Editor's note: The following 1995 article [1] was published on September 15, 2004 in Resource Library with permission of the author. It was written concerning an exhibit held at the Hudson River Museum at Yonkers, NY during August-September, 1995. If you have questions or comments regarding the text please contact the author by writing to: Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042-1747 or by calling 973-746-5555. We wish to extend our appreciation to Ms. Toni Liquori of the Montclair Art Museum for help in making contact with the author.


The Spirit of Inness: Creating an "American School" at the Paris Exposition of 1900

by Diane Pietrucha Fischer


At the Paris Exposition of 1900, the United States Department of Fine Arts created a national school of art in the image of George Inness. As stated in their official catalogue, the Department's intention was to counter the criticism, cast by French commissioner Alfred Picard after the previous Parisian exposition of 1889, that American art was "but a brilliant annex to the French section." [1] Declaring cultural independence from France was a daring ambition because the 1889 exposition, held only eleven years earlier, marked the apogee of French influence on American art. [2] Nevertheless, the federally funded Department's administrators accomplished their goals, claiming that "the three powerful paintings by this [Inness's] master hand were most potent factors in creating that real appreciation of our art which is now entertained by critics of other nations." [3]

During the final quarter of the nineteenth century, over three thousand American artists migrated to the Parisian art capital for their education and professional careers, precisely to gain international reputations which would have been impossible to obtain at home. [4] In paintings such as Edwin Lord Weeks's Last Voyage: Souvenir of the Ganges, the expatriates, who had dominated the 1889 exposition, emulated the photographic exactitude and exotic subjects of their French academic masters (in this case, Jean-Léon Gérôme), which displaced native tendencies. In 1889, American art had come of age. [5] Nonetheless, although the Americans were rewarded for their studiousness, being surpassed only by their French hosts in terms of medals, some French reviewers criticized their work as "flagrant imitations" lacking in "national character." [6]

Prompted in part by these French critics, Americans returning home after the 1889 exposition deliberately sought to restore a national identity to their art. With its majestic decorative scheme planned and executed by Americans, Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 further stimulated Americans to seek inspiration at home. [7]

Awakened to the political potential of art, the government highlighted American art for the first time at a foreign exposition in 1900. [8] The McKinley administration understood that, even though the United States had already achieved international prominence economically, technologically, and militarily (in the wake of the 1898 Spanish-American War), it would not be regarded as a genuine world power until it attained cultural independence from Europe.

The campaign to construct an American School was entrusted to John Britton Cauldwell, an independently wealthy New York art enthusiast with ties to the Republican administration. Cauldwell's strategy for the 1900 exposition was to quell the expatriates, whose influence was still substantial, in favor of painters "who live and toil at home." [9] In order to "emancipate" American art from "foreign trammels," Cauldwell stipulated that art produced in the United States comprise seventy percent of the exhibit and packed the selection jury with stateside artists. [10]

The installation itself was also calculated to convey a national character. Cauldwell decorated the galleries in a "quiet gray-green, between sage and olive," to contrast with the otherwise predominantly red interior of the Grand Palais, where all foreign art produced since 1889 and all nineteenth-century French art were displayed. [11] This aesthetic approach to gallery design had originated with the expatriate James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room of 1877; by 1900, such harmonious installations were popular in New York. With its silvery green tonality, Inness's The Clouded Sun, in particular, harmonized with the walls.

Inness's three landscapes at the 1900 exposition were placed strategically in what art expert Charles Kurtz deemed "one of the most attractive rooms in the entire art palace." [12] Because the space allotted by the French government was meager, the selection jury accepted only one or two paintings by most of the 221 artists, for a total of 251 works. Since only living artists were eligible for medals -- the measures of both individual and national success -- exhibiting three works each by deceased artists Inness and his affiliates Homer Dodge Martin and Alexander Wyant (also the only artists named in the catalogue essay) conveyed that medals were not the administration's only goal.

In fact, although the eventual Grand Prize recipients Whistler and John Singer Sargent were international superstars and their participation was cherished, neither was actively championed by Cauldwell due to their expatriate status. And, while some critics considered Winslow Homer to be even more "American" than Inness, [13] Homer's work at the exposition, exemplified by The Lookout: All's Well, suggested that America was too rugged, perhaps too "uncultured" to have its own school. Thus, among the major artists of the 1890s, only Inness possessed the reputation, domestic themes, and cosmopolitan style required to fulfill the administration's goals.

