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Free «Art in America» Essay Sample


Art in America covers the art in the United States and North America, the art during the colonial period to the 20th century and the evolution of styles during this period. Some of the topics to be dealt with include articles on the American architecture, Canadian art & architecture, Mexican art & architecture, Spanish art & architecture and North American art.  This paper will examine the major trends in painting, architecture and sculpture as well as the decorative art in America from the colonial period through to the 20th century. The examples of literature will include artistic trends in the colonial North and South, the evolution of style in the 18th and 19th centuries and also the innovative trends in the 20th century. The paper will finally stress on the cultural and social history that will include gilded age and folk art and their reflection in the art.

Art during the Colonial Period

Art during the colonial period includes art in the 17th century in North America. This was the period when the colonies did not enjoy the leisure or the wealth in cultivating fine arts. Colonial artists used to work in glass, silver, pewter, and textiles that followed the models from Europe. Limners of the 17th century were seen as being naïve but they used to have very charming portraits including that of the Dutch baroque style, the English baroque style, or the Elizabethan style. However, the portraits depended upon the background of the patron and or the artesian. The painters used different types of craftsmanship including sign painting, limning or any other common fot the 18th century style of painting. Painters often used to earn a living by just their painting work alone. Some of the renowned painters included Paul Revere (a silversmith) who also turned his talents to manufacturing and engraving of false teeth. The crafts during this time followed the Bavarian, the Dutch, or the English models. However, some artists like Duncan Phyfe and Samuel McIntire included some variations in their artworks especially in furniture (Haskell, 1999).



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During the early 18th century, there was a great demand for portrait painting. This attracted artists from European countries including Joseph Blackburn, Peter Pelham and John Smibert (England), Pieter Vanderlyn (Holland), Gustavus Hesselius (Sweden), and Jeremiah Theus (Switzerland). Some of these artists like Robert Feke, Charles Wilson, Joseph Badger, and Ralph Earle followed their traditional 18th century English portraits style with some more vigorous work but combined with a great talent.

One other famous painter was Benjamin West who had set up his skills in London. He was a painter to the president and king of the Royal Academy. Though Benjamin was a representative of the European painting school, he became an icon for American painters who studied with him for more than fifty years. However, his teachings with the Americans never earned him a good place because there was less demand for his type of work in America. But one of his students, Gilbert Stuart, emerged from his tutelage as an excellent painter in England. Stuart later returned to America where he set up new standards in painting that were rarely surpassed.  In America, however, arts like painting and architecture became more famous on the expense of sculpture and thus some names like William Rush, who was a sculptor, never really became widely known. That is why Rush was the only sculptor in the pre-revolutionary times due to his tombstone carvings (Brown, 1979).

From the Revolution to the Civil War

From the birth of the U.S. republic to the time the civil war broke out, there was less demand for fine arts. For this reason some of the early painters like John Trumbull, John Vanderlyn, Washington Allston, and Samuel F. B. Morse who had sought a market in America were not recognized but disillusioned. However, for the men who did portrait painting like Chester Harding, Henry Benbridge, Thomas Sully, Edward Savage, and John Neagle among others enjoyed some substantial patronage as their work was seen to express the energy of builders of the new America.  During this period, a number of excellent genre painters appeared.   The early painters in the American scene like George Caleb Bingham, Richard C. Woodville, Sidney Mount, Eastman Johnson, Henry Inman and David G. Blythe saw their stars rise while others like J. J. Audubon helped to create a series of American birds that were very famous. J. J. Audubon even went to England for his recognition in painting of American birds as well as publishing his works (Howat, 1972).

It was during the first half of the 19th that the first school of American landscape painting was developed. The Hudson River School was started by Thomas Cole and Thomas Doughty and continued by such people as Frederick Church, John Kensett and Asher Durand. Charles Russell, Seth Eastman and George Catlin in their paintings they helped describe the land (in panoramic landscape views) and the people who lived west of Mississippi. The land paintings showed a direct response to nature which has been an important factor in showcasing American art. Also, Americans were known to have passion for objects that were realistically portrayed (Howat, 1972). Such paintings found an outstanding expression by John Peto and William Harnett paintings. It is worth noting that the primitivism strain was very popular and prominent in the early 19th century especially as evidenced by Erastus Salisbury and Edward Hicks works and continued by Horace Pippin and Moses Grandma in the 20th century (Gardner, 1945 and Gardner, 1945).

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The main source of patronage during this time was provided by sculpture portraiture and artists such as Hezekiah Augur and John Freeze produced some forceful original work in wood and marble. A tradition of training American sculptors in Italy was started by Horation Greenough, and later followed by Hiram Powers, Thomas Crawford, and Harriet Hosmer. These American sculptors in Italy were especially influenced by Thorvaldsen A. B. who was a Danish neoclassicist. Artists like Thomas Ball, William Rimmer and Clark Mills produced untutored sculpture that was very powerful (Haskell, 1999).

