Recounting the American Art (of Modern Times till Now)

October 7, 2016

The notion of American art as we think of it today starts with the early Colonial period. Despite an immensely rich diversity of traditions of Native American visual and applied arts that came before, a slightly Euro-centric view still prevails. Throughout the late 16th, 17th and 18th century, portraits and landscapes predominated, mostly influenced by the English school of painting. In the second half of the 1700's, two figures arose that were to make their fame in fortune in London and bring history painting to their native land. Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley masterfully filled the need for powerful patriotic images and portraits of the venerable leaders of the nation right after the American Revolution. With the advent of romanticism, in the 1820's, a group of loosely-connected artists belonging to the Hudson River school were to help define the national style of painting further. Thomas Cole, Frederic Edwin Church, and Albert Bierstadt succeeded in depicting the vastness and glory of the American landscape.[1]

Still, even as far as 1851, when German-born Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze painted the now iconic Washington Crossing the Delaware, the country's art scene was still heavily influenced, or even dominated by that of Europe. As at the time richer Americans became very wealthy, the flow of art from France and England continued. Young artists were educated in Paris and London and would eventually bring with them the seed of rebellion and innovation.

Albert Bierstadt - Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, oil on canvas, 1868

Early American Art History - Independence and Shaping of the National School

About a century after the revolution that brought the independence of the nation, a new revolution was to take place, albeit a far less violent and a more gradual one. For the first time, instead of following trends from Europe, America was to start mirroring them and very soon to make new ones. Much like in Russia, realism was arguably the first movement to give the American artists a full opportunity to shine on their own. The days of massive, all-encompassing styles such as the baroque and neoclassicism were over and fragmentation and individualization began to happen. More and more movements emerged and more artists were able to find their place and their own unique language. Widely acknowledged to be one of the most important artists in American art history, Thomas Eakins, worked exactingly from life and was a master educator. He gave generations of his students a technical foundation that was, before that, only available in Europe.[2] Another realist, Winslow Homer, largely self-taught, explored en-plein-air painting to great effect. The next generation, around the turn of the century, was largely influenced by Impressionism. However, the most prominent practitioners of this style - Mary Cassatt, James McNeill Whistler, and John Singer Sargent - all spent their professional lives in Europe. Of note is also Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first African-American to achieve international acclaim as a painter.[3]

Thomas Eakins - The Agnew Clinic, oil on canvas, 1889

The First Half of the 20th Century

A good deal of American painting and sculpture since 1900 has been a series of revolts against tradition. Masters of commercial illustration - Charles Dana Gibson, J.C. Leyendecker, and Norman Rockwell - were possibly the only ones free from controversy, and thus left to create iconic and timeless images that transcended their initial purpose, becoming a part of a collective idea of American aesthetics. Despite their somewhat conventional visual idioms (compared to their European avant-garde counterparts at least), a new generation of American realists adopted a socially conscious imagery that rubbed the upper classes the wrong way. Same was the case, to a greater extent even, with those that espoused modernist tendencies like John Marin, Marsden Hartley, and Alfred Henry Maurer. After World War I, a notable group of artists, including Grant Wood (the man behind the famous American Gothic) and Guy Pène du Bois made a return to an almost academic style, depicting urban and rural scenes. The Harlem Renaissance on the other hand brought forth an entire generation of politically and socially conscious and immensely creative African American artists. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, president Roosevelt's New Deal created several public arts programs, giving work to artists to decorate public buildings, usually with a national theme.[4] Still, some independent creatives remained loyal to their own (sometimes quite grim) versions of realism, such as the city-dwelling Edward Hopper and the master of rural imagery Andrew Wyeth.