For an artist who had worked chiefly at home, Inness held a notable international standing, which was enhanced by his participation in all four Parisian expositions since 1867. At the 1889 exposition, Inness had won a gold medal for A Short Cut to Watchung Station, N.J., which was exhibited despite his well-publicized protests that this one work did not duly represent him. [14] By 1889, exhibiting an "Inness" for the good of the country already outweighed alienating the artist himself.

At the 1893 Chicago fair, Inness was the best-represented American, with fifteen paintings, including Winter Morning, Montclair and Sundown in the Lane. These two canvases were included in the 1899 Clarke Sale, where Inness's A Gray Lowery Day broke the auction record for an American painting. [15] Inness, whose body was laid in state at the National Academy of Design upon his death in 1894, was even more famous in 1900 and, furthermore, he could no longer challenge the Department as he had done in 1889.

At the 1900 exposition, Inness's spirit permeated the harmonious American galleries. Approximately seventy landscapes by artists such as Robert Minor, Charles Warren Eaton, Henry Ward Ranger, Bruce Crane, and Ralph Blakelock, among others, recalled Inness's mood. Although these paintings did not numerically dominate the exhibition, where all phases of American art from academic portraits by Charles Sprague Pearce to Impressionist figure paintings by Frank Benson were installed side by side, it was evident that Cauldwell arranged the galleries ''with a view to tonality." [16]

As the originator in the 1880s of a style since labeled tonalism, Inness had many followers. [17] Tonalist paintings were muted in color and refined, but not belabored in terms of execution, and furthered the tendencies of Whistler and the French Barbizon School. Inness's French roots may seem contradictory to Cauldwell's main objective. However, although Barbizon painting, which Inness had admired since the early 1850s, originated in France, it was never endorsed by that state, which promoted academic art at its international expositions. [18] With its active surfaces and bucolic subjects, the Barbizon School presented Americans with an alternative to academicism -- the main target of Cauldwell's crusade -- while still providing the American School with a sound French (and therefore arguably legitimate) pedigree.

Tonalism, as exemplified by Inness's Summer, Montclair (New Jersey Landscape), also recalled Whistler's harmonies and abandonment of naturalistic space. In contrast to Whistler's work, tonalism did not sever the emotional bond with the subject. However, it is due to its allusion to Whistler and his American heritage that tonalism provided a patriotic appeal and thus was deemed an American invention. [19]

The tonalists' intimate, poetic canvases, which had never before been exhibited abroad as a group, contradicted the veristic Salon Machines in the conservative French galleries. Because brushwork reveals an artist's personality, critics interpreted it as a democratic, and therefore an American, trait. According to James Carroll Beckwith, who was not a tonalist but who exemplified a host of repatriated artists with analogous aims, "we are no longer groping for bizarre technique," but prefer "a wholesome, natural painter-like method of reproducing in an individual manner what is presented to us at home..." [20]

Just as tonalism -- Inness's invention -- was seen as the most American style in 1900, landscapes -- Inness's specialty -- were seen as the most American subject. According to one reviewer:

The average American landscape astray in a French exhibit could hardly escape detection; the average American portrait, on the other hand, similarly displaced, might readily be mistaken for the product of a Frenchman's brush. [21]

Unlike any other kind of painting, landscapes literally mirrored the United States and functioned as portraits of America. In this way, paintings of unpretentious local scenery, such as Inness's Sunny Autumn Day, instantly conveyed national character.

The preference for landscapes in 1900 also reversed a thirty-year trend favoring French-inspired figure painting, and induced patriotic evocations of the otherwise repudiated Hudson River School when Frederic E. Church's death coincided with the planning of the exposition. [22] However, although Inness had been loosely associated with these artists at mid-century, his evocative "civilized" landscapes countered their meticulous wilderness scenes. [23]

More than anything else, Inness's self-proclaimed "civilized" landscapes, depicting nature shaped by humanity, defined the American School philosophically. When removed from their original context of American living rooms and placed in the imposing Grand Palais as part of a government-run exhibition, the tonalists' civilized landscapes assumed new meaning. The political messages they conveyed about the United States in Paris during 1900 may not have been intended by the artists, but nonetheless drew upon deep-seated, popular ideologies, pervasive on both sides of the Atlantic since the eighteenth century.

