Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on July 10, 2009 with permission of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and Joerg-Henner Lotze, Executor of the Donelson Hoopes estate. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalog from which it is excerpted, please contact the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, directly through either this phone number or web address:


Four Centuries of American Masterpieces

by Donelson F. Hoopes


" ... although these lands had been imagined and talked of before they were seen, most men listened incredulously to what was thought to be but an idle tale. But our Redeemer has given victory ... by this glorious event."
Christopher Columbus
February 15, 1493


The spirit of discovery has ever been a part of the American scene. Although the ancient tales gave accounts concerning cities of gold, and the earliest explorer-artists such as Jacques le Moyne depicted the American aborigines as noble savages cast in heroic proportions, the truth about America as seen by its subsequent inhabitants has proved grander by far than mere dreams of the legendary El Dorado. For America offered a unique opportunity as a new land, disassociated with the Old World, and giving its oppressed European settlers the hope of forging "the New Jerusalem" from the wilderness. If many of the first settlements originated as commercial enterprises, there existed also in these scattered outposts of civilization, an atmosphere of high moral purpose. The art of 17th century New Netherlands and New England contained no references to religious subject matter, for these colonies flourished under Protestant governorships. Thus colonial painting in these places concentrated upon portraiture, borrowing for the purpose the manner of established European examples. The earliest colonial painting in New England scarcely can be distinguished from the quasi-medieval prototypes of Old England, and the flat, decorative style suited the self-taught painter, lacking in sophistication. Professional artists, securely established in Europe under distinguished patrons, felt no need to seek elsewhere. However modestly endowed with the available local talent they may have been, the earliest colonists evidenced a desire to have themselves represented in portraits. As the settlements prospered, the quality of portraiture changed, reflecting an increasing worldliness. While the identities of the early portraitists -- or limners, as they were called -- have been lost in the mists of time, their works remain to us in significant numbers, full of the simplicity and charm of the primitive vision.

In the first quarter of the 18th century, a new wave of colonists began to appear on these shores, bringing with them a taste for elegance unknown heretofore. Artists followed in their wake, and the new painting began to reflect the modes and manners of fashionable society in Europe. Thus did John Smibert paint Bishop Berkeley and his party, posing them in the "conversation piece" setting, so popular with the English aristocracy of the time. Another Englishman, Peter Pelham, emigrated to Boston in 1726, bringing with him his collection of mezzotint engravings which would serve a generation of native American painters, providing them with the models of composition and fashion upon which they founded their indigenous art. By mid-century, Pelham's own step-son, John Singleton Copley, had begun a career so illustrious that his painterly magic cast a powerful spell over London itself. Copley's conquest of the field of late colonial portraiture may be accounted to a native genius that knew no parallel. His sturdy New Englanders reveal the artist's penetration of character and mastery over pictorial space in a way that no painter before him achieved. Even the mysterious Robert Feke, who flourished in the northern- and middle-Atlantic colonies and who painted many of their most distinguished citizens, could not raise the portrait to a higher artistic accomplishment than did the illustrious Copley.

The succeeding generation of artists found much inspiration in Copley's American works. Among them, Ralph Earl, a self-taught painter from the Connecticut River valley, thought of himself as a practitioner of the authentic Copley manner. The portraits Earl produced in the period after the American War for Independence inject a new colorism into the art expression of the young nation. Charles Willson Peale, who believed that the artist must know "the original cause of beauty" founded his art in the humble beginnings of a coach-painter in Philadelphia, emerging eventually to a position of preeminence in the new Republic. Learning first from Copley and then from his London-established countryman Benjamin West, Peale surmounted all obstacles to become knowledgeable in the painter's craft; and went on to add other accomplishments as scientist and teacher. Through his many sons, all of whom became painters, Peale established a dynasty of artists whose influence spread into the first half of the 19th century. If Copley and West departed the colonies to perfect their art in permanent exile in London, Gilbert Stuart's absence was but temporary and useful to perfect his considerable gifts. Under the influence of European examples, Stuart injected a painterly colorism into his work which turned professional painting in America away from its traditional dependence on line. As the century came to a close, America could boast of painters equal to the best of Europe. The century of technical subservience was ended: America was now ready to embark upon the great adventure of self-discovery.

