Beyond Native Shores: A Widening View of American Art, 1850 to 1975
Essay by Jay E. Cantor
Published: Adelson Galleries, 2003
66 pages
Beyond Native Shores, A Widening View of American Art, 1850 to 1975
This exhibition begins and ends with harbor scenes, Fitz Hugh Lane's Ships in Boston Harbor and Malcolm Morley's Statue of Liberty, which effectively frame many issues that confronted American artists from the mid-nineteenth century until contemporary times. These views document the transformation of America from an ambitious and newly minted democracy, tied by trade and manufactures to Europe but seeking economic as well as artistic independence, to an international economy and an art center that embraced a wide sphere of sources and influences. Lane's magically still painting evokes the dynamic maritime might of New England's halcyon days. In contrast, Morley's breezy recent view of New York Harbor not only reminds one of the decline of maritime commerce as the core of America's economic power but also underscores the magnetic role that New York achieved after World War II as the international artistic center. By including the Statue of Liberty, a gift of friendship from France to America in the mid-nineteenth century, in his image, Morley (an English immigrant to the U.S.) provides an apt leitmotif for this exhibition, for France, above all other foreign artistic centers, became the aesthetic school ground for many of the artists featured here. Paris served as the source of the most important stylistic innovations that define the progress and development of modern art from realism to impressionism, post-impressionism and cubism, providing successive waves of American artists at home and abroad with a stylistic and intellectual agenda that they, in turn, incorporated and adapted, morphing these influences into a distinctly American product.

Commentators on and critics of American art had decried dependence on European tradition from the earliest days of the new American nation and urged the development of a distinctly American school. Following these exhortations, painters and sculptors searched enthusiastically for a subject matter and a style that would be recognizable for their distinct attributes and would appeal to a recalcitrant buying public. The plea for an art that was uniquely American became such an overwhelming mantra that it obscured a fertile interrelationship that often existed between the home product and foreign works, between American values and European influences. While artists in the first half of the nineteenth century succeeded, especially with their landscape painting, in rendering a compelling national view, European sources and training were not far below the nativist surface. This relationship with Europe would develop substantially in the second half of the nineteenth century as prosperity and institutional support made foreign travel and study more accessible and internationalism more desirable. In the end, what emerged as the American character in its art was not a unique style or subject matter, but rather the elevation of the individual vision over the tyranny of academic convention and official patronage.

The artists in this exhibition all had a romance with Europe or more distant and exotic climes, but each drew upon individual experiences as well as their artistic ambition in the pursuit of a personally expressive style. Most preferred to work independently rather than becoming members of the artists' colonies that sprang up in numerous European villages. At times their works are moody and introspective and at other moments they are nearly operatic in the bravura manipulation of paint. The overarching element that ultimately links these works and their creators is the artists' unerring commitment to observation and their modulation of poetry with pragmatism. While they struggled with aesthetic concerns similar to those of their European cousins, they pursued an individuality of expression that makes it hard to place them soundly in any particular camp...

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Jay Cantor
2014 Adelson Galleries
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