History 426, History of the United States, 1877-1916
An Introduction to American Cultural Expression during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
These pages are intended primarily to provide links to websites that present major patterns in cultural expression during the years from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I. Each category begins with a brief overview of developments, followed by links.
As American literature moved toward realism during these years, most American painting was moving in the opposite direction. One critic, in fact, has argued that "much of the art of the time was a false facade behind which the harsh realities of life were hidden."
An important exception was Thomas Eakins, perhaps, the most impressive painter working in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s, but he received little recognition and earned his living by teaching until he was dismissed from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for presenting a nude male model in a class that included female students. His work, for example, Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (below, 1871, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, scanned by Mark Harden), is considered a major contribution to the development of realism in painting.
Most significant American painters of the era followed European trends, and some lived in Europe for long periods of time. When American painting changed late in the century, it was largely in response to French impressionism, which emphasized less an exact reproduction of the world and more the artists impression of it. James Whistler, for example, studied and worked in France but departed from his realist training in the direction of impressionism..
Mary Cassatt was the only American--and the only woman--to rank among the leaders of impressionism, but she lived and painted mostly in France. The painting on the left is by Cassatt, entitled "La Toilette" (1891, Art Institute of Chicago, scanned by Mark Harden) and provides a good example of her reputation for painting mothers and daughters. Among artists in the United States who adopted an impressionist style, one of the most prominent was Childe Hassam, who often presented urban landscapes.
Attention to the city was also characteristic of work by Robert Henri and his associates, called "the Eight," in the early 1900s. Later labeled the Ash Can School because of their preoccupation with urban life and ordinary people, they produced the artistic counterpart to critical realism in literature. The painting below illustrates several of these characteristics: it is by John Sloan, a member of the Ash Can School, and is entitled "McSorley's Bar" (1912, Detroit Institute of Art, scanned by Mark Harden).
The Ash Can adherents faced a challenge, however, from artists influenced by the abstract approach then becoming prominent in France. In 1913, the most widely publicized art exhibit of the era permitted a half-million Americans in New York, Chicago, and Boston to view examples of this shocking new style. Known as the Armory Show, for its opening in New Yorks National Guard Armory, it presented art from the previous century. The works that drew the most attention, however, were pieces by European innovators: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Wassily Kandinsky, and others. Critics and newspapers alike dismissed these modernists as either insane or anarchists. One reviewer scornfully suggested that Duchamps Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912, right, Philadelphia Museum of Art, scanned by Mark Harden) be retitled "explosion in a shingle factory." The abstract, modernist style, however, soon became firmly established.
(The paintings reproduced above were all scanned by Mark Harden and taken from his on-line "Artchive."):
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[Parts of this text are adapted from Making America: A History of the United States, by Carol Berkin, Christopher L Miller, Robert W. Cherny, and James L. Gormly, © Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995 and 1999. All other parts © Robert W. Cherny. These pages are intended primarily to provide links to websites that present information on major patterns in cultural expression during the years from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of World War I. Each category begins with a brief and selective overview of developments, followed by links.]
Music: Scott Joplin, "The Easy Winners" (1901),Warren Trachtman