American Painting in Our Century

Artist and novelist with three books to his credit and a fourth soon to be published under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint, FREDERICK WIGHT is the Director of Education at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. The Institute is currently presenting an exhibition. American Painting in Our Century, comprising the work of fifty leading artists. Following its Boston presentation,it will be shown in Montreal, Cleveland, Colorado Springs, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In connection with the exhibition. Mr. Wight has written, Milestones in American Painting (Chanticleer Press), from which this article is drawn.


IN nineteenth-century America, the appreciation of art came in through the library door; a hundred years ago the owners of libraries embellished them with copies of European painting and sculpture, undisturbed that these possessions were not originals: a copy of Raphael was as satisfactory as a copy of Shakespeare. Painting was subordinated to literature, and both arts were cast in a romantic mold. The end of the romantic period in Europe was approaching; but in America it was to persist. On the one hand the Americans lived out a social and political legend; on the other they were fascinated by their physical circumstances. These conditions set the pattern of romantic realism in American art, and they are still at work today.

Painting paralleled literary forms. It could be a biography if it were a portrait, or a drama, or a short story. But journalism was the form of writing closest to the scale and pace of America after the Civil War. Journalism expressed the American urge for impact, stridency, and freedom.

During the first, ten years of this century there was a radical change in American painting, but it was primarily in subject-matter, a change not in attitude toward painting but in attitude toward life. It was a journalists’ revolution coming out of Philadelphia. John Sloan, George Luks, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn were young illustrators on the Philadelphia Press, under the direction of the art editor Edward Davis, father of the abstract painter Stuart Davis. This group breathed the atmosphere of the city desk; they were at war with the waning decorum of the last century. On Thursday evenings they met at the studio of Robert Henri, a young teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Henri had studied abroad he had been to Paris. He encouraged the illustrators to become painters, and his energetic influence gave them direction. The group pivoted on Henri’s personality. In the next few years they all drifted over to the larger center of New York. There Henri taught at the Chase School, the others worked on the New York papers and magazines, and their associations still held them together.

These painters looked at the city of New York with a reporter’s eye. Painting the waterfront, the slum, the saloon, the restless life of side street and alley, they found a style to correspond to their interests. It was not a new style, for it had its roots in French Impressionism and in Manet, but it served the purpose admirably. It was incisive, bold, and direct .

These painters made war on the academic and on the evasions of Victorianism, but their art was still related to a literary trend. The novels of Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie had administered a similar shock. Painters and writers alike were moved by a deepening human sympathy, and were becoming socially and politically conscious. Some of Sloan’s best work was done for the old Masses, of which he was art editor. The new painters won a notoriety as radicals from a public apathetic to painting itself.

The group was giving expression to something astir in society as a whole. Nineteenth-century idealism had grown brittle with pretense, and the new century was creating new types, new ideals. It was the day of a self-expressionism such as Ibsen had heralded. There was little evaluation of what was expressed, if only it brought release. The battle with suffocating conventions was there to be waged.

In America this salutary defiance had taken a special turn. Here there was a glorification of burliness, and the frontiersman was made to do double duty as the type of the common man. Theodore Roosevelt set the type and created a national hero in the Rough Rider. Elbert Hubbard wrote A Message to Garcia, which swept the country as the legend of the self-reliant man. In paint, Luks and Bellows put the professional athlete on canvas; the tough guy was here — and here to stay.

Strongholds of convention were on the defensive and the National Academy was keeping its powder as dry as its tradition. It had suffered a revolt in 1877 when the Society of American Artists split away from it. But by 1906 the Society’s blood had cooled, and it came home docilely to live with its parent. The next year, since the radicals had nowhere else to show, there were drastic rejections. Sloan, Luks, and Glackens were victims, and Henri withdraw his own entries from the Academy in protest.