Left: Gilbert Stuart - George Washington, also known as The Athenaeum and The Unfinished Portrait, 1796. Museum of Fine Arts Boston / Right: Mary Cassatt - The Bath 1891–1892. Art Institute of Chicago

Breaking All the Rules - Contemporary Art in the United States

After the shock and turmoil the Second World War produced, American art seems to have broken off into two distinct directions, both of which were to offer the world something brand new - styles and innovations that were genuinely American. It was the first time the US were to take the lead. With the establishment of MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) and The Guggenheim collection, New York took over from Paris at the epicenter of creativity and avant-garde movements started springing up like mushrooms. In the 1940's, Abstract expressionism arose out of what was initially called action painting.[5] Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko all created highly individualistic works that negated everything that was until then considered art. On the other side of the spectrum, in the 50's, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein combined pop culture, mass production, irony and satire in order to create Pop art. Neo-Dada, Post painterly abstraction, Op Art, hard-edge painting, Minimal art, Fluxus, Photorealism, and Conceptual art came afterwards, mixing up the influences from both sides and proving that the US has become a veritable artistic melting pot. The rise of Performance art was the last piece of the puzzle that was to be the the 20th century and helped usher in new tendencies belonging to our millennium.

Inside the Whitney Museum of American Art. Image via Google

The Gems of American Art

As one of the major players on the international arts scene, the United States donned some of the greatest masterpieces in Modern and Contemporary art we know. Spanning a variety of styles and media, some of them tend to reflect on the socio-political situation of the everyday, while others refer to the extensive legacy of the country throughout all fifty states, evoking history and tradition. Sometimes influenced by the European movements, artists and approaches, these artworks have become the icons of the popular culture, entwined in all spheres of life decades after their creation as the proud representations of the American people and spirit.

James McNeill Whistler - Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 (Whistler’s Mother), 1871

Dubbed ”a Victorian Mona Lisa”, the 1871 Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1 is much better known under the colloquial name Whistler’s Mother and it is one of the most famous American artworks outside the United States (it is held by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris). Painted by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, it is a portrait of the artist’s mother, Anna McNeill Whistler, who is said to have posed instead of another model who couldn’t make it to the session in London. Accidental or not, the work now stands as the symbol of motherhood in all its glory, as it is almost life-size. During the Great Depression, it traveled American in a 13-city tour, influencing the recreation of the image on the national post stamp in 1934 and the creation of an 8-foot-tall bronze statue in Ashland, PA.

James Whistler - Portrait of the Painter's Mother, 1871

George Bellows - Dempsey and Firpo, 1923-24

On September 14, 1923, the American heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey and his Argentine rival Luis Angel Firpo were involved in a boxing match. Although it ended with Dempsey taking the victory, painter George Bellows decided to immortalize the moment Firpo knocked his opponent out of the ring with a tremendous blow to the jaw, creating the most famous sports painting to date. We can almost hear the maddening crowd cheering in the gloomy atmosphere of the arena, and if we look to the extreme left of the picture, we can even notice Bellows himself enjoying the match. In the manner of an Old Masters work, the players are oozing in light while the rest of the scenery is soaked in darkness, drawing our attention towards the protagonists. The work is part of the collection of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

George Bellows - Dempsey and Firpo, 1924

Grant Wood - American Gothic, 1930

Among all the parodies and homages dedicated to American Gothic in the US popular culture today, it’s almost hard to recognize the original painting, created by Grant Wood in 1930. It is, to say the least, iconic, be it because of the pitchfork, the gothic-style house in the background (which really exists), the mysterious couple that could either be husband and wife or father and daughter. It was an instant hit of the 1930 annual exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, where it remains to date, and it made Grant Wood famous that same night. The painted also said that the work is inspired by the Northern Renaissance art with the rigid frontal arrangement of the American figures he often portrayed. Today, you can visit the house in Iowa, as it has been turned into a museum dedicated to Wood and the painting.