Pseudoscientific theories professing the life cycles of nations, initially outlined by the Frenchman Constantin-Francis Volney in 1791, and subsequently visualized in Thomas Cole's series The Course of Empire of 1836, proliferated in the 1890s. Most significant of these was The Law of Civilization and Decay, written in 1896 by American historian Brooks Adams, a confidante of Theodore Roosevelt who would soon become McKinley's Vice President. Adams contended that all empires were destined by natural "law" to complete a cycle beginning with barbarism, advancing toward civilization, and ending in decay. However, Adams proposed a loophole, whereby the United States would postpone its decay and remain youthful as long as it acquired less "advanced" territories to re-invigorate it. (This was to occur during the 1898 Spanish-American War.) [24]

Fortuitously for the Department, Inness's "civilized" landscapes seemed to illustrate Adam's youthful and ideal condition of the United States. For example, even though the scene in The Mill Pond is not site-specific, exhibition-goers would have assumed it portrayed an American locale. In the middle ground, the youth in the boat domesticates an otherwise natural scene. The only suggestion of industry is a barely discernible mill, which, because it is relegated to the shadowy background, does not indicate decay. The picture suggests that the United States is no longer a wilderness frontier, but neither is it over-civilized. Rather, it is now sufficiently cultivated to have its own culture.

American reviewers, who would have either heard Adams's 1899 speech concerning American art's "momentum" as opposed to European art's decline or read it in the International Studio, described their land in Edenic terms of innocence and perfection. [25] Charles Caffin, editor of the periodical's American supplement, found the common elements of American art to be "sincerity, wholesomeness and pursuit of perfection," while a critic for the Nation found "far more freshness of vision...than in any of the foreign sections." [26]

As a measure of the success of Cauldwell's campaign, French critics themselves described American art in similar terms, explaining that "the common character...is energy, sanity, and intensity of impression... The dilettantism of the old world, mythology, religion, and fantasy, do not have a great place in the new world." [27] Although he failed to see "the mark of a special race," a writer for the Revue Encyclopédique likewise perceived "a vitality more young and virile than Europe." [28] Nonetheless, some very influential experts, such as Léonce Bénédite, the curator of the state-run Luxembourg Museum (who had wanted to purchase an Inness for his collection), did see that "no doubt [there is] the beginning of a really national school." [29] Such positive reviews were reinforced when the predominantly French jury awarded sixty-eight percent of American medals to stateside artists.

It is ironic that Inness, who had defied "the spirit of the age" [30] in his youth, would be apotheosized as the progenitor of a national art after his death. However, it is precisely because of his French sources that Inness's work met the administration's paradoxical goals of 1900: to create a school of art, free from academicism, while at the same time catering to the taste of French critics, whose influence was needed to sanction the school.

Cauldwell's mission succeeded in part because most American art was technically impeccable, according to French rules. However, the American School of 1900 was clearly also a political construction manipulated to favor Inness's tonalism over Weeks's academicism, Whistler's aestheticism, and even Homer's realism, in order to advance the ambitions of the elitist McKinley administration.

Although Inness's civilized landscapes remained popular for the next decade, they were soon supplanted as the embodiment of nationalism during "Rough Rider" Theodore Roosevelt's administration, by the hearty realism of Homer, the newly revered Thomas Eakins, and the younger realists of the so-called Ash Can School. With the rise of realism and modernism, the contributions made by Inness's school of 1900 ---which gave the next generation of Americans the confidence to challenge French art even further -- were neglected in the annals of American art almost as soon as they were included.


1. Alfred Picard, Rapport géneral administratif et technique, vol. 4, (Paris: Imprimerie nationale, 1891-2), p. 111, as quoted in Official Illustrated Catalogue. Fine Arts Exhibit. United States of America) Paris Exposition of 1900 (Boston: Noyes, Platt & Co., 1900), p. xv. The Department used the expression ''National Art," but critics generally used the phrase "American School." For a more thorough analysis of this topic, see Diane Pietrucha Fischer, "The 'American School' in Paris: The Repatriation of American Art at the Universal Exposition of 1900," Ph. D. dissertation, The City University of New York, 1993.

2. For a superb examination of this exposition, see Annette Blaugrund, et al., Paris 1889: American Artists at the Universal Exposition (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989).

3. John B. Cauldwell, "Report of the Department of Fine Arts," in Report of the Commissioner-General for the International Universal Exposition, Paris, 1900, vol. 2, (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1901), p. 553. The three paintings were The Clouded Sun, The Mill Pond, and Sunny Autumn Day. A fourth painting by Inness, Valley on a Gloomy Day (1892; IBM Corporation) was probably accepted by the jury but not installed due to space restrictions.

4. For an in-depth analysis of American artists in Paris, see H. Barbara Weinberg, The Lure of Paris: Nineteenth-Century American Painters and their French Teachers (New York: Abbeville Press, 1991).

