« Introducing Eye Level | Eye Level Home | Happy Birthday to Clarice Smith
(the Lecture Series, That Is) »

Art in America
September 30, 2005

Portrait by John Singleton Copley

John Singleton Copley, Mrs. George Watson, 1765, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1991.189

In 1762, American painter John Singleton Copley wrote to Swiss miniaturist Jean-Etienne Liotard about the condition of the arts in the American colonies:

You may perhaps be surprised that so remote a corner of the Globe as New England should have any d[e]mand for the necessary eutensils for practiceing the fine Arts but I assure You Sir however feeble our efforts may be, it is not for want of inclination that they are not better, but the want of opportunity to improve ourselves. [H]owever America which has been the seat of war and desolation, I would fain hope will one Day become the school of fine Arts.

There’s no question that time addressed Copley’s complaints. His work helped to pave the way for an American art distinct from and competitive with that of the old world. In Copley’s Boston, art was indistinguishable from any other craft; only by holding to Europe’s standard was Copley able to paint the portraits that would come to be known as some of the earliest American masterpieces.

Yet in an important sense, Copley never participated in the country to which he contributed so much. A Tory, Copley was driven to London by a financial and political predicament that came to play a seminal role in American history: the Boston Tea Party. The tea, it turns out, was intended for Copley’s father-in-law for consignment. (Hard to imagine anything being less American than siding against the Boston Tea Party.)

Whether a Tory expatriate would consider himself an American artist is perhaps a narrow inquiry, but it leads to broader questions: What makes an artist American? Is it sensible to talk about art this way? Is there an American quality that can be teased out of an artist's work?

The idea of citizenship didn’t exist in Copley’s time, and the concept only loses its relevance as the exchange of information and cultural norms trump borders. Which is fine for these purposes—citizenship has never been terrifically useful for understanding American art. Imagine American art history without the work of Cy Twombly (whose home is in Italy) or the presence of Peggy Guggenheim (who expatriated to Italy) or the contributions of Diego Rivera (who only spent brief periods in the States) and you have something, but not a full understanding of art in America. All the way back to Copley’s day.

Posted by Kriston on September 30, 2005 in American Art Here


I really enjoyed this post! The question of nationality as well as citizenship has played a fascinating roll in film as well, particularly in the 1940s-1950s. For example such iconic American films as, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful life" were directed by Frank Capra, an Italian citizen who came to America to produce propaganda films for the American Government during the Second World War and stayed to become a legendary figure in American Film- no one has ever quite captured the plight of the American “everyman” as Capra did.

Also the quintessential American "Urban" film, the "Film Noir" was a genre created by manly German film makers who fled Germany during the second work war, Fritz Lang being one of the most prominent.

I think that sometimes American Art is produced by those who may not have grown up in American or have been born here, but somehow they have this remarkable gift of revealing our country to us through art.

An interesting sidenote to John Singleton Copley is that he was the first to raise the American flag in England.

In 1782 he was painting a portrait of Elkanah Watson, a 24 year old American businessman. Watson wanted the Stars and Stripes to fly from a ship in the background of his portrait. Copley refused until King George III formally recognized the American victory in the War of Independence in December of that year (Copley feared alienating British nobility who often came to his studio).

The Revolutionary period is a good starting point for considering what defines American art, or even an American for that matter. Even at the start of the American Revolution, colonists viewed themselves as British. That is, those colonists who were not from Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, France, or the African countries from which they were forcibly removed. There was not, even then, an easy way to define national identity.

Copley's work in the colonies demonstrates an attempt by wealthy British families living in the colonies to demonstrate their identity as Britons. Portraits like Copley's hung in homes planned in the same Georgian style as their counterparts in England and decorated with fabrics and furniture from London. As this post implies, the blurring of boundaries of national identity is not something unique to our times.

Perhaps it is the spirit of adventure that defines a true American, whether he or she was born here or not.

Here is an excerpt from an essay I found in the unmicrofilmed papers of Abbott Handerson Thayer:

I Drink American [author unknown]

"I do not like to sit down and drink like a gentleman. Neither do I like to stop drinking because I can feel my liquor as gentlemen do in England, or anyway in English books.

"I am an American and I drink American.

"I do not understand this constant bickering about drinks and gentlemen. A man who drinks like a gentleman is, it is popularly supposed, one who sips his liquor sitting down, looks straight ahead with dignity, drinks with all the gusto of an Indian taking his balsam tea against the evil spirits, and ends by rising slowly to his feet and sayin[g], 'Wel[l] old fellow, I’ll toddle up to bed.' And then he really does toddle up to bed. This is a waste of time, a waste of liquor, and a waste of gentleman.

"It makes it difficult for the layman to discover why Englishmen and others who drink like gentlemen drink at all. Drinking, throughout America excepting the Harvard Club, and among nongentlemen the world over, is an adventure, not a heathen ritual. It springs from an understandable and, so far as I am concerned, a laudable, curiosity as to what will happen if, just about the time the gentlemanly drinker is toddling up to bed, you shake your head vigorously and start walking in a northeasterly direction. It is at this point that the spirit of the pioneers in the American bloodstream comes bounding to the surface, and the American steps forth. He is unafraid.

"The impenetrable night lies just ahead, holding dangers that are exceeded in magnitude only by the rewards that are possible. Where the Englishman knows h[e]’s going to end up in bed, the American likes to think he may end up in Bali. Frequently he ends up in jail, but, incredible as it may seem, he often does get to Bali. It’s worth trying for."

Here's to starting the blog off running with the $64,000 question: what makes American art American? Is it just coincidence that the pictures Copley painted in Europe weren't half as good as those he painted in America? Why is Copley considered "American" in a way that his contemporary Gilbert Stuart is not? What about their compatriot Benjamin Rush, a Yank who went on to head Britain's Royal Academy, but sucked on both sides of the Atlantic?

I'm anxious for further debates on this question. How do you figure in the great American expatriate artists of the 19th century---Sargent, Whistler and Cassatt? Would you trade them for the great immigrant Americans of the 20th century, artists like DeKoonig, Hoffman and Gorky? Has David Hockney lived in California long enough to get his artistic green card? Is Piet Mondrian in any way American because his paintings became "jazzier" after he arrived in Manhattan? And what to make of the fact that the guy who painted the "Washington Crossing the Delaware" was German?

You got my bookmark.

All good points, Utek, especially regarding how the 20th century bloc of immigrant painters mirrors in ways mirrors the 19th expatriate group. I think a lot of these points are going to pop up here over time, so I'm happy that you'll be checking in.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Related Posts with Thumbnails