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Phases of Art in America

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

Great American Paintings, from Smibert to Bellows, 1729-1924. Selected and edited by John Walker and Macgill James. Oxford University Press, $5.00. Creek Revival Architecture in America. By Talbot Hamlin. Oxford University Press. $7.50. John Steuart Curry’s Pageant of America. By Laurence Schmeckebier. American Artists Group. $5.00.

Wars like seas have a double influence on cultural relationships. They separate as well as combine. Thus one of the evidences of the present world-wide conflict is seen in the way our American scholars are issuing the results of their researches in the fields of distinctively American culture, notably the arts. For the time being, America is an island of culture. From recent or current monographs and folios on American folk arts, on the arts of the Negro and of the Indian, on the art of the untrained and of the foreign-trained American artist to studies of specific periods and specific arts the fascinating panorama of the aesthetic experience of our own people in our own land is being examined. Such a stage connotes not only isolation, but also maturity.

Of the three volumes under consideration, Walker and James’ “Great American Paintings, Smibert to Bellows” conies first by virtue of the scope of its subject matter and the range of its chronology. In a distinguished format, curators of the National Gallery present one hundred and four plates, a number in color, of American masterpieces. To the eye of this spectator a green tinge in the color plates is a disturbing element. He is anxious to check the Whistler, The White Girl, with the original in the National Gallery, and decide if such excellent black and white reproductions as given here are not still the publisher’s best bet. The selection of pictures has been made wisely and with a catholicity of taste which defies criticism. By stopping the tour with Bellows, the waves of controversy are avoided and only the ripples of reminiscence are encountered. But why use one of the limited number of colored plates for Sully’s The Tom Hat? Twenty pages of text present with clarity the accepted views of the evolution of American painting. Perhaps the reader will wonder only at the final paragraph where the realistic and imaginative factors of the American expression are mentioned as having been “relatively unaffected by the revolutionary movements which have caused such vast upheavals in European style”; yet the dust cover carries Gilbert Stuart’s Mrs. Richard Yates in color!

In the announcements this volume is referred to as a companion volume to Jean Lipman’s “American Primitive Painting,” issued last year. If it is meant that the two volumes form a complete survey of American painting, there is reason to demur. We are obviously living in a period in which a “primitive” cult is active. It may be granted that the untrained artist, despairing of painting like the masters, may have consciously turned to abstract pattern in a world where rugs and embroidery and painting are one. But to equate this alluring stream of American painting to the main river is rather academic and sophistic. Let the psychologist do such correlating, not the art critic. Once out of the ivory tower, do not let us seek refuge in a log cabin, even if set up in an American Wing of a museum.

In “Greek Revival Architecture in America” Talbot Hamlin, Librarian of the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University, has produced a richly illustrated volume which continuously strikes the reader as a remarkable combination of research, compilation, and “feel for the significant.” With this volume a whole generation has been added to the acceptable history of American architecture. “Modern” architecture may now start with the post-Civil War period. The thesis is presented and maintained, but not labored, that “Greek Revival” architecture, 1820-1860, grew as much out of American conditions, materials, and ways, as from France and England, Rome and Greece. The architect-engineer is shown as typical of the period in contrast to the designer who divorced form from function in later architecture. With a wealth of material, newly gathered or organized, it is no wonder that architects clear to the Pacific coast grow from shadowy names into personalities, that regions take on individuality as the racial history of the area is integrated with its social and economic and architectural expression, and that America becomes a more easily understood unit of the modern world. The Greek “mania” turns out to have been not a romantic dream, but rather the first phase of the progress from a colonial to a national status. It represents the early phase, still under tutelage perhaps, of the Twentieth Century American expression in architecture.

The tendency of such a volume, so rich in facts, to become a mere catalogue is avoided by the skillful style, which only on occasion grows awkward; the dangers of repetition in a book using a logical framework for the presentation of its material are avoided after the early chapters; and the questions which arise in the reader’s mind at certain omissions are evidence of awakened appetite rather than of neglect on the author’s part. On occasion a novel type of building is identified, as in the “basilica” type of Michigan house. Quotations, not yet trite, by the far-from-naive writers of the day on the prospects and desiderata of American art are ineluded, as well as references to the structural and literary sources of American forms abroad. The reader may regret the absence in the text of plate references, and every one will have a monument or an influence which he would have liked discussed. Mine would be the Dairy in the grounds of the Baltimore Museum of Art, attributed to Latrobe, and the possible appearance of French-Canadian forms in Federal New England. The frontispiece shows a detail of the Marble Hall in the New Orleans Customs House. Have we improved on it in our “Falling Water” and Los Angeles Public Library designs? Mr. Hamlin believes the culture of his period, 1820-1860 was already “radical, libertarian, and experimental.”

Coining down to a living and still developing artist, we turn to Professor Schmeckebier’s entertaining volume on John Steuart Curry, artist-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin. The latest in this highly readable series of biographies and autobiographies of contemporary American artists being issued by the American Artists Group, it traces the growth and achievement of this vital and distinguished artist. After preliminary biographical chapters, the body of the book considers Curry’s work in terms of subject-matter and design rather than chronology—an illuminating procedure. With a surfeit of drawings, water colors, and oils, reproduced both in black and white and in color, the evolution of an impression to an idea to plastic expression is followed time and again. The mature power of the murals for the Kansas State Capitol at Topeka is thus reached and made evident with compelling force. Yet the reader may weary of the methodical use of the procedure over and over again. In fact, the desire for a blue pencil, wielded preferably by the author himself, is at times strong. Awkward sentences, the vocabulary of the art professor occurring at unexpected places, the inability to overlook any notable Storm or Bull in the galleries, whether similar to Curry’s or not, the repetitions, involving on one occasion the reappearance of an entire paragraph, tempt the reader to cry out in distress. By over-enlargement the screen tends to show through. On rarer occasions the contagious enthusiasm for his subject leads the author to attribute pertinacity and consistency hardly human, and to refer to Whistler’s Mother as mediocre, a statement not made evident by Curry’s portraits of his parents. In short, the book is interesting and informative. When judiciously skimmed, and the argument between “modern” and “regionalist,” so frequently alluded to, clarified by a careful reading of Ralph Pearson’s “Experiencing American Pictures,” it should prove a valuable addition to the series.


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