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Nineteenth Century Art in the Making: From Copley to Emerson

Barbara Groseclose is the Professor of Art History at Ohio State University. She has written an extensive collection of books on the Eighteenth and Nineteenth century art and literature. In 1994, she was appointed a Fulbright Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Utrecht. Her most recent book was Nineteenth-Century American Art (2000).

Barbara Groseclose critically analyzes the importance of American art during the nineteenth-century. Her analysis ties the importance of the history of the art to the history of the United States’ nineteenth-century history. The book also describes the origins of the first American artists that came from Europe to America, along with their history, attitudes towards art, and the reception from the American people during that time. These even raises the question of whether or not American art is considered “American”.1 Furthermore, Groseclose analyzes how the art of the Nineteenth-century is still remembered to this day, as to how the history portrayed in the paintings and drawings of that time is a reminder to the American people of their history.

As described in chapters 1 and 2, the rise of early American art began as far back as the 15th century in Italy, when artists started creating art academies. The academies gave people the rudiments of art and a sense of what great value aesthetics were to the overall piece of artwork. The earliest academy was founded in 1802 by painter John Trumbull (1756 – 1843), the American Academy of Arts. Samuel F. B. Morse (1791 – 1872) founded the National Academy of Design in 1826 before it died in 1839 and devoted his time into teaching and training artists to exhibit American Art.2 Afterwards, its popularity grew, and it expanded out of New York. The earliest forms of art in the early nineteenth-century were drawing and/or painting portraits and history painting. John Trumbull pushed the hardest to ensure the paintings portraying a West-inspired future were linked to an academy of the growing nation.3 Thus, the drive to search for something to draw or paint in the West led to what artists called “itinerancy”, or to explore on their own. This made them economically independent and encouraged them to work by themselves. Afterwards, the artists, including William Merritt Chase (1849 – 1916), painted works of art on the cosmopolitan, low and middle class family lives.4 In addition, portraiture came into the American peoples’ sights after Copley left Boston in 1775. But immediately afterwards, Gilbert Stuart (1755 – 1828) and more artists continued Copley’s legacy with portraiture. The origins of portraiture went as far back as Hiram Powers’ (1805 – 1873) Greek Slave.5 Busts (ie: Hiram Powers’ bust of General Andrew Jackson (c.1835)) and portraits of people in the nineteenth-century were created (ie: Thomas Eakins’ The Artist’s Wife and Setter Dog (c.1884 – 1889)). The portraits of women in the 19th century and paintings of their families and lives were primarily shown in lower to middle to cosmopolitan classes’ lives (Gilbert Stuart’s Mrs. George Plumstead (1800), Sarah Miriam Peale’s Anna Maria Smyth (1821), Francois Joseph Bourgoin’s Family Group in New York (1808), etc.). The social purpose of the portraits and paintings of women and their families was not only the aesthetic style behind it, but also the social confirmation and conformity it presented. Furthermore, the portraits of women held a significant role during the ante-bellum reform era, primarily concerning the roles women played in the United States. The earlier portraits of women presented them as if they were restrained, bound by the chains of their roles (Thomas Eakin’s The Artist’s Wife and Setter Dog (c.1884-1889) showed her “constricted by the tight bodice and sleeves of the unflattering and old-fashioned blue gown she wears”).6 When the cult of domesticity first appeared, viewers of these portraits saw women not only as wives, but also as mothers. This reception strengthened the position of those who advocated equal rights to women, but when it came to the cult of domesticity, women also needed to be stay-at-home mothers, staying at home managing the house and raising their children. Overall, the paintings and portraits presented to viewers a glimpse of what American life was as roles between each person and the nation itself changed. In retrospect, the way of the artist changed in terms of the circumstances and the life in which he lived in historically.

