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

Childe Hassam, Union Square in Spring, 1896

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


people, terms, and concepts:  Gilded Age, social darwinism, laissez-faire capitalism, cosmopolitanism, historicism, Impressionism, 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 businesses and multimillionaire capitalists such as 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 proletariate (see the next page) with their ideas of laissez-faire capitalism (in which 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 has to do here 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 artists of this period spent most of their careers abroad as expatriates (Sargent, Cassatt, Whistler).  

We looked at four facets of the cosmopolitan, multimillionaire culture of the period:  the architecture, the society portraits of Sargent and Celia Beaux, the American Impressionists, and the Aestheticism of Whistler and Cassatt.

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.  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)  (*Ashlyn Curtis*) Compare and contrast John Singer Sargent's The Wyndham Sisters (1899) to John Singleton Copley's Rebecca Boylston (1767). How are the two artists similar in the way they convey the wealth and social status of their sitters?  How are they different?

2) (*Madeline Herlihy*) Briefly define and explain the concept of 'historicism' in architecture.  How is McKim, Mead & White's Boston Public Library (1895) historicist? What historical style(s) does it use, where do you see that influence, and how are those style(s) relevant to the function of the building?

3) (*Liang-Yi Lee*) Compare/contrast Augustus Saint-Gaudens's Robert Gould Shaw Memorial (1884-96) and General William Tecsumeh Sherman Memorial (1892-1903). Which of the two is more unusual or controversial as a 'military hero' monument, and why? Analyze both works closely in your response.

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?

5) (*Carson Sytner*) 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 Whistler's Nocturne in Black and Gold: Falling Rocket and Nocturne in Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge.

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