With the dawn of the Federal Period, the influence of the historic past was brought to bear upon the attitudes of the new nation. As Jefferson wished to transplant the austerities of Republican Rome in terms of architectural embellishment, so the American artist sought to add the weight of history to his repertoire. In emulation of Stuart, many young painters made their pilgrimages to Europe, returning home not to paint the landscapes of the American wilderness, but, rather, to paint their imaginary worlds. Washington Allston spent almost fifteen years in Europe, absorbing not only the nostalgia of the Roman Campagna, but also the impact of the great historical paintings gathered in Church and private collections since the Renaissance. Thus, Allston was capable of producing his grand historical piece representing a dead man being revived by touching the bones of the prophet Elisha, as well as the lesser dramatic scenes of moonlit landscapes and storm-tossed seas, whose themes are heavily charged with a heady romanticism. Similarly, Thomas Cole, strove in his late pictures for the moral improvement of his fellow men. Born in England, he emigrated with his parents at the age of eighteen, and quickly associated himself with his new country. He returned to Europe, however, and steeped himself in the antique past. The results of his dedication may be seen in the allegory The Course of Empire, in which Cole dwelt upon the rise and fall of great civilizations; and in the more widely popularized Voyage of Life series in which humankind is represented in the form of a child and a man, voyaging life's perils under the protective influence of a guiding angel. The lessons of the past, newly illuminated by America's romantic painters underscored a faith in history, shared by the last of the exponents of the Age of Reason.

In the era that followed, Jacksonian Democracy triumphed over Jefferson's dream of an "aristocracy of talent." The age of the common man was enunciated in pictorial form by a number of American artists whose common denominator was the fact and the event of everyday life. Stripped of all historical allusion, these paintings served as place-markers of meaningful and contemporary historical events; or, as popular scenes of everyday life. Both William S. Mount, working in his native Long Island, and George Caleb Bingham, in the mid-West, sought to depict events of immediate interest. Mount's works, at their best, render a distillation of country life to the essence, embodying a homely simplicity and an innate sense for solid pictorial qualities that raises these scenes of domestic life to the level of lasting art. Bingham, born in Virginia, emigrated to the west much as Cole had left his native England for an adopted country. Like Cole, he ventured to Europe, and spent his brief time there studying at the Dusseldorf Academy. He returned possessing an assurance in drawing that became the vital substance of his scenes of American rural life. Bingham, with his abiding absorption in the political life of his Missouri neighbors, became the champion in paint of the common man. His scenes of country election days are recorded with the monumentality of a Poussin, and his Mississippi River flatboatmen, roistering at cards or proceeding on the great river with mysterious solemnity embody the very spirit of Manifest Destiny. The lure of the Great West exerted a strong pull on the imaginations of the young Republic, still centered along the Eastern seaboard. Such explorers as George Catlin, venturing bravely into Indian encampments, recorded scenes of their activity that captured the popular attention. Catlin, in his many portraits of the warlike Indian, managed to catch something of the notion of the Noble Savage in the same way that le Moyne had thought of him almost three hundred years before. But for the differences in dress, which were observations of visual fact, Catlin's stalwarts might be reincarnations of the heroes of classical antiquity.

But the artist's imagination was not solely enraptured by the spectacle of the expanding Western frontier. There were painters working at midcentury who dwelt among the memories of the past and who rhapsodized eloquently about events of another age. The Quaker, Edward Hicks, working quietly on his farm in the Pennsylvania countryside dreamed the dream of The Peaceable Kingdom, in which the lion would lie down with the lamb, and where the great Proprietor, William Penn himself, forever made peace with his neighbors, the Lenni-Lennape tribe. And that other visionary, John Quidor indulged his art in the depiction of the Washington Irving world of old Nieuwe Amsterdam, its rowdy Patroons and drunken revels. Both Hicks and Quidor loom large as exemplars of a personal and introspective current existing in the larger current of American painting at mid-century.

By this time, also, another school of painting had firmly grasped the popular imagination. Stemming from the ground-work laid by Thomas Cole, and strengthened by talents such as Asher B. Durand and Thomas Doughty, the Hudson River School celebrated the unembellished look of America's grand vistas, where nature reigned supreme, unalloyed by the hand of man. With so much of the life and commerce of the East committed to ocean trade, it was natural that many of our painters would turn their attentions to the equally stern and commanding aspect of the sea. As if to transpose the essentially transcendental theme of the Schoolmen to the treatment of sea and coast, painters such as Fitz Hugh Lane moodily weighed the natural elements in the balance against the puny forces of man, a theme that later was to engage two of the very masters of this subject, Winslow Homer and Marsden Hartley.

