Coming of Age: American Art, 1850’s to 1950’s – Part II

A new approach to realism

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Photo: MNBAQ

John Singer Sargent - Val d'Aoste, Man fishing - c 1907

Mary Cassatt was also an Impressionist painter but dealt essentially with subjects from her home environment often painting portraits of children.  Like many Impressionist artists, she appreciated the qualities of pastel crayons, their luminosity and modesty.

 She is associated with artists like James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent because they were all expatriates, having chosen to pursue their career in Europe.   In spite of that their affiliation to the developing American art scene remains undisputable.   All three, evolving from the Hudson River School, have turned to Impressionism and to a more personal expression of poetic feeling.   

Whistler’s sense of mood was incompatible with the analytical and brightly colored surfaces of impressionist paintings. In London where he stayed, he painted softened forms, as if seen through a veil.  And if he painted the Bridge of batter sea it’s less for the bridge itself than for its poetic existence rendered through manipulation of colors and shape.  As a mater of fact, when naming the work, he included the color used.  

Because he showed an obvious preference for aesthetic concern over physical reality, he has been seen as an anti-realist.   The painting representing John Singer Sargent is closer to his popular, bright and colorful watercolors than his somber colors.  The big innovation however which surprises me is the way the figures are truncated, giving the painting a strange vision of the common scene of men fishing. (see illustration)  One might wonder what role photography may have played. At the turn of the century, changes brought the common man out of the shadow and artists and writers became interested in the daily life in populated cities like New York. 

By seeking to be more American, art became more democratic, or vice versa.  And so came into being a group called The Eight other wise know as The Ashcan School, a title that was supposed to reflect the humbleness on the subjects painted.  The most influential figure of this movement is undoubtedly Robert Henri and it is interesting to point out his encounter with Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice who made it easier for him to record the spontaneous urban scenes he was interested in through "pochades" done on small supports that could easily be carried anywhere.  These artists immersed themselves in the lower class life in order to represent it as faithfully as possible.  

John French Sloan, a member of the group who had gone through some tough times, got so involved that he joined the socialist party.  He liked depicting life of common people – women particularly - in works rendered like snapshots he had taken without being detected. Edward Hopper, the most modern of Henri’s disciples observed his subjects in much the same way.  His subjects were sky scrapers, gas stations, store fronts, streets, and a multitude of interior scenes at times seen through a window.  To him they were all reflection of his time and his country.  And this was of the upmost importance since he taught that the time had come for "American art to be weaned from its French mother". And so, to the question what is American art, the work of Edward Hopper may surely be an answer.