Art can be the antidote to American isolationism
WITH their tendency to obsess about ‘national schools’, museums and galleries often present a rather parochial view of art in which the Spanish, Italian, Netherlandish, French or sometimes even British school is given a privileged position. Hardly surprising really, when curatorial departments have traditionally been much concerned with classification and when so many museums were created as expressions of national pride, if not superiority. Although Athena believes that anything of any worth, including painting—don’t get me started on the excellence of Apelles—was invented by the Ancient Greeks, she nonetheless takes her universal role as a promoter of culture seriously. She is, therefore, delighted at the positive outburst of interest now taking place in Britain in American art.
This is properly concerned not with the contemporary, but what we might call historic American art: that is, anything before the Abstract Expressionists. Such work has long been seriously undervalued by British and other European audiences, largely because they’ve had so little opportunity to see it. Few of the great names of American art—gilbert Stuart, Winslow Homer, Thomas Cole—are well (if at all) represented in public collections either in the UK or Continental Europe.
Meanwhile, having spent their working lives on this side of the pond, some of the most universally familiar American artists—whistler, Sargent, Cassatt—have stealthily slipped into the European canon. In doing so, they have perhaps reinforced the misapprehension that American artists could only really flourish in the culturally richer soil of the Old World. Many people’s perceptions will change as they visit the Royal Academy’s spring blockbuster ‘America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s’, arriving in London after a hit stint at the Orangerie in Paris. Suddenly, the names of Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton and Charles Sheeler will become familiar.
This recognition has been slowly but surely coming and, in this, the National Gallery deserves much credit. In 2011, it promoted the work of George Bellows and his fellow ‘Ashcan School’ painters. Four years ago, it displayed Frederic Church’s ravishing landscape sketches to appreciative crowds and, in 2014, dug deep and spent $25.5 million (£20.4 million) to buy Bellows’s Men of the Docks, the first time a UK gallery has acquired a work by this great American artist.
There has been a great deal of academic ploughing of the American furrow, too. The Courtauld Institute, for example, recently established the Centre for American Art, with its own professor. Who knows—before too long, the names of George Caleb Bingham and Peter Blume could be as familiar as those of Kneller and Frith. If or when they do, it will all be a pleasant antidote to America’s new isolationism as well as an aesthetic adventure.
‘Such work has long been seriously undervalued by British audiences