William Macbeth, the art dealer, asked Henri to get together for exhibition the work of a number of painters of his choice. Henri chose the original Philadelphia group, adding the Impressionists Prendergast and Lawson and the Romanticist Arthur B. Davies. Those eight painters, including Henri himself, were shown in 1908 in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago. The Eight had great plans for survival as an organized movement, but they never exhibited together again. They lived in art history as insurgents, dubbed the “Black Gang” and the “Ashcan School.”Sloan and Luks were the most important of the original eight; Henri was more significant as a teacher. George Bellows, pupil of Henri, was slightly younger but his powerful and dramatic art brought him quickly forward among the older men. He was a transitional figure who strove to assimilate the new influences from Europe. Like Bellows, Kenneth Haves Miller also represented an early shift toward Modernism. He combined the subjectinterest of the Eight with the new European conceptions of form. These were the frontiersmen of the new century in American art.

News from abroad

The early American realists and reporters who shocked New York wore contemporary with the Fanves, the “wild beasts" who were shocking Paris. Both groups attacked the academic, outraged the proprieties, brutalized familiar subtleties. There the resemblance ceased. The Eight, except for Prendergast, Davies, and Glackens, were remote from European developments. They had observed with a fresh intensity, but they believed that reality was there before them to be caught on the wing, as though the painter were a good shot.

There is, however, another view of the artist’s function based upon a less innocent philosophy. It is possible to think that we build up our reality through living, that we project concepts into our handiwork, and that this accretion of what was once thought is both the record and the thing recorded. This point of view has the disturbing power to endow material objects with qualit ies of spirit. A work of art then simply displays itself as a description of reality. It offers its color, its pattern, its style, which somehow correspond to the artist’s emotions and to the temper of an epoch. Such a view implies that men are continuously constructing their spiritual house.

Artists who hold this view are dedicated men, of two species or temperaments. Some are excited primarily by the form or structure of a painting; they have a kinship with architects and are moved by mathematics and geometry. Others are primarily concerned with the emotional content. They arc intent on projecting imagery as directly as possible, and the structure seems to them a mere vehicle. Such artists usually distort and exaggerate, using color and form for their psychological impact. And, since they probe their own emotions, they often give us the deeper responses of the subconscious mind — that dark continent which awaited discovery in our time.

The development of form and the projection of deep emotion were to become the two major interests of the first half of our century, and they were already well established in Europe during the first ten years. The Fauves led off, with their venture in heightened emotionalism: Matisse, Derain, Braque, Vaminck, and Rouault had put Impressionism behind them and created an arT out of the free rhyghms and bold expressive color they had learned from Van Gogh and Gauguin.

Cézanne had lived so long in retirement in the south of France that he was scarcely known in Paris, but now his work won converts. His feeling for architecture — for organization in space — appealed to the deepest instincts of French painters. His discipline offered new rewards: little as his audience realized it, he had rediscovered the classic tradition.

Cézanne had generalized forms in terms of geometry, and Picasso took up where Cezanne left off. Between the exploration of space and sheer invention he discovered, or created, Cubism. It was a ten-year quest. Cubism and its abstract ramifications provided the sinews of organization and philosophy for the modern painter, and for the modern architect as well.

All Europe, the German, Italian, and Russian painters — and eventually the whole world of art — responded to these changes. As always, there were Americans in Paris, and by now they were no longer there simply to learn to paint in France. They had come to share, and to add to their share, in an international undertaking. Maurice Prendergast knew Cézanne’s painting as early as 1898, and he was the first to bring news of it to America. Alfred Maurer was in Paris by 1900; he became the first Fauve convert, although he was already an established conservative painter. Bernard Karfiol was in Paris in 1901; Max Weber was there by 1905. Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Charles Sheeler, Thomas Benton, and as many others followed along. Most of them stayed until they felt that they had gained something which they wished to offer America; some lingered indefinitely; others felt themselves overwhelmed and fled. But a change had come over them all. They had acquired a new consciousness of their profession.

The Armory Show

The two streams of American art, the realistic reporters and the painters who had been influenced by Europe, came together in the Armory Show of 1913, where they poured down over the American public in a cataract. There were rapids and shoals ahead, but the Armory Show still marks the headwaters of navigation for modern American painting.

