The Invention of Painting in America by David Rosand

by Stephen May

<i>The Invention of Painting in America</i>, David RosandThe Invention of Painting in America by David Rosand. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004. 210 pages. ISBN: 0231132972

Exactly 150 years ago, Hudson RiverSchoolstalwart Asher B. Durand, writing in his important but short-lived art journal, The Crayon, pondered the dilemma confronting American artists: “[T]he most important thing,” he observed, “is to find what to paint—how to paint it will come in due time.” In this compact, erudite book, David Rosand contends that the issues of when and how to paint remained critical in this country for nearly a century, until Abstract Expressionists realized the two could not be separated and “achieved the ‘triumph’ of American painting.” Their resolution of the dilemma involved nothing less, he writes, than the “radical reinvention of the art of painting.” Rosand, Meyer Schapiro Professor of Art History atColumbiaUniversity, is a Renaissance scholar who became interested in the 1950s success of Abstract Expressionism, which made theUnited States an artistic global powerhouse. This slim volume is an outgrowth of the Leonard Hastings Schoff Memorial Lectures he delivered atColumbia in 2002, which prompted him to seek “some kind of coherent vision of the history of American painting.” The result is an academic treatise that will stimulate artists and fellow scholars, but may prove abstruse to lay readers.

“My thesis,” Rosand declares at the outset, “is that… [the] achievement [of the Abstract Expressionists], the quite varied art of a generation of painters in New York toward 1950, is, in a precise sense, rooted in the historical situation of painting in America, that the conditions that determined the position of the art in this country also provided the crucible for new aesthetic energies.” He goes on to posit: “The very difficulty that painting had in finding full cultural acceptance in America, the suspect status of the artist, the ingenuousness of aesthetic attitudes that could not acknowledge the independent reality of art—these conditions, paradoxically, proved fertile ground for the growth of painting in this land, enabling its eventual triumph.” Rosand describes his approach to critical art history as a studio history, albeit one with due consideration of historical, social, economic and biographical contexts. In his view, a painting must ultimately be judged as an act of creation.

From the beginning, our colonial artists faced daunting obstacles: a lack of places for instruction in making art and little interest in their work among countrymen preoccupied with exploring and taming the wilderness, establishing a new society and launching a new nation. For decades our artists lacked the institutional patronage of court and church enjoyed by their European counterparts, and found that private collectors tended to purchase European art. As sculptor Horatio Greenough observed in 1843, there was little interest in putting “statues or frescoes in our log-cabins.” As a consequence, colonial painters—led by Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley—sought instruction and inspiration in London, where their followers often trained before returning to America. Back home, however, history painters such as John Trumbull and allegorical artists such as Washington Allston and Charles Willson Peale and his sons found limited acceptance in the new republic. Rosand pays tribute to Copley’s ability to overcome obstacles in his homeland to forge “an art of intense and compelling visuality.” Lacking first-hand exposure to actual paintings by the likes of Titian, Rubens and Van Dyck, known only through prints of their work, and lacking training, Copley struggled to re-invent the art of painting. The author cites the generally favorable British response to the artist’s familiar Henry Pelham (Boy with Squirrel) of 1765, painted nearly a decade before he abandonedBoston forLondon, as a reflection of Copley’s dedication and a measure of significant colonial artistic achievement.

WhenHudson RiverSchoolfounder Thomas Cole, recording the vastness and beauty of the American wilderness, declared that “American associations are not so much of the past as of the present and future,” our painters began to establish a uniquely native art. “Rejecting the inherited gods and values of the European pantheon,America’s poets and painters celebrated the deity of their own land,” writes Rosand. Cole was the acolyte of nature.  “[T]he American painter’s pledge of allegiance to Nature, to the reality rendered,” is epitomized by Durand, who sought to convey the veracity of what he observed. As Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed in 1841, “the genius of the artist” must bow before nature. In the first half of the nineteenth century the progress of American art became a central theme of cultural observers. Stress was placed on establishing an American artistic identity, promoting a patriotically influenced national art. At the same time,America’s puritan aesthetic prompted artists and viewers to look at paintings from a moral perspective. Working within and against this cultural context,America’s talented painters—Copley, Eakins, Homer, Inness, among them—created highly personal art.

