american art

from the colonial period to world war two

Winslow Homer, Dressing for the Carnival, 1877

Charles Wilson Peale, The Artist in His Museum, 1822

Raphaelle Peale, Venus after the Bath, 1822

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic, 1875

Thomas Eakins, William Rush Carving the Allegorical Figure of the Schuylkill River, 1877

Winslow Homer, Prisoner from the Front, 1866

american realism

people, terms, and concepts: realism, trompe l'oeil, John James Audubon

realism (with a lower-case 'r')

Lower-case “realism” has often been cited as a defining characteristic of American art of the nineteenth century -- but remember that the term realism has a lot of different definitions and connotations, including:

(a) a tightly painted and highly detailed style, sometimes going as far as trompe l'oeil;

(b) subject matter taken from current times, rather than from history, fiction, or the imagination;

(c) a clinically dispassionate and objective attitude toward that subject-matter, and an avoidance of melodramatic sentimentality or overt spirituality;

(d) a concentration on lower-class, gritty subjects, as opposed to heroic and idealized subjects;

(e) works that appear to be an unstaged glimpse of what they are representing, as opposed to obviously contrived and theatrical compositions.

There are a lot of other shades of meanings of the term. Note that some works may be realistic in one sense but not in another, so you will usually have to define how you are using the term 'realism' whenever you use it. Also, don’t forget that realism not necessarily truthful:  the appearance of realism is often used as a cover for distinctly biassed ideological messages.

American Realism (with a capital 'R')

Around the mid-nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic there was an art movement called Realism (capitalized when it refers to this movement). We looked closely at two artists who represent the American branch of Realism, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer, neither of whom practiced a trompe l'oeil style (a), but both of whom were largely realistic in their subject-matter (b & d), and objective in their approach to it (c & e).  Think of Eakins’s interest in science and scientists; and how his belief in close study of the nude got him in trouble at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  Think of Homer’s early career as a journalist documenting the Civil War for Harper’s Magazine.  Although many of Homer’s works do tend to have “deeper” meanings relating to post-war reconstruction, to childhood pedagogy, to the struggle between man and nature, and perhaps even subconscious psycho-sexual content, his subject matter is always ordinary and his approach is that of straightforward, matter-of-fact documentary.

Readings: Craven chs. 11, 23 (pp. 329-42), and 24

Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  The students named below will be asked to present a brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) response to their assigned question. Sometimes the works named in the question will not be in the readings, in which case you should use the concepts of the readings and lectures to analyze them independently.

Click on the names of the works to see large-scale reproductions.

1) (*Grace Maloney*) We discussed five different ways in which the term 'realism' is used in art history (see above). In what senses can the paintings of Charles Willson Peale and his family be considered 'realistic'? In what senses are they not realistic? Use Charles Willson Peale's General George Washington before Princeton (1779), Rembrandt Peale's Rubens Peale with a Geranium (1801), Raphaelle Peale's Venus Rising from the Sea (1822), and Sarah Miriam Peale's A Slice of Watermelon (1825) as examples

2)  (*Justin Lahue*) Analyze Thomas Eakins's portrait of Professor Henry Rowland (1897). In what sense(s) is it more 'realistic' than a Copley portrait such as his Nicholas Boylston (1767)? What are the main things each artist is trying to convey about their respective sitters, and how do they do so?

3)  (*Joseph Belanger*) In what sense(s) is Winslow Homer's Prisoners from the Front (1866) 'realistic'? How does it nonetheless also show Homer's pro-Union (pro-North) attitude toward the Civil War?

4)  (*Amelia Tausek*) Analyze William Merritt Chase's Idle Hours (1894), Julian Alden Weir's The Red Bridge (1895), and Childe Hassam's Union Square in Spring (1896). What characteristics define these works as Impressionist, in comparison to earlier landscape painting? Despite their relatively painterly brushwork and unusual use of colors, how can Impressionism still be considered a realistic art style?


John James Audubon, Blue Jay, from Birds of North America, 1838