Art Styles: 19th Century American Art

George Catlin American wild west artist paintingAfter the Declaration of Independence in 1776, which marked the official beginning of the American national identity, the new nation needed a history, and part of that history would be expressed visually. Most of early American art from the late 18th century through the early 19th century consists of history painting and portraits. Painters such as Gilbert Stuart made portraits of the newly elected government officials, while John Singleton Copley was painting emblematic portraits for the increasingly prosperous merchant class, and painters such as John Trumbull were making large battle scenes of the Revolutionary War.

During the years before the Civil War American Landscape painters shifted from the Romantic tradition of Thomas Cole toward a more factual naturalism. America's first well-known school of painting, the Hudson River School, appeared in 1820. The Hudson River painters' directness and simplicity of vision depicted rural America, the sea, the mountains, and the people who lived near them.

Albert Pinkham Ryder "Jonah" 19th Century American PaintingThe tension between an academic tradition imported from western Europe and an unbroken American tradition of realism marked the development of art in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. The advocates of realism had long considered it distinctly American and democratic; others in contrast, saw the academic ideal as a link to a higher western European culture. Artists such as Winslow Homer believed that unadorned realism was an appropriate style of art for democratic values in the post Civil War era. Many other American artists turned their backs on modern reality and, like their European Symbolist counterparts, escaped into the realms of myth, fantasy, and imagination.

Some artist were also attracted to traditional literary, historical and religious subjects, which they treated in unconventional ways to give them new meaning. Albert Pinkham Ryder has a classic example of this highly expressive interpretation in paintings. In "Jonah" (shown here) Ryder depicted the moment when the terrified Old Testament prophet, thrown overboard by his shipmates, was about to be consumed by a great fish. Appearing above in a blaze of holy light is God, shown as a bearded old man who holds the orb of divine power and makes a gesture of blessing. Albert Pinkham Ryder was a self taught American artist. Ryder was best known for his poetic and moody allegorical works and seascapes, as well as his eccentric personality. While his art shared an emphasis on subtle variations of color with tonalist works of the time, it was unique for accentuating form in a way that some art historians regard as modernist.

Paintings of the Great West, particularly the act of conveying the sheer size of the land and the cultures of the native people living on it, were starting to emerge as well. Artists such as George Catlin (shown top of page) broke from traditional styles of showing land, most often done to show how much a subject owned, to show the West and it's people as honestly as possible. George Catlin is best known as a painter of the American Indians. After seeing a delegation of Plains Indians in Philadelphia, he decided to dedicate his life to recording the lives and customs of Native Americans. Soon after completing law school, Catlin became a professional artist. He traveled extensively throughout North America in the 1830s and he visited South America in the 1850s, painting hundreds of Indians and keeping detailed records of his journeys.

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