Published: September 5, 2000
American Art and its Critics at the National Academy of Design
NEW YORK CITY – The first comprehensive historical examination of American art criticism, “: American Art and its Critics” will include some of the most powerful images in the history of American art, along with others that received attention only in their own time. By highlighting both the critical successes and failures of these artistic debuts at the National Academy of Design, the exhibit offers a balanced portrayal of the prevailing attitudes, taste and art market that influenced the visual culture of each period.
Dr David Dearinger, the chief curator at the National Academy of Design, selected some of the country’s most exceptional paintings and sculpture from public and private collections nationwide. Many of the America’s foremost artists including Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Winslow Homer (1836-1910), John Singer Sargent (1856-1926), Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), and John Sloan (1871-1951), among others, will be featured in the groundbreaking exhibition.
Works of art include Thomas Cole’s “Last of the Mohicans” (1827), the first Cole to be shown in the United States, and to establish a new standard and genre for American art. One of the most popular works of its day, Francis Edmonds’ “The City and The Country Beaux” (1840) will demonstrate the fleeting sensibility of taste, while Winslow Homer’s first and second critically acclaimed paintings “Prisoner’s From the Front” (1866) and “The Life Line” (1884), are both on view in order to chart the artist’s progression in relation to his growing reputation.
Reflecting the panoramic tradition popularized during the Civil War period, the pairing of Jasper Cropsey’s “The Spirit of Peace” (1851) and “The Spirit of War” (1851) constitutes the second time in history these works have been shown together. Other notable couplings include the reinstallation of George Bellow’s “The Sawdust Trail” (1912) alongside Horatio Walker’s crucifixion painting “De Profundis” (1916), an ironic juxtaposition determined by the critics to reflect a timely post-World War I modernist view of religion.
Prior to 1826, the demand for art in the emerging nation had focused on portraiture, which almost always required payment in advance of its execution, thereby proving financially feasible for the struggling artist. Once the academy began providing a lucrative venue for the display of art, artists seemed to feel more secure in other subject categories that did not necessarily afford the comfort of commission. Thus rare subject categories in America such as landscape, still life and genre began to flourish.
By the 1840s, the Academy’s Annuals were the most important venues for the exhibition of art in the United States, and by the 1850s, the Academy’s exhibition openings were among the major events of New York’s social season. It is therefore, according to Dr Dearinger, the published critical response to these exhibitions that has served as his organizing principle for “Rare Reviews.”
During the later 1820s and 1830s, newspapers, such as The Evening Post and Morning Courier in New York, The Transcript in Boston, and The Enquirer in Philadelphia, were the most reliable publishers of art reviews. A few weekly or monthly periodicals, such as The New-York Mirror and The U.S. Democratic Review and Literary Gazette, also began to print articles on art. In almost all cases, however, art reviews were little more than exhibition checklists.
By the 1840s, however, the situation changed in part because of the increasing popularity of genre painting and also the emergence of the Hudson River School. As American art evolved in terms of aesthetics and range of subjects, critical response became increasingly discerning, and reviews became more widely read. Beginning with American Art Union’s Transactions in 1839, several new periodicals devoted to art including The Crayon, founded in 1855; the Western Art Journal, published in 1856; and The New Path, which began in 1863, followed. All of these periodicals and many newspapers, especially in New York, increased the detail and length of their reviews; with some installments as lengthy as six issues.
After the Civil War, more and more critics included their bylines in articles; thus further raising their profiles especially among the cognoscenti. Notable among these were Clarence Cook, Mariana Van Rensselaer Griswold and Russell Sturgis. At the same time, art periodicals flourished and included The Art Journal, founded in 1867; The Aldine, in 1868; Art Interchange, in 1878; and Art Amateur, in 1879. Other general publications, such as Harper’s and Scribner’s Monthly, increasingly covered the art scene as well.
During the 1880s and 1890s, more and more writers turned their attention to art, resulting in a whole new group of perceptive and influential critics. Among these were S.G.W. Benjamin, Sadakichi Hartmann, and Charles Caffin.
As the Twentieth Century began, these and other well-known critics such as Mary Fanton Roberts and Royal Cortissoz and the artists/critics Kenyon Cox and Guy Pene du Bois continued regularly review the Academy’s annuals in the press.
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