America’s Spirit: Evolution of a National Style

April 18, 2016 - January 31, 2016

This exhibition, drawn entirely from the FWMoA permanent collection, chronicles the evolution of American art from 1765-1900, showcasing American style in fine and decorative art as a reflection of social and political movements of the time.

The specialized silversmiths and manufacturers easily settled in colonial America, but the painters, sculptors, and other artists were not so eager to move to the colonies because they feared losing the royal patronage they enjoyed in Europe.

Between the arrival of the Pilgrims and the beginning of the Revolutionary War, there was sufficient demand for the arts in the colonies to attract and maintain a large number of artists. Most of the works were ordered from visiting Europeans or traveling limners (common in colonial America) that painted portraits of prosperous settlers who wished to demonstrate their superior social positions.

Given the low demand for painting, formal training was not offered to fine artists. Those who wanted to be artists had to study and learn alone, with nothing more than a few lessons from time to time given by European artists who traveled through the colonies. It was not until 1760 that an American painter, Benjamin West, was considered worthy of being sent to Europe to attend a formal art academy.

His talent was extraordinary, and he was very successful abroad. In 1792, as had happened to his friend and mentor, Sir Joshua Reynolds, he became director of the Royal Academy of Arts in England. West has come to be known as “the father of American art” because he used his prestige and his many contacts to attract and teach dozens of gifted young Americans who helped establish the reputation of the fine arts in the country.

During and shortly after the Revolutionary War, there was almost equal the demand for portraits and genre paintings. This changed when people started to look beyond the war to potential prosperity offered by the new vast land. As explorers drew new territory beyond the borders of the original colonies, there was a growing demand for large paintings to capture this magnificent new environment. Within a short time, the American landscape became the dominant theme of the painting, and remained so until the twentieth century.