american art

from the colonial period to world war two

the grand manner

people, terms, and concepts: the genres of art (portraiture, history-painting, landscape, genre painting, still-lives), the hierarchy of the genres, the Grand Manner, Classicism, idealization (versus realism), contemporary history painting, Grand Manner portraiture  

The status of the artist : Copley complained in 1767 that Americans considered painting "like any other useful trade ... like that of a Carpenter, tailor or shoe maker, not as one of the most noble Arts in the World." Indeed, most artists combined portrait work, which we would consider 'fine art,' with things like coach-painting and sign-painting, which we associate with design and craftwork. How did artists attempt to upgrade the social status of art-making from a manual ‘craft’ to a ‘liberal art’?

History-painting and the hierarchy of the genres : The most crucial way for artists to upgrade their status was to practice history-painting rather than ‘mere’ portraiture. History-painting not only requires a good education to produce; it also has the purpose of teaching moral lessons, and therefore the history-painter was seen as contributing to the well-being of society as a whole rather than just the vanity of one individual.

The Grand Manner :  History painting was also seen as requiring a higher style than portraiture; a style called the “Grand Manner,” involving a very careful composition (typically closed and balanced around a central focus), an idealization of the figures and setting (as opposed to gritty realism), and a theatrical orchestration of pose, gesture, lighting, and color to dramatize the story.  Be able to analyze any of the works below in relation to these stylistic qualities.

Contemporary history painting and Grand Manner portraiture : Although typically history paintings were of Classical (Ancient Greco-Roman) and Biblical history, the American painters Benjamin West and J. S. Copley helped to usher in a new type:  the contemporary history painting.  How do West’s Death of Wolfe and Copley’s Death of Major Peirson, below, use the conventions of Classical history painting to heroicize contemporary events?  Another modification to the hierarchy of the genres was in the hybrid genre of Grand Manner portraiture, which applied some of the characteristics of history painting to elevate the nominally lower genre.

History-painting in America : Before achieving independence, Americans had little interest in Grand Manner history-painting, but after the Revolutionary War, when America had its own heroes and its own history to celebrate, and had its own great civic buildings in which to exhibit art, it seemed a little more relevant. National heroes like Washington were celebrated in painting and sculpture (see question #1). In general, history-painting was responsible for contributing to the public's sense of what America was about and what an American was (see question #2) -- occasionally at the expense of denigrating other cultures and civilizations (see question #3).

Readings: Craven chs. 8, 10, 12 & 18, plus Vivien Fryd, “Two Sculptures for the Capitol (PDF -- 6.5 MB)

Everyone should consider the following questions while reading the selection for this week.  Some of you will have the specific assignment of presenting brief (1-2 typewritten pages, to be handed in at the end of class) responses to one of these questions.  Not all answers are directly in the readings: don’t hesitate to think on your own, consult other (reliable) sources, and browse image banks such as  Please email me by Monday at 11 pm with the artist, title, and date of the work(s) you analyze in your response (if you use any) so I can bring reproductions to class.

     1)  Using the internet as well as your text, find a handful of 18th and early-19th century portraits of George Washington.  Analyze representative samples to explain the ways that Washington (and by extension military/civic leaders in general) was celebrated in art.  For example, what kinds of signs (poses, attributes, settings, etc) were used to refer to his character and achievement as a military/civic hero, and not just a wealthy man?  How do different portraits use different signs to 'say' different things about him?  Email me the artist, title, and date of your chosen works by Monday evening.

     2)  West and Copley were British loyalists, and the contemporary history paintings of theirs that we saw in class were of Classical or British heroes and events.  What artists during the Federal period (1776-1830s) did history paintings of the founding moments of America from an American viewpoint, and how did those paintings attempt to define the ideals and values of the new nation?  Give a couple of examples from your text or outside sources.  Email me the artist, title, and date of your chosen works by Monday evening.

     3) How do works like Greenough's Rescue and Persico's Discovery define the characters of European Americans and Native Americans, respectively?  How do (a) the choice of these two subjects for such an important location, and (b) the way the sculptors depicted these subjects help to justify American governmental policies toward Native Americans at the time the works were created?  If you wish to discuss works other than the Greenough and Persico in your response, email me the artist, title, and date of those other works by Monday evening.

Persico, The Discovery of America, 1836-44

John Trumbull, The Death of General Montgomery, 1786 (engraved 1808)

Benjamin West, Agrippina with the Ashes of Germanicus, 1767

Gilbert Stuart, The 'Lansdowne' Washingdon, 1796

Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Capitol Building, 1785-89 (side-wings added in the 20th century)

Greenough, Rescue, 1836-53

Horatio Greenough, George Washington, 1840

Immanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware, 1851

Samuel F. B. Morse, The Old House of Representatives, 1822-23