Many believe that American art came of age and proved it could hold its own with European art with the success of our painters and sculptors at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 inChicago. Rosand contends that this triumph was not achieved for another six decades. Early in the twentieth century, the Armory Show of 1913, which introduced European modernism toAmerica, and activities of avant-garde impresario Alfred Stieglitz further roiled the domestic art scene. Resisting the lure of European-inspired modernism, Thomas Hart Benton and his compatriots depicted the real world around them, the American Scene. New Deal programs not only helped artists survive financially, but gave them public recognition as members of an important profession. Interestingly, the most quoted and cited artist in the book is Stuart Davis, both for his avant-garde paintings and his social-political activism. Artists such asDavis, says Rosand, tried to have it both ways, applying modernist styles to American subjects. In his struggle,Davis“was effectively summing up the particular situation of art in this country over the past two hundred years and giving voice to a challenge that was being met with new imaginative energy by some of his younger contemporaries.”

Developing his theme of American insecurity about painting, the author notes the continuing challenge to our painters to find their own pictorial language and style without fundamental, shared assumptions about the function and role of art in society. Rosand cites Copley and Barnett Newman, two centuries apart, as examples of American painters who “had to start from scratch, to paint as if painting never existed before….And inventing his art meant for the painter inventing himself.” In characteristically brief, scholarly fashion, the author traces the manner in which leading American abstractionists found their subjects and styles after World War II. Willem de Kooning’s de-composed figures, Robert Motherwell’s “Elegies,” Newman’s “zips,” Rothko’s fields of color and Jackson Pollock’s spattered skeins each represented a self-realized breakthrough for the artist, discovering his own iconography. They were painters, Rosand observes, who found themselves in the very act of painting. Creating art for them became “a self-defining decision: to paint is an affirmation of self, of the self as artist.”

“Painting is self-discovery,” Pollock declared. “Every good artist paints what he is.” By finding their voice and aesthetic manner, the Abstract Expressionists achieved independence and overcame the formal obstacles of a puritan aesthetic. Thus, painting finally established its position inAmerica. Rosand clearly views Abstract Expressionism as a crucial event in the history of painting inAmerica. “[T]heir resolution of a fundamental studio tension established an entirely new basis for the making of art inAmerica.” He feels that artists now are freer to play aesthetic games, experiment with varied forms of art, because a basic issue has been resolved. After Abstract Expressionism, the situation of art and the artist was less precarious, and the basic conditions of artistic production no longer thwarted creativity. “In this respect,” Rosand concludes, “Abstract Expressionism represents the culmination of that tradition, a moment of tensions finally resolved and the realization of painting’s promise inAmerica.Americaitself was no longer in the aesthetic shadow ofEurope. Painting had established its place in this country, and art had gained its freedom to be.”

One need not necessarily agree with Rosand’s thesis that the place of art and artists in this country was not resolved until the 1950s to benefit from his analysis of the issue. The Invention of Painting in America adds interesting dimensions to the continuing dialogue about the making and makers of art in the United States. Perhaps inevitably, given the author’s background and the genesis of this book, his prose may prove overly academic for casual readers. Lay readers may have trouble, for example, with this sentence: “The graded continuity of values built upon a tonal ground, implying spatial sequence as well as formal substance, provided the base for a pictorially reconstituted reality.” For a book that focuses so much attention on specific paintings and their brushwork and surfaces, there are far too few color illustrations. There are a mere four full-color reproductions, as compared to 86 black-and-white pictures.   These quibbles aside, Rosand’s treatise offers rewards for serious artists and scholars, and challenges for lay readers. It will be an interesting addition to the bookshelves of lovers of American art. Presumably those shelves will already contain such vital, basic texts as Oliver W. Larkin’s Art and Life in America (1960), Wayne Craven’s American Art: History and Culture (1994) and Robert Hughes’s American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (1997).

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2005, Volume 22, Number 4