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 serving 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 (see question #4 below), it seemed a little more relevant. National heroes like Washington were celebrated in painting and sculpture (question #2). In general, history-painting was responsible for contributing to the public's sense of what America was about and what an American was (see questions #1 & 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.  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) (*Kelsey Cronin*) Analyze John Trumbull's paintings of The Battle of Bunker's Hill (The Death of General Warren) (1786) and The Signing of the Declaration of Independence (1786-97) to show how the artist used the genre of history painting to celebrate key events in the founding of the American republic, and to define the ideals and values of the new nation.

2) (*Elisabeth Goemaere*) Briefly compare/contrast John Trumbull's Washington before the Battle of Trenton (1791), Gilbert Stuart's 'Lansdowne' Washington (1796), and Horatio Greenough's sculpture of George Washington seated (1840). What different things are each trying to say about the first President, and by extension the American political system?  

3) (*Ashlyn Curtis*) How do Horatio Greenough's sculpture Rescue (1836-53) and Luigi Persico's Discovery of America (1846) define the characters of European colonists and the Native Americans, respectively? How do the works help to justify contemporary American political policies toward Native Americans?

4)  (*Clare Thomsen*) Craven notes that, in the Federal period, "Architecture was used to express the political, social, and cultural ideals and ambitions of the new nation." How so? What architectural style was used for major civic architecture such as Thomas Jefferson's Virginia State Capitol (1785), James Latrobe's The White House (1792-1800), Charles Bullfinch's Massachusetts State House (1798) and William Thornton's U. S. Capitol Building (1793-1811)? What are the characteristics and identifying elements of that style, and what "political, social, and cultural ideals and ambitions" did this style express?

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' Washington, 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