Chapters 3 and 4 discuss the ways art reflected the raging spread of democracy in America. After the Revolutionary War, the birth of the Constitution, and the French Revolution that followed, America began inhibiting the ideal of democracy. But to the people, especially the artists, the word “democracy” had a shifting definition. The Europeans – especially the British – criticized the term “democracy” and the Americans’ way of life because democracy was uncivilized. Again, art reflecting life in a democratic nation showed people in their everyday lives at work: (Thomas Anshutz’s The Ironworkers’ Noontime (1880), William Sidney Mount’s Farmers Nooning (1836), Winslow Homer’s The Old Mill (1871), etc.). A huge range of symbols in America (like Columbia, Lady Liberty and Uncle Sam), artists agreed, would’ve given the illusion of the ideal “democracy” to the viewers.7 These symbols dramatically spread democratic sentiment within the hearts of the Americans. Afterwards, America became a democratic nation, as described by Alexis de Tocqueville in his book published in 1835, Democracy in America.8 Those symbols also were the cause of morale from the North to oppose slavery (Patrick Reason’s Frontispiece for the Liberty Bell (c.1839) and Edwin White’s Thoughts of Liberia: Emancipation (1861)).9 Furthermore, reading showed a simplistic way of expressing their democracy during Jacksonian democracy. Especially with Thoughts of Liberia: Emancipation, during the time when slavery was an issue in the United States, the painting showed his reading a book. Reading was forbidden for blacks in the South because the Southern slave masters feared that if black slaves were literate enough, revolt – like John Brown’s raid – would occur. The blacks’ reading became a factor in the outbreak of the Civil War. Overall, the high literacy rates distinguished the American people from their European forbearers.

Chapters 5 and 6 explore the art from the West, from the earliest expansionism of the early 19th century to the end of the century.10 As far back as Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition to find the Pacific Ocean, artists have always unendingly visualized what the West would’ve been like to explore and live in. Again, Thomas Cole began another piece of artwork: landscaping. He built the Hudson River School and had a vision: that the artwork that showed the wilderness of the Western America (ie: Thomas Cole’s Kaaterskill Falls (1826)) would be known to many Americans. Cole knew that viewing the scenery of the West constitutes a behavior in which the viewer could enjoy the scenery. But when Cole died, his legacy lived on at the Hudson River School with such artists as William Guy Wall, Asher B. Durand and the well-known Transcendentalists. The artists at the school painted landscapes of such scenery based on reality and fiction.11 The Transcendentalists preached individualism, self-trust and non-conformity.12 Furthermore, a great variety of sites in the West were visited and explored by artists for painting (ie: John F. Kensett’s Lake George (1869), Frederic Church’s Niagara (1857) and Niagara from Goat Island Winter (1856)) as well as the Native Americans that lived in the West (ie: George Caitlin’s Four Bears, Second Chief, in a Full Dress (1832 – 1834) and Karl Bodmer’s Birohka (The Robe with the Beautiful Hair), Hidatsa Man (1833 – 1834). The artists first intersected during their travels at the Rocky Mountains. “Art of the American West has been characterized as expeditional (explorations of settled as well as uninhabited land) or exploitational (incorporating settlement as well as commercial development or both, since these aims are not mutually exclusive” (Groseclose 149 – 150). Artists who explored the West and sold their paintings for exhibitions were paid handsomely. At the same time, the artists were also involved in the rapid expansion of territory. The transcontinental journey through North America was a perfect opportunity for artists and the American people alike to explore the West, have a sense of adventure fulfilled, and seek new profits. But overall – for the artists especially – the trek across the continent provided the Americans a sense of the true American spirit, the sense that they were fulfilling their destiny.

Finally, Chapter 7 talks about the memories and myths of the American art in the Nineteenth century. What struck Americans the most about the artists’ works were the moments that changed the people and the nation. Death of a person or of many people, especially in a war, definitely left a mark on the American people (Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan’s A Harvest of Death, “Gettysburg” (1863)).13 After the deaths of every single American who died, from an ordinary member of a family to a soldier of war, memorials were placed in memory of those who died. All of those memories were preserved in the history of United States, as they were significant to the nation. But overall, the deaths of many Americans were the primary reason Americans stayed as a people and as a nation. From an unknown citizen to a close friend to a loved one, the art work depicting a fallen body left an imprint on the American peoples’ minds, reminders of what those people were when they were still alive. But on a larger scale, the paintings of the deaths of American people only strengthened the Americans to remember their history.

