“Painting American” by Annie Cohen-Solal

 

File:Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, MMA-NYC, 1851.jpgEmmanuel Leutze, Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), oil on canvas, 149″ x 255″; courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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“Will the United States ever have an art of its own?”  This question, asked by a French critic of the late 19th century, is one that has dogged American artists for the better part of the nation’s history.

Up until “the triumph of the New York School” in the mid-20th century (to borrow art historian Irving Sandler’s phrase), artists working in the U.S. had been acutely aware of their peculiar, one might even say, lonely status.  They found themselves not only outcasts in a country for which art was not of first importance–something noted as early as 1766 by Copley–but self-conscious about their standing internationally.  Looking to Europe for inspiration and example, American artists nonetheless pined for an art that was irrevocably homegrown.

The such yearning involved a considerable amount of paradox is not lost upon Annie Cohen-Solal.  In Painting American, she tracks the cultural interchange–in the years 1867-1948–between artists, dealers and collectors in the U.S. and what was then the capital of world art, Paris.  That Painting American encompasses a remarkable period for French art is obvious.  The flowering of genius and near-genius in 19th- and early 20th-century France constitutes one of the most astonishing epochs in the history of art.  That it was not as remarkable an epoch for American art is implied in the book’s subtitle with its gentle reference to The Rise of American Artists.

Yet Ms. Cohen-Solal is less concerned with the quality of American art than with the quality of the American artists’ response to French culture, and its response to them.  Painting American begins in Paris at the 1867 Exposition Universelle, where the “sons of Washington”–the American contingent to the Exposition, whose members would later be known as the Hudsdon River School–were roundly criticized for their “infantile arrogance” and “mediocrity.”  The book ends with “The Heroic Dance of Jackson Pollock” and the international ascendance of Abstract Expressionism.  These bookends bluntly articulate the two dominant modes of America’s artistic presence:  on the one hand, a sense of inferiority to French art; on the other, a swaggering and triumphalist can-doism.

In the process of recounting this often confused relationship Ms. Cohen-Solal offers a daunting array of detail.  She brings us to venues as diverse as the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, and to the National Academy of Design and the fledgling Museum of Modern Art in New York.  She takes us to locations ranging from Brittany’s seaside painter’s haven of Pont-Aven to Thomas Eakins’s Philadelphia to the artists’ colonies of Taos and Sante Fe, New Mexico.  Parts of the book are devoted to artists such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and the Ashcan School; others to movers-and-shakers like the dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, the sculptor and museum-founder Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, the photographer and champion of modernism Alfred Stieglitz, and Alfred H. Barr Jr., the inimitable founding director of MOMA.

One could keep listing people, places and events covered in Painting American–the Civil War, the rise of the robber barons, the Armory show of 1913, the world wars and, yes, Marcel Duchamp–but even an abbreviated inventory gives an idea of how ambitious the book’s scope is.  Perhaps too ambitious.

Painting American is meticulously researched and clearly a labor of love.  One imagines Ms. Cohen-Solal shuffling through stacks of journals, catalogs and books, rooting around for anecdotes and choice quotations.  Stieglitz’s take on Sargent–that he was “Manet vulgarized”–is as terse (and true) a critical summation as one could hope for.

But the book Painting American depends too much on quotations and too much on lists.  Ms. Cohen-Solal treats the “transatlantic ebb and flow of cultural energies” as if it were a marathon race over hard ground.  She covers every inch of turf.  What she fails to do is illuminate the path she’s taken.

Thus for all the brio of its narrative, Painting American is a frustrating read. Major artistic and social currents zip by, yet their import is stated rather than given force or substance.  Indeed, Ms. Cohen-Solal’s book sometimes reads like an outline waiting to become a Ken Burns documentary.

If that sounds far-fetched, then consider the advance praise that Mr. Burns heaps upon Ms. Cohen-Solal’s book (“destined to remain the seminal work on this subject for a very long time”).  It is in fact too easy to imagine Painting American as a Burnsian parade of sepia photographs, period music, scans of significant paintings and dramatic readings of artists’ letters by Hollywood heavyweights.

Televisions ability to address the particularities of the visual arts is close to nil, but TV just might, in its meretricious way, supply Painting American with what it has too little of:  a reason to stay tuned.

© 2002 Mario Naves

Originally published in the January 3, 2002 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

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