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Grant Wood - American Gothic, 1930 image via wikimedia

Georgia O’Keeffe - Landscapes of New Mexico, 1930s

After spending years in New York next to her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe moved to New Mexico in 1940, after visiting several times. By that time she was an acclaimed painter, the only woman in the business too, and she was fascinated by nature and the vastness of the desert. The subjects of her paintings from the period were often the rocks and bones from the desert floor or the distinct architectural and landscape structures of the area. O’Keeffe would frequently wander around by foot or in her car, exploring what’s around and painting it with dedication, often combining different elements in a single piece, like in the case of the 1935 Ram’s Head White Hollyhock and Little Hills. She painted in the middle of the desert, at the bottom of the rocky hills or inside her remarkable Abiquiu studio with a great view overlooking the Chama river Valley.

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Georgia O'Keeffe - Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico, Out Back of Marie's II, 1930

Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother, 1936

During the 1930s, Dorothea Lange was working for the US Government’s Farm Security Administration (FSA) program, formed during the Great Depression to raise awareness of and provide aid to impoverished farmers. This photograph was taken in 1936 in Nipomo, California, and became known as Migrant Mother. It portrays Florence Owens Thompson and her children in the middle of the crisis, and out of five exposures Lange made, this one became the best-known picture of the entire program. The mother’s worried look, dirty clothes and the way her children hold on to her while looking away from the camera became the symbol of migrant farmers’ plight after the stock crash in 1929 and was heavily featured on newspapers and magazine covers around the country.

Dorothea Lange - Migrant Mother, 1936

Augusta Savage - The Harp, 1939

In 1939, Augusta Savage was commissioned to create a sculpture for the New York World’s Fair. By that time she was known for her ties with the Harlem Renaissance and her commitment to the fight for equal rights of African Americans in the arts. The Harp depicted a group of twelve stylized black singers in graduated heights that symbolized the strings of the harp. The sounding board was formed by the hand and arm of God, and a kneeling man holding music represented the foot pedal. The 16-foot-tall plaster sculpture was strongly influenced by James Weldon and Rosamond Johnson’s 1900 song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and it was demolished soon after it was exhibited, like all the other works on display, as there were no funds to cast it in bronze or conditions to keep it.

Augusta Savage - The Harp, 1939

Edward Hopper - Nighthawks, 1942

One of the most recognized paintings in the history of American art, Edward Hopper’s 1942 Nighthawks is also his most famous artwork. It portrays four people at a lonely diner during what appears to be late at night. The brilliant execution is what makes this work so memorable, as seen in the brightness of different elements such as the cherry wood counter or the streak of jade green tiles. Edward Hopper said that Nighthawks was inspired by “a restaurant on New York’s Greenwich Avenue where two streets meet,” although it effectively transcends a particular location and inherently becomes the representative of just about any New York City diner. The painting is often referenced in popular culture, movies, television, music, theatre and opera, and it is often parodied through artworks by other artists.

Edward Hopper - Nighthawks, 1942

Norman Rockwell - Rosie the Riveter, Saturday Evening Post 1943

Mary Doyle Keefe was a 19-year-old phone operator in Arlington, Vermont, when famous illustrator Norman Rockwell called and asked if she could pose for him for a painting. The image came to become one of the best examples of Rosie the Riveter, the symbol of the strength and contributions of women in the war effort during World War II. Rockwell's illustration features a brawny woman taking her lunch break with a rivet gun on her lap and beneath her penny loafer a copy of Hitler's manifesto, “Mein Kampf”. The artist based the pose of his Rosie on that of Michelangelo's 1509 Sistine Chapel ceiling image of the prophet Isaiah. In 2002, the original painting sold at Sotheby's for nearly $5 million. In June 2009 the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas acquired Norman Rockwell's iconic Rosie the Riveter painting for its permanent collection from a private collector.

