The Americanness of American Art - Part 3
During the great experiment of Jacksonian democracy, when the United States lived very much to itself, America was viewed as the and of hope, an asylum, the "nation of futurity", "the nation of many nations...destined to manifest of mankind the excellence of divine principles", where unity dominated diversity. But, America was also maddeningly pluralistic in this age of individualism, a mosaic of sections subdivided into regions and localities with widely disparate economic pursuits. The economic revolutions that promoted massive migrations westward and from rural areas to industrial centers also resulted in the destruction to the self-sufficient farm economy, the collapse of the artisan and apprenticeship system, and the breakdown of traditional familial and communal ties. It also generated new areas of conflict - between capital and labor, wealth and poverty. Within this context, the nation’s continental land mass of the fertile West was nothing if not an "appointed remedy", in Emerson’s words, or "the great safety valve", in the words of Horace Greeley. Such faith underscores the basic premise of Jacksonian democracy - an implicit trust in the common sense of the common man, an unshakable belief in the will of a virtuous and competent people.
The turbulent world of early 19th Century American democracy led to a broadening of the definition of culture in which useful mechanical inventions and widespread evidence of popular literacy were discussed in the same breath with the fine arts and literature. Some boldly asserted that the essence of American achievement was to be found among the mass of the people - Crevecoeur’s "men of middle stations" for whom beauty was often subordinate to function. The enormous popularity and acceptability of folk portraiture to America’s increasingly affluent and state-conscious middle class is substantiated by both foreign visitors and cultural commentators. Paul Petrvich Svinin, a young Russian diplomatic secretary who served in America from 1811 to 1813, observed that portrait painting in America "has been brought to the highest degree of perfection ...portrait painters are constantly in demand and are very well paid. The most wretched paint slinger receives no less than twenty dollars for a bust portrait, and some men get as much as a hundred dollars." In 1829, John Neal, a Maine journalist, penmanship teacher, and miniature painter, commented: "We have certainly...painters, if not too numerous to mention, are much too numerous to particularize...You can hardly open the door of a best-room anywhere, without surprizing or being surprized by, the picture of somebody, plastered to the wall and staring at you with both eyes and a bunch of flowers." However much foreign visitors and domestic critics might complain of the disregard of academic techniques in the work of American craftsmen-artists of the period, they had devised ways of reaching out to the new nation with inventive, colorful and compelling images and objects of everyday use that also display standards of excellence. In the process, these self-made, self-taught and self-controlled men broke free of tradition and of the past itself.
The Americanness of American art has long been reflected in a desire for directness and simplicity. Yet, landscapes, for example, could not be rendered on canvas simply for their own sake, but had to have an educational bias and be justified on moral or religious grounds. Landscape paintings were, so to speak, reproductions of God’s handiwork, and to contemplate them was considered morally and spiritually ennobling.
In his approach to the landscape, the American artist attempted to resolve the contradiction between romanticism and realism, creating a tension that is one of the major characteristics of the genre from the Hudson River school of the 1820’s to the American impressionists in the last quarter of the 19th Century. Then, as the country became more industrialized, American painters had to face the intrusion of the machine and rationalize industrial progress with the prevailing image of the American wilderness as the new Eden. For the most part, they rejected the noisy intrusion of the machine for a nostalgic and always romantic concept of the nation. The resulting paintings are scenes of harmony and solitude as several isolated figures quietly contemplate prolonged and timeless silence.
The new Eden, the land - the everlasting land - was here before there was anything else. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s conclusion to The Great Gatsby:
The abundant land of America was the world’s myth - the consummation of a dream invented in Europe before the place called "America" was discovered. What our writers have said about it and the way our painters have delineated it - in amazement, in rapture, in frustration, in imagination - are haunting reminders of the most enduring myth of our culture in a world sullied by an insufficient sense of wonder.