While rural Americans aspired to the gentility and refinement of their counterparts in the prosperous East Coast cities, the art they made and acquired tended to be simpler and seemingly less sophisticated. Country gentry generally did not have access to highly trained artists, and instead commissioned itinerant, self-taught painters who made portraits, but also turned their hand to painting furniture, carriages and signs.
This "country art" is often called folk art, and its modern popularity started about 1930 when The Newark Museum mounted the first museum exhibition of this material. Folk art's apparent simplicity - flat forms, strong outline, and bold design - was generally attributed to the artists' lack of formal training.
However, closer study of these works suggests that the plain style was sometimes a conscious decision by artists to satisfy their clients' preference for simple, honest presentation.
Images (top to bottom):
Ammi Phillips (attributed), Colonel and Mrs. Schultz, ca. 1820-1825, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Alvin Purdy, 1984 84.564
Edward Hicks, Grave of William Penn, 1847, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard M. Douglas, 1956 56.62
Artist Unknown, The Three Cummins Children, ca. 1845, Oil on canvas, Purchase 1968 Dr. and Mrs. Earl LeRoy Wood Endowment Fund 68.216
In the second quarter of the 19th century, landscape became a symbol of national identity and the most important form of painting. Landscape painting's popularity began in the Northeast, but as settlers moved west, artists became explorers, too.
Westward movement, which often involved the violent displacement of native peoples, was spurred by the concept of Manifest Destiny, the divine right of European-Americans to occupy the entire North American continent.
Artists, awed by the country's sublime and exotic beauty, bathed their scenes in a radiant light, implying that the land was divinely blessed by God. When references to civilization appear, man and nature are shown in perfect harmony. Native American artists were also inspired by the natural world and integrated it into functional objects of great beauty.
Images (top to bottom):
J. Cropsey, Greenwood Lake, 1862, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Hilda Potter in memory of Eleanor B. Gifford, 1956 56.11
A. Bierstadt, Western Landscape, 1869, Oil on canvas, Purchased 1961 The Members' Fund 61.516
A. B. Durand, Landscape, 1849, Oil on canvas, Purchase 1956 Wallace M. Scudder Bequest Fund 56.181
F. Church, Twilight, "Short Arbiter 'Twixt Day and Night", 1850, Oil on canvas, Purchase 1956 Wallace M. Scudder Bequest Fund 56.43
M. J. Heade, Cattleya with Two Humminbirds, ca. 1880, Oil on canvas, Purchase 1965 The Members' Fund 65.118
The Civil War ended slavery and ushered in a tumultuous era of Reconstruction. Freed African Americans defended their communities as white planters and merchants instituted segregation and the era of Jim Crow. As railroad and real estate speculations triggered an economic boom, Mark Twain satirized the fast and often corrupt dealings of the "Gilded Age" with its new displays of wealth. Expanding industry in the late 19th century drew millions of immigrants to American cities.
The labor movement challenged industrialists' power and allied with Progressive reformers to improve housing, health and civic life. Throughout the period and into the 20th century, women's rights advocates called for universal suffrage.
Photographers helped expose the brutality of war and the wretchedness of slums and factories. Painters, by contrast, invoked an imagined simpler past, with colonial scenes and still-lifes of pre-industrial objects. Some painted poetic and personal landscapes far removed from the conflicts of an industrial society.
Americans traveled abroad for extended periods. Artists were attracted to European art and architecture while their wealthy patrons sought to acquire a veneer of sophistication and art for their large new homes.
Images (top to bottom):
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Abraham Lincoln: The Man, 1884-1887, Cast 1912, Bronze, Gift of Franklin Murphy, Jr. in memory of Franklin Murphy 1920 20.1350
Winslow Homer, Near Andersonville, 1866, Oil on canvas, Gift of Mrs. Hannah Corbin Carter; Horace K. Corbin, Jr.; Robert S. Corbin; William D. Corbin; and Mrs. Clementine Corbin Day in memory of their parents, Hannah Stockton Corbin and Horace Kellogg Corbin 1966 66.354
Lilly Martin Spencer, War Spirit at Home, 1866, Oil on canvas, Purchase 1944 Wallace M. Scudder Bequest Fund 44.177
Banner Image: Albert Bierstadt, Western Landscape, 1869, Oil on canvas, Purchased 1961 The Members' Fund 61.516
All works shown here are from the Collection of The Newark Museum.