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American Art

Started: 1600

American Art Timeline

"...the most distinctive, and perhaps the most impressive, characteristic of American scenery is its wilderness."

Thomas Cole

Summary of American Art

The United States' rich artistic history stretches from the earliest indigenous cultures to the more recent globalization of contemporary art. Centuries before the first European colonizers, Native American peoples had crafted ritual and utilitarian objects that reflected the natural environment and their beliefs. After the arrival of Europeans, artists looked to European tendencies in portraiture and landscape painting to craft representations of the new land, but it was not until the middle of the 19th century with the Hudson River School that American artists were considered to have launched a cohesive movement. Through the early 20th century, artists still took cues from European avant-garde groups but increasingly focused on the denizens of American urban centers and the more rural Midwest. After World War II, the artists that comprised the Abstract Expressionist movement found international fame and notoriety, and for the first time, American artistic influence moved abroad, and later Minimalism and Pop Art greatly impacted the art world. Subsequently, with various global art centers and international connections, it is now more difficult to point to a specific American art trend, although one can still chart the influence of American artists in the global art sphere.

Key Ideas

While not originally recognized by the European colonizers, the artistic creations of the indigenous Native American tribes were varied and long held. Abounding in various media and styles, Native American art encompassed the decorative, utilitarian, and ritualistic. Incorporating European styles and materials in the 19th century, Native American artists transformed traditional subjects and processes to tell their stories and continue to do so today.
As the United States' territory grew through the 19th century due to the annexation of land, both painting and photography propelled manifest destiny's ideas of American exceptionalism and romantic notions of national identity. Large landscape paintings depicting the American West captured the sublimity of the natural landscape, and photography in particular was instrumental in some cases in the creation of National Parks.
For many art historians, the designation "American Art" usually ended at World War II. After the international recognition of Abstract Expressionism, the art world became increasingly globalized and diffuse, with styles and trends practiced in all corners of the world, but recent scholarship has focused on the transnational dialogues that are occurring now and tracing those back to create a richer understanding of the art of the United States.
American Art Image

"What constitutes American painting?... things may be in America, but it's what is in the artist that counts. What do we call 'American' outside of painting? Inventiveness, restlessness, speed, change.." said the innovative Arthur Dove. Here is your guide to the innovations in the arts made by Americans over the last 400 years.

The Most Important Art in American Art Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important in American Art - that both overview the major ideas of American Art, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

Thomas Cole: A Wild Scene (1831-32)
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A Wild Scene (1831-32)

Artist: Thomas Cole

Artwork description & Analysis: This dramatic landscape exemplifies the work of the Hudson River School. A stunning vista of rocky outcrops and precipitous mountains opens upon a waterfall, in the center right, breaking into a luminous pool that flows into the ocean on the left. A craggy ancient tree frames the right border, its twisted limbs curving vertically toward the darkly portentous sky. Native American figures, dressed in animal hides and armed with bows, occupy the lower third of the canvas, one outlined against the pink and blue patch of sky on the left, the others located beneath the two prominent trees. As art historians Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser and Tim Baring wrote, the work is "a fine essay in the sublime: the rough, uncultivated landscape and dark, rolling clouds...convincingly represents an untamed wilderness." Precise detail reflects the influence of Naturalism, while what the artist described as its "flashing chiaroscuro and a spirit of motion pervading the scene, as though nature was just waking from chaos," reflects a Romanticist inspiration.

Art historian Carl Pfluger wrote that Cole "virtually invented a new style of landscape, specializing in views of the wilderness." The artist described the painting as "a vision of the earliest form of society, the 'perfect state' of nature, with appropriate savage figures." The portrayal of Native Americans and the description of them as "savage" played into the growing mythology of uncultured peoples who on one hand added something like authenticity to the landscape but on the other were not "civilized" enough and had to be removed as settlers moved West during the era of Manifest Destiny. Cole and the Hudson River School significantly influenced American environmental movements, as well as new art directions, including American Regionalism and Group f/64. Contemporary artists Charles LeDray, Stephen Hannock, and Angie Keifer have repurposed Cole's works, as seen in LeDray's Empire (2015).

Oil on canvas - Baltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, Maryland

George Bellows: Cliff Dwellers (1913)
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Cliff Dwellers (1913)

Artist: George Bellows

Artwork description & Analysis: Bellows' Cliff Dwellers, with its depiction of the gritty vitality of slum life, exemplifies the Ashcan School. In a neighborhood of tenement buildings, its denizens crowd into the streets, engaged in a variety of activities; some women and children sit on the steps, a mother admonishes her child at center, while working men and a street vendor throng in the background. Only a touch of horizon and sky remains between the vertical rows of apartments and the network of clotheslines that diagonally cross the street from building to building. As the people gather outside to avoid the heat in the stifling apartments, the brushwork, vibrant and vigorous, creates a sense of physicality. Apartment dwellers can be glimpsed in the upper levels of the buildings, as they seem to be caught up in private conversations or lean out of their apartment windows. The work reflects the impact of immigration in the era, as recent arrivals were densely crowded into slum neighborhoods. Yet as art critic Michael Kimmelman writes, "the joylessness of the subject is undercut by the soft light that streams into the scene and by the characters on the stoops and in the streets whom Bellows endows with more charm than misery."

Part of the second generation of the Ashcan School, Bellows used the group's then favored strategies in this work, employing a geometric compositional scheme as well as the "chords," or triads of complementary colors expounded by Hardesty G. Maratta's color theory. Yet, his fluid brushwork and vibrant color made his work distinctive, as he conveyed the robust swagger and energy of working class life.

Oil on canvas - Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Alfred Stieglitz: The Steerage (1907)
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The Steerage (1907)

Artist: Alfred Stieglitz

Artwork description & Analysis: This photograph has become famous both as a cultural document of immigration to America and as a pioneering work of American modernism and Straight Photography. The image is cropped to emphasize the diagonals of the gangplank horizontally crossing the frame while intersecting the massive column on the left, echoed by the stairway on the right intersecting the horizontal planes of the upper deck. The upper level, reserved for the well-to-do, seems peopled primarily by men, the shape of their hats catching the light as they look down into the steerage, where women and children, along with clothing hanging up at the left, create a sense of a lived-in space like a crowded tenement. Though the work highlights class and gender divisions, Stieglitz was primarily interested in its formal qualities, as its sharp focus converged on intersecting planes, shapes, and angles.

Around 1900 Stieglitz began using large format cameras and considered this his first truly "modernist" picture, as he said, "Intensely direct. Not a trace of hand work on either negative or prints. No diffused focus. Just the straight goods." He published the photo in Camera Work in 1911 along with several of his other photographs.

Photogravure - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

More American Art Artwork and Analysis:

Grant Wood: American Gothic (1930) Dorothea Lange: Migrant Mother (1936) Jacob Lawrence: The Migration of the Negro, Panel 3 (1940-1941) Jackson Pollock: Autumn Rhythm No. 30 (1950) Andy Warhol: Gold Marilyn Monroe (1962) Robert Smithson: Spiral Jetty (1970) George Segal: Gay Liberation (1980) Barbara Kruger: I shop therefore I am (1990) Kehinde Wiley: Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005)
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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Definition Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rebecca Seiferle
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 13 Feb 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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