5. H. Barbara Weinberg, "Cosmopolitan Attitudes: The Coming of Age of American Art," in Blaugrund, et al., pp. 33-51.

6. Maurice Hamel, "Les écoles étrangères," Gazette des Beaux-Arts, 2, (1889): p. 382 and Henry Havard, "L'Exposition des Beaux-Arts. Les Ecoles Etrangères II," Revue de L'Exposition de 1889 I (Paris: n.p., 1889): 292.

7. Robert W. Rydell and Carolyn Kinder Carr, Revisiting the White City: American Art at the 1893 World's Fair (Washington, D.C.: National Museum of American Art and National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1993).

8. Report of the Commissioner-General..., I: p. 69.

9. Cauldwell, op. cit., p. 559.

10. "American Art in Paris," New York Times, 28 February 1900, p. 6.

11. Cauldwell, op. cit., p. 520.

12. Charles M. Kurtz, "The Art Exhibit," New York Times, 17 June 1900, p. 19.

13. See, for example, "Nationality in Art," New York Times, 17 June 1900, p. 20, and F. H. Smith, ''Pictorial Side of the Paris Exposition of 1900," Outlook 67 (5 January 1901): p. 33. Only twenty-two Americans exhibited three paintings, and only Winslow Homer displayed four.

14. "That Picture for Paris Row," New York Herald, 9 March 1889, p. 4. See Blaugrund, op. cit., p. 19.

15. On Clarke, who had lent all but one of Inness's canvases to the 1893 exposition, see H. Barbara Weinberg, "Thomas B. Clarke: Foremost Patron of American Art from 1872 to 1899," The American Art Journal 8 (May 1976): pp. 52-83.

16. Cauldwell, op. cit., p. 521. Approximately forty-three percent of the paintings were landscapes and marines.

17. William H. Gerdts, in Gerdts, et al., Tonalism: An American Experience (New York: Grand Central Art Galleries, 1982): pp. 21-23.

18. Patricia Mainardi, Art and Politics of the Second Empire: The Universal Expositions of 1855 and 1867 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

19. Gerdts, op. cit., pp. 22-23, 25.

20. Carroll Beckwith, "The Outlook for American Art and Artists," Metropolitan Magazine 12 (19 September 1900): p. 372.

21. "Painting in Paris," undated clipping, Boston Evening Transcript, Cecilia Beaux Papers Archives, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

22. "American Studio Talk," The International Studio 9 [supp.] (February 1900): p. xii.

23. George Inness, "A Painter on Painting," Harper;s New Monthly Magazine 56 (February 1878): p. 461. See Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., "The Civilized Landscape," in Cikovsky and Michael Quick, George Inness (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1985).

24. Brooks Adams, The Law of Civilization and Decay (1896; repro New York: MacMillan Co., 1955), p. 7, and Walter La Feber, The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860-1898 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1963), pp. 80-85.

25. See "American Studio Talk," The International Studio 7 (June 1899): supp., pp. xii-xv.

26. C[harles] H. C[affin], "American Art in Paris," Evening Post, 11 August 1900, p. 5; N.N. "The Paris Exposition-V: The American Section," Nation 71 (2 August 1900): p. 89.

27. Georges Lafenestre, "LaPeinture. Les Ecoles Etrangeres," Revue de L'Art ancien et moderne 8 (October 1900): p. 218.

28. August Marguillier, "L'Art étranger," Revue Encyclopédique (22 September 1900): p. 743.

29. As quoted in Cauldwel1, op. cit., p. 513. See also L[ouis] de Fourcaud, "Les Peintres Américains à l'Exposition," Le Gaulois du Dimanche [Sunday supp.], (15-16 September 1900): p. 1.

30. "Development of Nationality in American Art," Bulletin of the American Art-Union, I (December 1851): p. 138.

Major funding for the exhibition, its catalogue, and presentation at The Hudson River Museum has been received from the The Frank and Katherine Martucci Endowment for the Arts. Additional generous support has been provided by The Gehrie Fund of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, The H. E. Thompson Foundation, Hudson United Bank-Essex Division, Penn Federal Savings Bank, The Honorable John C. Whitehead, The Roberts Foundation, and anonymous individual donors. The Hudson River Museum presentation is also sponsored in part by The Newington-Cropsey Foundation.


About the author:

Dr. Fischer was Assistant Professor of Art History at Seton Hall University at the time of writing of the article.


RL editor's note:

1. This article, adapted from the accompanying exhibition catalogue essay, was previously published in American Art Review, Volume VII, Number 3 June-July 1995, with accompanying illustrations.

Visit the Table of Contents for Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art, calendars, and much more.

Copyright 2003, 2004 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.