American Visions by Robert Hughes

I started a class on American History taught by Dr. William Agee at Hunter College.  Although I couldn’t finish the class I did get the reading listing and completed this textbook.

I have many more notes from this book which will be added soon.


Notes from “American Visions; The Epic History of Art in America” by Robert Huges; © 1997 Alfred Knopf, NY

Page one: On being a resident alien the author missed out on: “one of the core American experiences, that of officially becoming someone else: becoming American, starting over, leaving behind what you once were.”

Page 21:  “There are several ways in which the Puritan legacy has formed all modern Americans, no matter what the color of their skin or their ancestors’ place of origin.  They implanted the American work ethic, and the tenacious primacy of religion in American life.  They also invented American newness – the idea of newness as the prime creator of culture.”

Page 75-76: Benjamin West, “The Death of General Wolfe” 1770 – wore clothes of their day, rather than ‘classical’ Roman/Greek clothing.  A break from classicism.  He was, “seeking” truth in his historical paintings.

Top line Historic Notes – Chronology:
–       The Spanish ere in North America long before the English.  America was multiethnic society right from the start.
–       The earliest surviving painting done by a European artist in North America is the watercolor by Jacques Le Moyne, a cartographer … shows his Huguenot leader, Rene de Laudonniere being welcomed by the Indians.  June 27, 1564
–       John White, did more accurate water colors of Indians (c. 1587-88) which became the basis for Theodore de Bry’s numerous engravings in his ten-part “America” (1591-95)
–       The Spanish expanded into Arizona and New Mexico from Mexico using the Franciscan Friars, instead of secular or via the military, Spaniards did a kind of “conquistadores of the spirit” – conquered without bloodshed, but it didn’t always work out so well – see page 10 – the Pueblo Revolt – 1680.  None of the Spanish churches survived and it would be 40+ years before they came back.
–       Discussion of Adobe style architecture, with pictures by O’Keeffe and Paul Strand.
–       “Hardly less important than the churches, to Franciscan evangelism, was the art they contained:  the bultos (devotional paintings), the santos (effigies of saints carved in the round), the crucifixes, and, in some churches, the painted and elaborately framed altarpieces.
–       Completed around 1816 – the alter at the Santuario de Chimayo was the most ornate, with gold leaf +++
–       Puritan Furniture, then the Shakers.  Not a lot of painting.  Only portraiture of generally poor quality.
–       Gemran émigré, Justus Engelhardt Kuhn, painted one of the sons of Henry Darnall III.  First image of African-American with polish silver collar.
–       English ‘knock-off’ architecture, utilizing the style books published and available from Wren and James Gibbs – many built in Williamsburg setting the standard for domestic architecture. … or, replicated the Palladian architecture of France, as in the Robert “King” Carter house called “Shirley” (c. 1720-40) in Virginia.
–       Then Chippendale styled furniture.  High quality American crafts.
–       Early 18-century America could not support a full time portrait artist.  People of wealth would get their portraits done while traveling in England.
–       John Smibert (1688-1751) – arrived in Boston 1729 from Edinburgh.  First academically trained artist to come to the American colonies.  “Dean Berkeley and His Entourage (The Bermuda Group)” … it would have a profound influence, since the commission to paint it didn’t’ come through and it remained in Boston. It impacted John Singleton Copley & Charles Willson Peale.
–       Benjamin West – uneducated, self-taught – was taken under the wing Dr. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia – taught some of the classics, saw the work of John Wollaston a portraitist who emigrated to NY in 1749, traveled to Europe, starting with Rome in 1760.  Studied the classical works of art … and painted “Agrippina Landing at Brundisium with the Ashes of Germanicus”, 1768 – a allegorical/historic painting, which was considered a higher form of art than portraiture.  He moved to London, became a friend and received patronage from King George III and became the second president of the Royal Academy.  Also painted, “The Death of General Wolfe” 1770 … “The Artist’s Family”, 1772 … “Penn’s Treaty with the Indians, 1771 … “Death on the Pale Horse”, 1796
–       West became an inspiration and a supporter of many other American painters who came to his studio in London …. And created a kind of “AmericanSchool” .. ??
Skip to Page 271 …
–       Mathew Brady – paucity of painting of the war due to photography.
–       Development of iron and steel building materials – James Bogardus, Harper & BrothersBuilding; 1854
–       Architectural iron works, from catalogues.
–       Invention of the elevator made tall buildings possible, “the most crucial business invention until the computer” …
–       Construction of the BrooklynBridge, designed by John Roebling and his son Washington. Completed 1883.
–       Louis Sullivan and the evolution of the skyscraper.  The GuarantyBuilding in Buffalo and the Carson-Pirie-Scott Store in Chicago.
–       Page 286: “The art of paitning does not go in tandem with that of engineering or architecture: “structure” in a painting is real enough, but it does not have to bear actual loads; its metaphors work differently.”
–       Page 287:  Thomas Eakins (1844-1916) – “not interested in allegory, poetry or moral exhortation … nor the presence of Gord or an oth the other things that permeated the landscapes of the HudsonSchool. … sought ‘truth’ … Gustave Courbet: “Painting is an essentially concrete art and can only consist of the presentation of real and existing things.  It is completely physical language, the words of which consist of all visible objects; an object which is abstract, no visible, nonexistent, is not within the realm of painting.”  But Eakin’s was a peculiarly American painter.  He was an academic artist, unaffected by Impressionism.  “Eakins rejects the illusion of Impressionist instantaneity.  He is for memory and combination.”  … Sculls on the Schuylkill, à “The Champion Sibgle Sculls (Max Schmitt in a Single Scull); 1871 … “Sailboats Racing on the Delaware”, 1874 …”The Gross Clinic”, 1875 ++ the nudes at the river – USED photography as a ‘sketch book’ …
–       Thomas Anshutz (1851-1912); a student of Eakins.  Most important painting: “The Ironworkers Noontime”, 1880. … Page 303: “emphasis on the masculine reated to what many Americans from the 1880s on saw as a gap, even a crisis, in their culture … its art and literature looked sissified, pious, neurasthenic, and feminized.”
–       Winslow Homer (1836-1910) … raised quickly to the status of an icon.
from page 303
–       William Michael Harnett, “The Artist’s Letter Rack”; 1879
–       John Fredrick Peto, “Reminiscences of 1865”, 1897
–       Jacob Riis (1874-1914);   Worked in the 1890s.
–       Robert Henri (1865-1929); “Salome (No. 2)”, 1909
–       John Sloan, “The Wake of the Ferry II”, 1907
–       Geore Luks, “The Wrestlers”, 1905
–       George Bellows, “Pennsylvania Station Excavation”, 1909 & boxing pictures – “Stag at Sharkey’s” (1909)

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