In the period following the Civil War, the United States emerged from the chaos as a prodigious giant, clad in the industrial might of the victorious North. More than a few industrialists believed that "the business of the United States is business," as The Brown Decades began to dominate American popular taste. Imported fashions in architecture found their equivalents in tastes for European painting and decorative arts. The very qualities of mind that had made the American artist so popular with his countrymen in the 1850's now seemed to doom him a generation later. The impact of the Barbizon School could be noticed as milder talents turned to limp approximations of Corot or Daubigny. Eastman Johnson, long an engaging recorder of the rustic life and industry of his native Fryeburg, Maine, or the sun-drenched fields of Nantucket, could turn with equal ease to depicting aspects of New York brownstone interiors, refulgent in their Victorian propriety. Late in life he was forced to abandon a lifetime of such intimate and charming genre scenes, as changing tastes made these views decidedly old fashioned. Johnson began to turn out a succession of capable but increasingly stiff portraits, whose dubious merits seem pale reminders of his former eloquence.

If Eastman Johnson represents that class of American genre painter who found his art displaced by the new wave of European fashion, George Inness, exactly his contemporary, rode the crest of this wave to advantage. Although his early landscape subjects are thoroughly suffused in the warm glow of the late Hudson River School manner, subsequent trips to Europe brought him into contact with the school of landscape painting cherished by collectors on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. His natural instincts to treat the landscape with a mysterious poetry can be seen in his greatest works, achieved at the end of a long career, as the rumble of distant storms is suggested in the incipient thunderheads of these works. More than a few Americans sought refuge in what they believed to be the culture and refinement of the Old World, during the second half of the 19th century. John S. Sargent's family, whose origins lay in the earliest history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, joined the growing numbers of expatriates who seemed to be fleeing the crush of America's Industrial Revolution. Reared in a European environment from birth, Sargent came by a view of life that was essentially European. He was trained for a position in life which was one of service to that class of society which paid for pictures of itself. He adopted an elegance of manner peculiar to the official Salons; but something in him rebelled, and time and again he threw off the official yoke to impress upon a particular canvas a part of the immense reservoir of his talented vision. Whistler and Mary Cassatt were among the expatriate intellectuals seeking resolution of their artistic gifts in the more liberal climate of late-century Paris. Both James Whistler, the willful renegade from the complacent life in government service to which he had been directed, and Mary Cassatt, the well-born daughter of a powerful railroad magnate, found room to expand their art, unfettered by the dictates of decorum required by the polite society from which they came.

The greatest heroes of the 19th century are undoubtedly those lonely geniuses who pursued their private visions in the face of abuse and neglect. Thomas C. Eakins was the stoutest practitioner of a thoroughly enlightened academic discipline; yet, paradoxically, he was also publicly censured for his adherence to principles. In an age of scientific discovery, Eakins was dismissed from the art school where he taught, because he saw no wrong in teaching scientific anatomy from living nude models. Eakins shares with Bingham before him a monumentality and a breadth of vision that raises his every subject to a new and vital level of perception. Objects live solidly within Eakins' pictorial space, imparting a kind of solemn and quiet emotion, be it found in the confined space of a medical amphitheatre or on the broad surfaces of a placid river cut by the path of a racing shell. There were other visionaries who fashioned private domains out of the one refuge left to them-the landscape of the imagination. Ralph A. Blakelock, self-taught, and obsessed with his vision of moonlit streams and fields, created strangely joyful poems out of the serenity he found in this inner resource. The world of the mind also possessed Albert P. Ryder, and to a degree that makes him unique in American art. He received early professional training before a handicap of physical weakness rendered him withdrawn and introverted, and his work grew increasingly brooding. His subject matter, taken from the most diverse sources is always charged with an imaginative power akin to actual experience; while the surfaces of his usually small pictures gleam with the inner light of highly-worked enamels.

If Theodore Roosevelt was the popular embodiment of the "strenuous life," as the 19th century came to an end, Winslow Homer practiced that way of life in the pursuit of his art. The hearty out-of-door qualities that mark Homer's late oils and watercolors, and which to a large extent characterize his entire career, are only partly accountable to the subject matter which absorbed his interest. If his steely gaze upon nature's grand drama was often humorless, it comprehended the significance of that drama, neither moralizing upon it nor mitigating the sense of awe in its impersonal sweep. Homer's fame during the final decade of his life was all that other, lesser American artists longed to deserve; yet, tenaciously, he held to a self-imposed isolation, rejecting the adulation of popular acclaim. On his lonely Maine promontory, Homer narrowed his concentration to plumb the infinite mysteries of the eternal struggle of rock and breaking wave.