In the New York of 1910, apart from the small Madison Gallery and Alfred Stieglitz, there was hardly an outlet for the young advanced painters, and all about them was that easy collusion between the conservative painter and his subject which seemed as interminable as Nature herself. A group of painters exhibiting at the Madison Gallery became fretful with stagnation and organized in December, 1911, for the purpose of putting on a comprehensive show. Walt Kuhn, the leading spirit, went to see Arthur B. Davies, then one of the most influential figures in New York’s world of art. Davies saw an opportunity to display not merely American painting but all the current achievements of Europe, which had reached the majority of American painters as rumor rather than experience. He stepped into the presidency of the Association of American Painters and Sculptors, changed the intention behind the exhibition, and threw open the door to modern Europe. Kuhn meanwhile, had solved the problem of a place for the show by engaging the 69th Armory on Lexington Avenue. There would be no limitation in scale.

In the summer of 1912 Davies sent Kuhn the catalogue of the Sonderbund Exhibition in Cologne, with the note: “I wish we could have a show like this.” In response, Kuhn caught the next steamer and reached Germany as the exhibition was closing. He selected the works of artists whom he was seeing for the first time: Van Gogh, the Norwegian Munch, and the German sculptor Lehmbruck. He went on to The Hague, where he had his first view of the work of Odilon Redon and arranged to give him a whole gallery in the exhibition. Improvising with assurance, he visited Munich and Berlin. Finally he went to Paris, where Alfred Maurer introduced him to the dealer Vollard, Walter Pach lent his aid, and the sculptor Jo Davidson took a hand. As the plans grew in scope Kuhn cabled for Davies to come over; he did so and the sacking of Paris went on apace. They went to London on the way home to see Roger Fry’s second Grafton Gallery Show. In Paris, Walter Pach was left to bale and ship the European segment of the exhibition.

On the American side, the Association’s members numbered twenty-five, and there were many other American exhihitors.

The Armory Show opened on February 17, 1913. Its preparation had by then become something of a family affair among artists, critics, and collectors, all of whom were drawn together by their enthusiasm for doing something new. Divergencies of style and taste ceased to be barriers; they became no more than the partitions between the galleries.

The Pine Tree flag of the American Revolution was the exhibition’s emblem, and all that was needed after that was the public. President Taft and the Governor and the Mayor of New York were invited to the opening and failed to appear; the public also stayed away for the first two weeks. Then the newspapers stumbled over the show, treating it as news rather than art, and the storm broke. Crowds arrived for their baptism of fire. The foreigners provided the shock: Cézanne and Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat, were as strange as Brancusi and Matisse. Duchamp’s Nude Descending the Staircase stole the show as the climax of the bizarre. Picasso was less to the fore — he is listed as Paul Picasso in the catalogue.

Caruso arrived and made caricatures; Theodore Roosevelt came on March 1, the day that Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated, to see a world turned upside down, and recorded his impressions in the Outlook, providing the phrase “the lunatic fringe.” The critics generally were aghast, with a few praiseworthy exceptions, notably Henry McBride. There were collectors who were wiser. Frank Crowninshield and Miss Lizzie P. Bliss came often and bought. John Quinn’s purchases were I he beginning of his important collection; as a friend of Kuhn s he had agreed to serve as legal adviser to the Association, and he acquirerl a taste for the new. Bryson Burroughs persuaded the Metropolitan Museum to acquire a Cézanne. The show piled notoriety on top of achievement and commanded the presence both of its friends and its enemies. The portrait-painter Chase, who had not been invited to exhibit, walked silk-hatted and solitary through the galleries. The dignity of the Academy was at a discount. At the close of the show the jubilant painters paraded, led by the Armory’s fife and drum.

The exhibition moved on to Chicago, where it was housed by the Art Institute. There the attendance was greater than it had been in New York. The Art Institute—today ablaze with a great collection of modern painting was ill at ease, and the faculty of the Institute’s school shepherded the pupils through, with explanations that were warnings much in the spirit of “crime does not pay.”

Finally the show came to Boston, where it was presented by the Copley Society. The response there was more subdued, although Walt Kuhn remembered that “local psychoanalysts were especiall vehement in their disapproval.”And with that the Armory Show was over. The public had been amazed and shocked, but only the American painters themselves and a few farsighted individuals were prepared to profit from their experience. American painters now lived in a larger world, and a difficult task of synthesis lay ahead.