Art after the Civil War

After the civil war, there was unprecedented patronage for arts from the private sector as well as the government. This resulted to production of works of striking individuality and enduring worth. Some of the outstanding artisans during this period included Winslow Homer, Albert Pinkham Ryder, James McNeill Whistler, and Thomas Eakins. These artists created works that were seen to be among the best achievements in the history of American art. Although contemporary, these artists are noticeably dissimilar. McNeill Whistler was an expatriate who cultivated a delicate art of suggestion in his etchings and oils while approaching the effects that were caused by French impressionism (Ashton, 1982).

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It was also during this period that the development of the earlier romantic landscape was furthered by Homer Martin, Ralph Blakelock, George Inness, and Alexander Wyant.  George Inness and another artist by the name William Morris brought into America the influence of Barbizon school, while works by portrait painters Frank Duveneck and William Chase helped to reflect temporary currents in Munich at the time when French influence was beginning to supplant German. Artists like John La Farge’s stained glass and religious murals also set some new standards for the arts (Ashton, 1982).   

Other artists, like John Sargent ,who worked in England, managed to excel in society portrait while others like Edwin Abbey and Elihu Vedder excelled in illustration. Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Ernest Lawson, Mary Cassatt, and John Twachman worked under the influence of French impressionism. Although not very well known, American artist Willard Metcalf, who lived in 1858-1925, also worked under the influence of French impressionism while the same case applied to Maurice Prendergast who created original boldly colored images of urban scenes. Romanticized scenes of American West were also painted by several artists cum illustrators including Russell C. and Frederick Remington. 

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After the civil war, there was an improved demand for sculpture work. Famous sculptors like Daniel Chester and John Quincy Adams saw demand raised for their commemorative work hence their fame. John Rodgers had a small sculptor workshop that produced genre groups and small figures that were very popular. For Remington’s work of bronze, the native subject matter of realism was extended to include cowboy theme. Augustus Saint-Gaudens and Olin Warner, who both studied in France, extended work on neoclassical tendencies.

The Twentieth Century

Some of the early names in sculpture in the 20th century like Karl Bitter, Fredrick MacMonnies, Lorado Taft, and Paul Barlett displayed a persisted conflict between idealized and naturalistic modes of representation. One of the major significant developments during the 20th century was about American museums; their founding and expansion. The museums collections were very important to students as well as the public. The art of illustration thrived owing to a momentum in developing new techniques of production. Some of the famous artists included Edwin Abbey, Howard Pyle and Arthur Frost courtesy of their works with some of them even appearing in Harper’s magazines and several other books and magazines.

It was during the 20th century that American art turned to exploit new modes of expression and new techniques. The arts were especially influenced by the functional design aesthetic due to invention of machines. But the development of photography forced a re-evaluation of the representational nature of painting as well as the expressive and formal capacities. The modern European art also opened new fields for most American artists. Early into the 20th century, freedom in technique and dynamic movement towards realism was headed by artists like John Sloan, George Luks, and Robert Henri. They formed an alliance with other artists , for instance, Everett Shinn and Willima Glackens, to form a group of eight people who were collectively known as "Ash-can School." The “Ash-can School” wanted to pass the daily realty messages through art. Other artists like Alfred Stieglitz wanted to offer America a glimpse of cubist and fauve work from Europe. They exhibited conceptual paintings by Americans John Martin, Marsden, and Max Weber both for photography and contemporary paintings.

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In 1913 in New York, American artists Walt Kuhn and Artur Davies helped to organize a full force of European modernism in the now famous Armory Show shocking many Americans as a result. This exhibition helped to reveal new abstract tendencies especially by American artists such as Charles Demuth, Stuart Davis, and Joseph Stella. Other artists in the name of Rockwell Kent and George Bellows became very famous while others like Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper developed an emotional and intense realism. Charles Sheeler and Georgia O’Keeffe combined realism with precise formal design while John Marin was good at imposing breadth of nature in his watercolors. Meanwhile, artists like Ivan Albright, Peter Blume, and Edwin Dickson contributed to development of surrealist and complex realist styles. In the early 1930s, a chauvinistic espousal depicting the American scene thrived under artists like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart while in the 1940s saw the rise of a conscious realistic art in the works of Philip Evergood, Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop, Ben Shahn, and Jacob Lawrence. Years later, painter Jack Levine gave a bitter expression of the above social painting.

The federal government under the department Section of Fine Arts and the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration gave a sponsor support to arts during the Great Depression years thus enabling artists to continue working. The artists embalmed many public buildings with murals as well as creating smaller works for display to the public in public institutions.  In the South, the Farm Security Administration supported photographic documentation of the rural America, and as a result, a number of outstanding photographers were involved in showcasing America in crisis. During the World War II, there was an influx of European painters like Joan Miro, Yves Tanguy, Salvador Dali and Max Ernest who later influence the course of American art (Brown, 1979).