Norman Rockwell - Rosie the Riveter, Saturday Evening Post 1943

Jackson Pollock - Blue Poles (Number 11), 1952

Here, we have the arguably most important American painter, at least in modern times times. Jackson Pollock certainly is beloved among his fellow Americans, as he introduced Abstract Expressionism and especially Action painting to the world as the “made-in-USA” technique. His drip paintings are monumental, large and complex, just like the country itself some would say, and a fine example of that is the 1952 Number 11. The artwork is known for both his titles, as Jackson Pollock preferred not to assign names to his artworks, but rather numbers. Today, the work can be found at the National Gallery of Australia, which purchased the piece in 1973 for a record price of $1.3 million, causing controversy and disapproval. Between then and today, it has been on loan at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

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Jackson Pollock - Blue Poles (Number 11), 1952

Shepard Fairey - Hope, 2008

First, it was on bumper stickers, then on billboard ads and finally on the front page of The New York Times. In 2008, Senator Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States and one of the most notable images from his campaign was Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster. Featuring America’s signature red, white and blue, it is now part of the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution. Along with the word HOPE, there are two other versions of the portrait as well, including PROGRESS and CHANGE. In 2009, it was revealed that Fairey had used a photograph of Obama taken by Associated Press photographer Mannie Garcia as the basis for his work without permission, and was sentenced to two years of probation, 300 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine.

Shepard Fairey - Obama Posters - Progress (Left), Vote (Center), Hope (Right)

Current Trends

Today, the art scene is possibly more varied than ever. Truly pluralist in theory and practice, there seems to be no consensus, nor need there be, as to a representative style of the age. From the important figures in feminism like Judy Chicago and Barbara Kruger to the ever-expanding world of comic book art, to the mixture of kitsch and pop of artist Jeff Koons and the legendary self-portraits of Cindy Sherman, modes of expression are endless.[6] The revival of Classical realism with newly-opened ateliers and schools seeking to reinstate traditional artistic values offer a contrast to confrontational posthumanist installations. Return to detail and technical skill co-exists with the raw, the provocative, and the grotesque. The recent explosion of the new Urban art movement, the fresh focus on Graffiti and Street art and graffiti has brought in a new generation of young artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, who unfortunately did not live long enough to see the success they became. Some new faces on the scene seem to carry with them the aesthetic ideals picked up from video games, sci-fi and epic fantasy films, as well as values, humor and themes derived from internet culture. The United States are home to many important art fairs as well, providing platforms for new talents and fostering the arts of the 21st century which some critics consider to be without a particular artistic direction. Nevertheless, all of this makes the creative whirl that is contemporary American art a vibrant, lively, ever-changing sight, always ready to offer something fresh in every corner between the East and the West Coast.

Written by Frederic Godward and Angie Kordic.

 visit our home page link for more collection and media or contact us for information. follow the link for more media Editors’ Tip: American Art: History and Culture

American Art set the standard for the national art survey courses for the last decade by providing a thorough and engaging chronology of art, including painting, sculpture, architecture, decorative arts, photography, folk art, and graphic arts. Wayne Craven presents art and artists within the context of their times, including insights into the intellectual, spiritual, and political environment. Along the way, Craven charts the growth of a distinctly US art culture. The resulting book is as much a history of American culture as of American art.


  1. Ferber, L. S., The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision, Skira Rizzoli, 2009
  2. Berger, M. A., Man Made: Thomas Eakins and the Construction of Gilded Age Manhood, University of California Press, 2000
  3. Lewis, S., African American Art and Artists, University of California Press, 2003
  4. Kennedy, R. G., When Art Worked: The New Deal, Art, and Democracy, Rizzoli, 2009
  5. Anfam, D., Abstract Expressionism ; Royal Academy Publications, 2016
  6. Rosenthal, N., Jeff Koons: Conversations with Norman Rosenthal, Thames & Hudson, 2014

Featured image: Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze - Washington Crossing the Delaware, oil on canvas, 1851. In slider: Andy Warhol - Campbell's soup cans, 1962; Ed Ruscha - Hollywood, 1968; Jasper Johns - Three Flags; John Singer Sargent - Nonchaloir, 1911; Margaret Bourke-White - World's Highest Standard of Living, 1937; Mark Rothko - Orange and Yellow; Roy Lichtenstein - M-Maybe, c.1965. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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