Abstraction comes carlif

The older liberals of the Ash-can School, and the new painters who had responded to the European venture, had joined forces in the Armory Show to the discomfiture of academic art. But if these forces were joined they were not fused. The two trends remained distinct. They continued to represent two attitudes toward art: a literal over against a philosophic attitude; a native versus an international one. Something like a two-party system was established in American art, which, like American political parties, was based on geographical loyalties as well as an allegiance to ideas.

As with political parties, the two trends thereafter took turns in dominating art. The Armory Show was a revolutionary event; from that day on, the realists were no longer the vanguard, in spite of the fact that they still included such spectacular temperaments as Henri, Bellows, Luks, and Sloan.

The change was not at once apparent. The First World War broke out in the year after the Armory Show; civilized contact with the rest of the world was blocked, and the new artist lost what small share of public attention he had acquired. The academician might have thought that the danger was past. But the artist has a sensibility and an instinct for the special quality of his epoch — it is his business to bring it to light. From 19113 to the middle of the next decade a large number of America’s best painters were working in an abstract manner. It was the first period of American abstract arl. Max Weber, Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, Andrew Dasburg, Stuart Davis, Karl Knalhs, Preston Dickenson, and Niles Spencer, to mention only outstanding names, were willing to learn from Cézanne and from Picasso, and they adapted Cubism to their requirements. Even the realistic Sheeler underwent the discipline of abstraction; and Georgia O’Keeffe painted a number of abstract canvases before she developed her decorative symbolical style.

But the American abstractionists never went to such logical lengths as the French Cubists; they compared to the Cubists as inventors compare to searchers in pure science. The pattern which they drew out of reality was not always geometric. The influence of Van Gogh and later German art invited a more emotional and personal expression, and a native romanticism never ceased to pulse through American painting.

The first period of American abstraction thus has a blurred pattern. It is a period which is too easily forgotten, now that abstraction has returned as a more popular art. Most of the first generation of abstractionists were still in an early phase of their work, a phase primarily of importance for their future. Abstraction for them was a sort of discipline taken on for a purpose, rather than a way of life.

After a decade of this discipline, the best American painters had already resolved and absorbed their experience. They had matured and become simply individual painters about the time that a taste for the modern painting was becoming more general. The heyday of this interest in modern painting came in the twenties. Americans in mass had had a firsthand experience of Europe and our interest had been projected beyond the frontiers. Americans went abroad in peacetime armies. There was an entire American colony of painters and writers in Paris. European literature was making itself felt, along with European art. Proust and Joyce were the contemporary discoveries; a generation of American writers was impressed with the new depths plumbed in European writing.

Dos Passes and Hemingway, publishing in the twenties, had a new feeling for composing through association. Dos l’assos, with his Camera Eye, was to create a mechanized stream of consciousness out of captions. Hemingway owed a debt to Gertrude Stein; T. S. Eliot, E. E. Cummings, Archibald MacLeish were using language in a new way. The very disillusionment of the period threw the writer back on style as an end in itself. Concentration, form, and subconscious imagery were now the preoccupation of writers as well as of painters. Post-war literature arrived as a powerful reinforcement for the artist.

But the writer had one great advantage over the painter. Since he wrote in English, European literature influenced him without competing for his audience. For the American artist, French painting was not only an influence, it was an active competitive commodity, and it was often pushed with a cool unconcern for real quality. American artists, when they organized the Armory Show and brought European art to America, were like the frogs in the fable. They had repudiated the dead log of the sovereign public, and they had brought in the stork which ate them up.

There was a reaction, and the painter was among the first to respond to a change of atmosphere. Naturalism in art, the regional, the homespun, began to gain allegiance. The grin of local pride supplanted the wrinkles of inquiry. The American painter felt that he had been tutored enough. And the change came quickly, before the businessman had any inkling of the depression ahead, before the politician knew that he was to gamble on isolation.

The American scene

The reporters and realists had not remained idle since the days of the Eight. A new impulse came from Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield, who gave an intense and specific accounting of the world they knew. Hopper described New York and New England; Burchfield reported on Ohio and upper New York; yet both of these painters foreshadowed a change. There was something more reflective, more inward in their vision. Burchfield is a painter of imagination, Hopper of mood. Finally, Marsden Hartley and John Marin, two major painters who loom large among the depicters of the American scene, are set apart from the literal by their early and persistent interest in the abstract.