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In the 1920s and 1930s, a continuing realistic tradition in American sculpture produced some works in traditional style including the Mt. Rushmore monument by Gutzon Borlum, Paul Manship and Manhonri Young’s classicizing of naturalistic laborer’s and athletes. However, it is worth noting that the tendency to sculpture arts in national sculpture was towards an expressive form and abstract design and artists like William Zorach, Leonard Baskin and Gaston Lachaise contributed to a lot of figurative work. To add motion as a new dimension in sculpture, Alexander Calder pioneered the field by use of welded metals.

From the mid 1940s to 1960s, the work of most painters (apart from intensive realists) increasingly tended to abstraction. Most artists including Mark Rothko, Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, and Arshile Gorky developed and used abstraction in work with symbolic content. Other artists like Willem de Kooning, Adolph Gottlieb, Jackson Pollock, and Franz Kline created imaginary but unique and bold images that defined the American art and its dominance in the world of art. In sculpture, the 1940s and the 1950s saw free play of abstract forms in space and light while artists like Theodore Roszak, Isamu Noguchi, David Smith, and Richard Lippold exploited the use of new materials. It was during the 1950s and 1960s that the pop movement became famous for utilizing an aesthetic mass production of urban culture artifacts, thereby rejecting the concept of beauty or ugly. The major practitioners included Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichstein who also made non-objective styles (like minimalism, color filed painting and op art) of sculpture and painting to flourish with pop art during the 1960s (Lippard, 1967 and De Lafayette, 1987).

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During the 1960s  a growth of American population can be observed along with concerns about the quality of the life. As a result, ‘pop art’ began interpedently with an intention of becoming ‘an art of the people.’  Pop art borrowed images from ‘popular culture’, hence the name ‘pop art’, and included war images, movie stars and anything that everyday life consisted of. With this kind of images, pop art is credited to changing the art world especially with works by such artists like Claus Oldenburg, Andy W., and Roy Lichtenstein. Andy W. began his career in the late 1940s in New York. He used commercial art as his subject matter with some of his best art repertoire including Hollywood actors, soup cans, and Brillo Boxes. Andy called his studio “The Factory’ and used his screen printing to produce mass artifacts. Andy is credited with founding the ‘pop art movement’ where he later developed the skill of extrapolating photographic pictures to a silk screen thus producing many patterns quickly (Esaak). 

In the latter half of the 20th century, no single style or school seemed to dominate. This was mainly because artists sought several other avenues to express their art individually. Louise Nevelson, Carl Andre, Eva Hess and John Chamberlain were among the famous names that developed individual directions for sculptural abstraction. For postmodern developments in sculpture and painting, we had photorealism, neo-expressionism, assemblage, performance & process art, and land art (De Lafayette, 1987). As seen from above, it was during the 20th century that American art turned to exploit new modes of expression and new techniques. The arts were especially influenced by the functional design aesthetic due to invention of machines by various artists.

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After the 1970s, there was the ascendancy of minorities, for instance, women minority in  art, that was marked by essentialism, social circumference or assertion of an artist’s heritage that helped to favor a typical point of view offered as the typical of contemporary art. Artists like Judy Chicago produced suggestive images of the female anatomy to help in an awareness of the stereotypes of Black women. This informed the installations and drawings by Adrian Piper while other artists, like Jenny Holzer, only made extensive use of the printed work (Lucie-Smith, 1985). There is no one single trend that can be said to have dominated the American art in closure of the 20th century. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, American art saw an increased occurrence statements and images and also use of collage, photography in the media. The same period was also characterized by eclecticism by combining painting and sculpture into single works. This trend can be said to be an ironic resurgence of realism borrowed from the other periods of work (De Lafayette, 1987).


Art in America dates back to the colonial period up until now. Some of the topics that art in America has dealt with include the art in the United States and North America, the evolution of styles during the period focusing on the American architecture, Canadian art & architecture, Mexican art & architecture, Spanish art & architecture and North American art. The paper has examined the major art trends in painting, architecture and sculpture as well as the decorative art in America from the colonial period through to the 20th century. The literature has focused on art in the colonial North and South, the evolution of style in the 18th and 19th centuries and also the innovative trends in the 20th century including women artists. We have also seen the cultural and social history of art while including gilded age and folk art and their reflection in the art.

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A comprehensive study of American art from the colonial period to the start of the 20th century has been conducted through various genres of art including painting, architecture and sculpture. This particular study has helped me to acquire an aesthetic awareness of various artistic productions and thus helped to reflect on the dynamic nature of the American society through art. By analyzing  the Spanish and Native American influences in art and architecture in the colonial America, the pre-Revolutionary period, sculpture and painting during the Revolutionary era, neoclassical architecture, landscape painting, the American impressionism and architecture during the gilded age, I have seen how American society and culture evolved through the years. Conducting such types of work indeed a great lesson to all art lovers. 


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