As the 20th century opened, American artists found themselves at a creative crossroads. The academic position had become ingrown, with the natural tendencies to rebellion stirring among the younger artists. The Impressionism of the previous decades had become thin and anemic in the hands of practitioners of a tired formula. The first blow for freedom was struck in 1908 by a group of young artists who exhibited in New York under the name "Eight American Painters," soon abbreviated to, simply, "The Eight." Although approaching their individual work differently, The Eight shared an abiding faith in the "importance of Life as the primary motive of art," as one of them, John Sloan, recorded. Sloan sought to re-vitalize American genre painting by looking with a clear eye at the scenes of everyday life in America, and found inspiration in the discovery of beauty in everyday subjects. Sloan helped to re-awaken the realist position in American art, giving it validity in the 20th century through the sheer power of his vision. Another member of The Eight, Maurice Prendergast, initiated the tendency in American art to follow a diverging course toward Expressionism. His mosaic-like paintings and watercolors, vibrant in color and flat-patterned, speak of a new approach to pictorial development which would become a dominant force by mid-century. The cause of the modern movement in America was furthered by the event of the International Exhibition of Modern Art of 1913, better known as "The Armory Show." While the exhibition raised the expected storm of controversy, it affirmed that, henceforth, American art would be a part of a large idea: art was international. John Marin, absorbing the influences of European Expressionism returned to enter some of his vibrantly-handled watercolors in the Armory Show. He went on painting for forty years beyond the mark he set there, always finding in man-made cities and in the coasts of his beloved Maine new themes for exposition in his nervous, emotion-charged colorism. His achievements of pictorial invention proclaim John Marin one of the important innovating talents in the development of the modern idiom in American art.

The realist view, restored to a position of integrity by members of The Eight, has found worthy exponents during the ensuing half-century. Edward Hopper's vision of the desperate loneliness of the modern city, presenting as it does the visual equivalent of a stifled cry, also grapples with the purely formal problems of pictorial composition. And when realism and fantasy alternately shift in and out of focus as in the paintings of Edwin Dickinson, the beholder is strangely moved as he apprehends the ambiguous line that may be the only separation between reality and imagination. Recognition of the grotesque and the absurd, usually the field of the writer of satire, can also be the arena of the artist. The often angry rebuke that Ben Shahn may level at man's folly and weakness is couched in the subtle distortions of form with which his people become ominous mutations. And Jack Levine's consortium of depraved humanity acts out its silent ballets as if seen under water, glistening weirdly in pale and ghastly lights. The illusion of reality may be, yet again, perfectly represented. However, in many of the most powerful of Andrew Wyeth's patiently-wrought tempera panels, the artist has essayed the description of qualities not immediately recognized amid the wealth of descriptive detail. Wyeth paints the spirit of his subjects, and often the subjects themselves are absent from his paintings. This achievement is the soul of Wyeth's poetry.

The expressionist colorism which Marin used aimed only obliquely at the dissolution of subject matter, for subjects were, in themselves, very much a part of his pictorial ideas. Other painters, such as Arthur Dove, belonged to an avant garde firmly committed to experimentation. In his paintings, Dove sought to create a pure abstraction based on color and his own simplified geometrical forms. The painted image which he thus created is often hypnotically intense, generating images of expanding galactic worlds. Of a more determinable geometry is the work of Stuart Davis, whose energetic line and bold, bright color are woven into patterns which claim as much association with jazz as with the familiar words and fragmented trade-marks taken from the passing scene. These symbols seem to leap out of his paintings like so many flashing electric signs. The introspective "white writing" of Mark Tobey has its origins in European abstraction and Oriental calligraphy, and the artist concerns himself with the creation of a visual kind of music. The poetic expression takes place within the measured narrowness of range in which Tobey works his web of subjective associations. On a grander scale, and with an opposite aim, Jackson Pollock sought to penetrate the mysterious processes by which an artist creates his personal vision. That vision was turned inward; and Pollock's hands, guiding the flow of paint on canvas, spun out skeins of color in cadence to the rhythms of his own body. The painting and the artist became one. Arshile Gorky has produced a wide range of painted images, embracing a fairly regular representationalism and free-form patterns not unlike those of Miro. The last of his paintings are delicate musings fashioned of a wistful poetry and a fragile color. Willem de Kooning has travelled far in his search for a personal statement, abandoning a tight, cool draughtsmanship in the earlier works in favor of the violent manipulation of heavily-charged brushes loaded with opaque, liquid paint. De Kooning's art is the summation of the abstract expressionist view of art and the world: it is the punishment of polite art manners and the acceptance of violence and ferocity as legitimate expressive means for communicating facts about a violent and ferocious world.