Charles Sheeler was a reporter who clung to the exact visual world with his camera. He was absorbed in photography: yet what he gave us in his paintings of factories and industrial scenes and of Pennsylvania houses was not so much the object as an optical experience. Sheeler possessed a micronieter vision capable of taking the measure of an industrial age. Reginald Marsh continued the racy account of the life of New York City begun in the work of John Sloan. Marsh studied with Sloan, and he is closest in mood to the early reporters.

Then, in the early thirties, three Midwestern painters impinged on the national consciousness, producing paintings and offering personal histories that perfectly illustrated the republicized American theme. Thomas Benton, John Sleuart Curry, and Grant Wood were dissimilar, but they were properly grouped in the public’s imagination. All three had a feeling for scale, for drama, for working in a major key. All painted a legend and were able to identify themselves with it. It was part of this legend that they were humble men from the country who had gone to Europe to learn to paint and had escaped in time from the engulfing decadence to redeem themselves in the pure air of home. They did not report on the life of the Midwest as Sloan had once reported on the life of New York. They depicted a myth, built out of types or typical scenes which already existed in the popular imagination and merely had to be recognized. Such an art taps immediate sources of power, but it soon becomes sterile. All three painters began with emphatic statements that have an important place in the history of American art. All three sank on occasion to the level of book-jacket makers, while ihere was no lack of historians to write the blurb. All three painters set a style; the arabesques of Benton, ihe archaic precision of Wood, the romantic tableaux of Curry, provided a vocabulary that scores of other painters adopted with more or less success.

Social comment

By the thirties, even the most factual painters had achieved a more personal vision. The journalists of the first decade of the century had been reporters: the journalists of the thirties were editorialists; consciously or not, opinion, judgment, and belief colored their work. Paintings were charged with pity or political faith; the same emotion turned the artist to satire when the subject was unsympathetic. It was a decade of liberal hope.

If there is to be ethical judgment — in other words a message the painter must offer explicit subject-matter. He can hardly be abstract. On the other hand, he can and does force his comment by exaggeration, often falling into the tradition, wittingly or not, of the American political cartoon. But the influence on which the recent painter of propaganda has most frequently drawn is German Expressionism. Modern German arl was steeped in moral indignation —or rather it was steeped in animosities which appeared as moral indignation, for one cannot hate without just ideation. Surrender t the negative motion of hatred is the great liability of propaganda art.

There is a further liability: the propagandist, in our doelrinaire days, tends to deal in principles and generalizations. He is thus led to substitute types for individuals which is one of the weaknesses of our times.

The artists who have escaped thiese hazards have given us some of the best canvases painted in America. They have been able to create a personal language whose meaning is plain. At their best, they have known how to compress general concepts into concrete forms, how to personify passions, how to see all humanity in a single human being. They have used pity not to cloud vision hut to sharpen it; they have refined the sense of tragedy, and made men pause and look where none paused before.

Ben Shahn and Jack Levine are the strongest of these painters. Looking at them, the pre-depression world is quite lost in time past. The symbol is explicit, exaggeration underlines intention, simplification serves the com posit ion as well as the drama, in a different vein, but with the same intent, Peter Blume’s brilliant and complex art combines social comment with the precise vision of a Sheeler. William Gropper, Aaron Bohrod, Raphael Soyer, Joseph Hirseh, George Grosz, Mitchell Siporin, Philip Evergood, and Robert Gwathmey have all added to the dignity and depth of American art. In a time of brutality, there is no need to apologize for compassion. A sense of the tragie, of human fate, does not produce art, but it tests art by its own seriousness.

Later abstractions

Perhaps it was the war which ran representation into the ground. With the coming of peace, the painters once more returned to making paintings which dealt with concepts and with states of mind. Abstraction revived —or more precisely, a second period of abstract painting now set in. Fluid, complex, and eclectic, it often made the earlier abstraction seem preliminary and unwieldy. It offered variety, not only through eclecticism, but because so many painters were taking a hand in it — it was a popular movement. In the first abstract period Cubism was modified by Expressionism; in the second, Expressionism was generally replaced by an admixture of surrealist symbols. Free association took the place of exaggeration as a means of recording emotion.