Barbara Groseclose wrote Nineteenth-Century American Art near the end of the 20th century. During that time, Bill Clinton was president. In addition, Groseclose had a Democratic point of view on American art, seeing it as what became the reason which strengthened the Americans’ loyalties to their nation. She was analyzing the art and connecting Democracy with the Democratic attitudes to the American art in the 19th century, as can be seen with the icons of Uncle Sam, Columbia, and Lady Liberty. Furthermore, Groseclose’s historiography was primarily based on the connections between the social, political and economic factors to the art. Ever since the birth of the Constitution, no one held American art in high regard, as complained by Copley. But when the rise of democracy began, the American people shifted their attitudes to a more positive one. But with democracy, the word itself and the ideas behind it were a constantly shape-shifting concept. Furthermore, the concept of “American art” “shifts and re-forms, a temporal fluidity which, when added to regional variations, defies – or at least inflects – any over-arching definition of ‘American’.”16 Overall, had the nation not established a democratic government – something that the American people enjoyed living with later on – the art works would have been forsaken; there wouldn’t have been a nation to remember.

The Library Journal called Barbara Groseclose’s Nineteenth-Century American Art “no less a gem than most of its predecessors.” It gave an overall positive attitude to how Groseclose analyzed the questions behind what did or didn’t change in the art style, what major aspects of the artwork made it known, etc. Moreover, the Library Journal commends Groseclose for testing readers in a book somewhat of a survey. In addition, the OAH (Organization of American Historians) also gave a positive review. They critically saw how Groseclose traced the roots of the American art as far back as 1492, when Christopher Columbus sailed to the North American continent and became known as the “first founder of the US”, and tied the history to the art of the United States. But the OAH also said the book will be known to only a small audience, but retorted that the book itself gave a broader understanding of US History and the art.

Barbara Groseclose analyzed the connections between the American art and the characteristics around the entire United States and its history in a subtle, unique way that people back in the 19th century never would have imagined. It was impressive how all the overall artworks were recovered and gathered then analyzed and traced back its time period and what it really meant. For example, the bust of Andrew Jackson was created back when Jackson himself was President of the United States and Jacksonian Democracy was known nationwide. The overall attitude that Groseclose exhibited in the text was an overall neutral and analytical one.

Barbara Groseclose’s Nineteenth-Century American Art shows readers a multitude of various artworks in the 19th century with a historical understanding “that consider their aesthetics amid political, social and economic contexts.”14 The art in the book reflected strong signs of American values with a strong historical reflection as well. The artworks affected the American world primarily through exposing the history behind America and who created the artworks. Furthermore, it gave readers of this book a different understanding of the history behind the United States of America and the art by many artists that presented the specific events of the history of the US.

In Barbara Groseclose’s Nineteenth-Century American Art, Groseclose analyzes the wider understanding of the art from a historical perspective. The art gave readers a deeper understanding as to how history affected the style of and the reasons behind creating the artworks and the overall reception they received during the 19th century. Nineteenth-Century American Art “spotlights the cultural and social work American art did in the United States during the nineteenth century.”15 Furthermore, after this book was published, many people didn’t see American art and American history the same way as a result of Groseclose’s clever and substantial theories.

1. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. Oxford. Oxford University Press, 2000. 1
2. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 10 - 11
3. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 15
4. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 30 – 31
5. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 23
6. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 55
7. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 61, 64, 67, 93
8. Groseclose, Barbara, Nineteenth-Century American Art. 204
9. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art.80
10. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art.79 - 80
11. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art.72, 125
12. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 149 – 150
13. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art.177
14. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 1
15. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 2
16. Groseclose, Barbara. Nineteenth-Century American Art. 1