
7. Howat, John K. 155.
8. Howat, John K. 175.
9. Howat, John K. 188.
10. McFeely, William S. Portrait: The Life of Thomas Eakins. New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2007. 22.
11. McFeely, William S. 58.
12. McFeely, William S. 110.
13. McFeely, William S. 117.
14. Howat, John K. 18.
15. McFeely, William S. 46.
16. Howat, John K. 159.
17. Perricelli, Lynne Moss. "Frederic Church." American Artist 70 (2006): 76-77. Web.
18. Wineapple, Brenda. "Pleasure out of Desperation." American Scholar 76.1 (2007). Web.
19. Wineapple, Brenda.
20. Howat, John K. x.
21. Howat, John K. ix.