A few painters, Feininger, Davis, and Knaths, bridge over from the first abstract period to the current one. Among these, Lyonel Feininger is the most imposing, with his atmospheric Cubism created out of controlled light. Stuart Davis paints abstract synopses of experience that are as uncompromising in color as billboards they have a crisp American tang. Milton Avery—to stay with the older, more familiar names is more abstract in his color than in his forms. Tamayo and Rattner are bolder; ihe former is more expressive than abstract, like all Mexicans; the latter has lived long in Paris, and draws on Picasso for his abstract forms, on Rouault for his human or moral interest.

The new abstraction took more from Europe than from the earlier American abstract period. In Europe there had been no major return to realism such as broke the trend in America. Instead, representation had been put at the service of inquiry, or had been used to illustrate subconscious imagery by the Surrealists. At the same time, abstraction had become mechanized in the painting of Ozenfant, Le Corbusier, and Leger, and it had reached its most architectural form in the compositions of the Dutch precisionist, Mondrian. In contrast to Mondrian’s suppressed constructions, the brilliant amorphous designs of the Spanish painter Miro hover between abstraction and Surrealism, and evoke, or mock, organic forms. The range from Mondrian to Miro is very great; both have had enormous influence. Mondrian has probably had more impact on the decorative arts than on painting itself: whereas Miro has excited many younger painters, who skirt the dangers of fluid and facile decoration.

In the new American abstract period Adolph Gottlieb, Baziotes, Stamos, and Byron Browne, to mention a few among many, have a fluid, organic, non-architectural form of abstraction; they conceive a world of cells as seen in the eye of the microscope, of hieroglyphics and symbols. I. Rice Pereira, on the contrary, has a highly geometric and mechanized art. Loren Maclver can turn from one extreme to the other; so can Rico Librun, who moves from Surrealism to geometry, and who occasionally communicates in the clear, in strong realistic terms. Philip Guston has the same pliability. Morris Graves has evolved an Oriental mysticism, narrow in range, which is dependent entirely on symbols.

The interest in Surrealism and abstraction was brought to focus in a major exhibition held in 1947 by the Chicago Art Institute. The vast majority of American painters found themselves close enough to the abstract movement to take part. But that very fact points to a new versatility and the growing individuality of the American artist. He is no longer wedded to a school.

Romanticism and the individual

American painting has always had a substratum of romanticism; it becomes romantic automatically whenever it ceases to be something else. Henry Mattson and Franklin Watkins follow in the natives romantic genealogy; they are related to Ryder. Milton Avery has a romantic mood which abstraction fails to disguise and the same could be said for even more abstract painters, such as Guston or Maclver. Karfiol’s painting, which began with a silvery nostalgia and advanced to a colorful sensuality, is romantic at all times; Maurice Sterne is richly romantic, regardless the style on the surface. Kuniyoshi has an urban sophisticated romanticism. However much they all differ among themselves, they also differ as a group from the Neo-Romantics who came out of France in the late twenties.

Of the Americans influenced by this group, Stuempfig appears to be the most significant for the future; he has been able to lift his moving nostalgia into a major key. The painting of Karl Zerbe is essentially romantic in mood; his skill and sophistication place him close to the Neo-Romantics, in spite of his deeper, more emotional subject-matter.

The painters of the American scene are romantics too; t he “social comment ” painters give us romantic scenes, even if they have a somber meaning, and even the abstract painters have an increasingly emotional bias. The basic romantic character of American painting comes through as the one changeless aspect of American art in the last fifty years.

The Modern movement then, has been an overlying experience, a discipline in structure and in ideas. Discipline is, or should be, a surrender of freedom in order to gain more freedom, an acceptance of classification in order to outgrow it and win through to individuality. Such a process appears to have been gradually taking place. The persistent romantic trend, the diverse eclecticism, suggest that painters are testing out new freedoms and have less allegiance to theory, and that the whole period is taking on historical perspective.

The development of individuality is the most significant factor at the present moment, a sign of maturity, and the best harbinger of the time to come.