Sculpture in America has a history as old as that of painting, although, until our own century, it has not been nearly so adventurous. Beginning with the rough-hewn gravestones of New England, with their death's-heads and guardian angels drawn from European traditions, sculpture early assumed a utilitarian role in American life. Many of the earliest carvers ornamented houses and articles of furniture; and the wood-carving tradition lasted well into the 19th century in the hands of craftsmen like Bellamy who produced noble figure heads for the great sailing ships. Not until William Rush of Philadelphia began turning his talents toward creating his superb allegories and portraits in the neo-classical manner could America boast a major sculptor. The 19th century was largely dominated by this same neo-classicism, long after sculptors had turned to marble as their medium. Horatio Greenough carved a statue representing George Washington as Zeus; and Hiram Powers, a succession of Greek slave girls directly descended from Aphrodite. While professional sculptors looked steadfastly to Greece and Rome for their inspiration, folk artists continued to fashion objects of simple and useful beauty. The weathervane was, therefore, the focal point of an enormous diversity of invention from simple geometrical shapes to the most elaborate three-dimensional construction -- all designed to function well and to cap a house or barn with a handsome ornament.

At the turn of the century, sculptors as well as painters saw that art had to change in order to remain a living expression. The Armory Show contained some exciting pieces by Archipenko and Brancusi who worked with forms which were clean and bold. Maillol's sculptures revealed, also, that classicism was a matter of inner grace and not surface pattern. As in painting, sculpture in the new century tended toward a revived realism on the one hand, and an expressionism on the other. Both points of view were firmly committed to the modern movement. Gaston Lachaise, who had been a pupil of Paul Manship, retained a certain amount of Manship's way of regarding his subjects as heroic and monumental; and this may be seen most positively stated in Lachaise's women, and other related bronzes. William Zorach, found in Brancusi a motive force which raised pure constructive form to a level which seemed to perfectly mirror the best of the new age. Turning from painting to sculpture in the 1920's, Zorach also sensed that his own need for reference to human values would not find resolution in Brancusi's smooth geometry. He began creating sculptures whose subjects, recognizable and poignant as they are, always first satisfy the needs of the purely formal values of his art. Alexander Calder comes from a family of sculptors. He has departed from a conservative heritage to become America's most important native-born constructivist sculptor. As such, he bridges the distance between the realism of Zorach and the free-form sculpture of David Smith. For Calder's "mobiles," derived from subject matter that is not immediately recognizable, are designed with a graceful symmetry that is formalist. David Smith, in his welded steel shapes, works in an expressionist manner, giving free play to an inventive fantasy that sees and uses the potential of the space around his solid forms. Thus, the notion of sculpture as mass has given way to the concept of "positive and negative" space, with the result that the limits of sculpture have been extended significantly in our own times.

From the primitive colonial portrait to the apparitions of de Kooning's Woman series and Smith's ominous birds, stretches the long record of small and large discoveries. Our artists have recorded the faces of people, the passing scene, landscapes, have told stories, preached moral lessons, have led battles in freeing art from convention, and have looked searchingly within themselves. In comparing the art expressions of these centuries, we see that, as in all art, only differences and similarities exist. The artist faces the problems of his own point in time, and attempts to achieve an adequate response to them. The colonial artist who gave us the image of Henry Gibbs presumably fulfilled that which was asked of him; de Kooning, responding to questions which perplex us today, has rendered his own answer, in his own way. In this exhibition, Four Centuries Of American Art, the aspects of a changing America are recorded by artists whose accents and manners vary, but whose vision of the truth is steady.


Donelson F. Hoopes


The Corcoran Gallery of Art


About the Author

At the time of publication of the catalogue Four Centuries of American Masterpieces, Donelson Hoopes was curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. He later served as director of the Thomas Cole Foundation in Catskill, New York. He wrote books on the watercolors of Homer, Sargent, and Eakins as well as the books The Indigenous Artists in Maine-And Its Role in American Art, Viking Press, New York, 1963; and The Private World of John Singer Sargent, Shorewood Publishers Inc., New York, 1964 and American Watercolor Painting (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1977). Atended The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1950-53; The University of Pennsylvania 1955-58, 1959-60, B. A. in American Civilization Studies; University of Florence, 1958-59; Assistant, Manager of Exhibitions, The University Museum, Philadelphia, 1955-59, 1959-60; Curator, Museum of The First Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry, 1959-60; Director, Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine, 1960-62; Curator of Exhibitions, 1962-63; and Curator, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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Resource Library editor's note:

The above exhibition catalog text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 10, 2009, with permission of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture and Joerg-Henner Lotze, Executor of the Donelson Hoopes estate. The permissions were granted to TFAO on April 3 and May 13, 2009. Mr. Hoopes' essay pertains to Four Centuries of American Masterpieces, a catalog of an exhibition arranged by the school and published in 1964 for the New York's World Fair.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Adrienne Snow of the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Joerg-Henner Lotze, Executor of the Donelson Hoopes estate and Stacey Wittig for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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