american art

from the colonial period to world war two

Sargent, Madame X, 1883-84

Sargent, Mrs Fiske Warren (Gretchen Osgood) and her daughter Rachel, 1903

Mary Cassatt, The Letter (drypoint and aquatint), 1890-91

Whistler, Harmony in Black and Gold (Falling Rocket), 1875

McKim, Mead, and White, The Boston Public Library, 1888-95


people, terms, and concepts: Gilded Age, social darwinism, laissez-faire capitalism, cosmopolitanism, historicism, eclecticism, Aestheticism (Art for Art's Sake)

The period of the mid-1870s through the early 1900s is frequently called The Gilded Age, referring to the rise of big business and multimillionaire capitalists like J. P. Morgan, the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, and the Vanderbilts, who made enormous fortunes by creating oil, steel, and railroad monopolies and vigorously exploiting the proletariat (see next page) with their ideas of laissez-faire capitalism (government has no role in regulating the economy, including no minimum wage, no workplace safety rules, and no restrictions on monopolies, price fixing, and other anti-competitive practices) and social darwinism (the concept of “survival of the fittest” used to naturalize the wealth of the rich and blame the poor for their own poverty).  It is also often called the American Renaissance because many of these new tycoons were also patrons of the arts, spending vast amounts of money on portraits, European 'Old Master' paintings, and sumptuous decorative arts to ornament their mansions -- and eventually donating their collections to public museums.  The concept of cosmopolitanism here has to do with the fact that this period began to look once again toward Europe as a model of high culture to emulate (contrast the mid-nineteenth century concentration on distinctly American landscapes and genre scenes).  Indeed, many American artists of this period spent most of their careers abroad as expatriates (Sargent, Cassatt, Whistler).  

We looked at three facets of the cosmopolitan, multimillionaire culture of the period:  the architecture (further explored in question 2 below); the society portraits of Sargent and Beaux (further explored in question 1); and the Aestheticism of Whistler and Cassatt (further explored in question 3).

Readings:  Craven chapters 20, 22 & 23 (pp. 342-48), plus Whistler, “Action for Libel” (PDF)

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)  Briefly define and explain the concepts of 'historicism' and 'eclecticism' in late-nineteenth century American architecture, using the following buildings as examples: Ware and van Brunt's Harvard Memorial Hall, McKim, Mead & White's Boston Public Library, and H. H. Richardson's Trinity Church.

2)  From the extra reading, what did Ruskin, Ruskin's lawyer, and, by extension, the general public object to about Whistler's art?  How did Whistler defend his radical style?  Discuss in relation to selected quotes from the trial and in relation to the Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket and Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge.

Richard Morris Hunt, Marble House (built for the Vanderbilt family) front façade and 'Gothic Room', 1888-92