American Art & Artists
By: J. Marlando
When we think of “great art” we typically think of Europeans such as, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Goya, and the old, Italian masters—but we Americans have our own wonderfully talented painters as well. One of America’s early masters, however, is clearly John Singleton Copley.
Copley was born in Boston in 1738 and grew up to be the most admired colonial painters of his day. Mostly known for his superb portrait work—two examples seen here:
He was also a master at human action, something he had a tremendous talent for as seen above and a talent that he would perfect all the more after his move to London two years before the American Revolution.
What most impresses me about his work is the “flow of movement” that he captures. One simply feels the motion and therefore the emotion in his paintings. This is extremely apparent in the 1778 oil with title, Watson and the SharkNote the incredible inertia he captures as the ocean pushes against the boat; an amazing artistic phenomenon.
My personal favorite of the 18th and 19th century American painters, however, is Winslow Homer I never tire of looking at his work and appreciating the incredible journeys he takes us on across the canvasses of our own minds.
Winslow was born in 1836 in Boston, Massachusetts. His mother was a watercolorist and quite gifted but, by and large, Winslow, the second of three sons, was self-taught although he went to Paris in 1966 to study. By the time, however, he had already gained a master’s reputation as an American artist.
What I love most about his work is not only his incredible talent to capture the deeper content of people and places but the very joy in the nostalgia in his story telling. Just look at his painting, “Snap the Whip” and you can almost hear the children’s chattering and laughing there is so much life in the work. Winslow Homer is another early American artist who understands motion—not only physical movement but the invisible emotional flow of his subjects. Just look at these wonderful examples:
George Innessborn in Newburgh, New York in 1825 would grow up to be named America’s “father of American landscape painting.” Here is one of his masterful paintings simply called “The Rainbow.”
Of the artists we’ve talked about so far, George Inness was the best formally educated in art including a trip to France where he became influenced by work of Rousseau. What I most like about the artist’s work is that it has such a transcendental feeling about it—a kind of duel reality belonging to God and manWhat I am attempting to say is that one tends to experience a unique spirituality in the works of George Innes and he was a student of the 18th century medium, Emanuel Swedenborg.
Here is another sampling of his many landscapes—it is difficult to miss the mysticism in them:
Henry Ossawa Tanner, born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1937 became the first African-American painter to gain international fame…and at a time of massive racism. I greatly enjoy and admire his work; he has a way of capturing the soul of his subjects. Just look at this school day painting; the capturing of the spirit of a school girl.
His unique and masterful way of capturing the spirit in his art is absolutely seen and so experienced in this painting, called the “banjo lesson.”
Some critics refer to Henry Tanner’s work as stark realism but this is to miss the religiosity in the work; the subtle connectedness to the unseen.
James Abbott McNeil Whistler is another American Artist well worth including in our gallery of super stars although he moved from his birthplace, Lowell, Massachusetts quite early in his career—first to France and then to London where he stayed until he died in 1903.
My two favorite Whistler painting are the portrait of his mother, called “Arrangement in Black and Grey” which reveals his tremendous talent in the classic sense but also, “Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket” which I so greatly admire.
An interesting quirk about the artist is that he claimed to have been born in St. Petersburg, Russia, saying that, “I shall be born when and where I want, and I do not choose to be born in Lowell. Later, however, he would present himself as an impoverished Southern aristocrat from America. Was he really a southern advocate or simply more of Whistler’s dramatics…we shall never know...Here, however, is another example of his estraordinaty talent:
Without any hesitation at all Edward Hopper is one of my all-time favorite painters.
I love the soft nostalgia of his work mixed with a deep realism that seems to whisper its secrets to us. Certainly, “Early Sunday Morning” seen here accomplished that mystery and magic to us. Indeed, one experiences the empty streets, the early morning silence and cool, brisk air.
We can almost see into the small, pale rooms behind the upstairs curtain with their wooden dressers and brass framed beds; the sleeping faces of despair and hope; the small sink and hot plates for cooking; we can almost smell the sad stench of poverty mixed with the cheap scent of wine.
Here’s another masterpiece, “Gas.” The gas station itself is the focus of the scene; tranquil, unimposing and unimportant in the eyes of most everyone except that of the artist who captures its essence on canvas for the rest of us to enjoy. But this was Hopper’s talent, to see the story behind the façade. Look at the young lady sitting on the edge of her bed. We can sense her insecurity and her hesitance; it is a Hopper moment perhaps of an anima projection?
There is simply something incredibly noble in his work:
It is of course impossible to talk about artistic genius and American painters without turning to Jackson Pollock who was born in Cody, Wyoming in 1912. Jackson had a lonesome and somewhat unhappy childhood with an abusive, alcoholic father who just went away one day and a mother often too busy to give him the attention he needed. (As an aside, I lived in Wyoming during the 1940s and it was by and large, a desolate place. Indeed, here’s a photo that captures the Cody landscape even today. Even though Jackson Pollock was moved around by his family to places like Arizona and California, I believe that once the mixture of “isolation and wilderness” gets into the bloodstream, so to speak, that large cities can become a source for neurosis. Certainly, the artist Pollock reflects this analysis as he endured high anxieties and what most people would deem neurotic behaviors from time to time. This is certainly how Ed Harris, the actor, portrayed Jackson in the motion picture released in 2000. Harris gave an Academy Award performance playing the artist who, incidentally, he actually resembles. See photo—the real Jackson Pollock is to the right).
What is generally overlooked is that Pollock’s wife Lee Krasner who had been born in Brooklyn, New York to Russian Jewish immigrant parents. She had studied art at Cooper Union and the National Academy of design and took private instruction from Hans Hofmann in the principles of cubism. Here’s a sample of her work:
And we note that her work resembles that of Jackson Pollock’s—however, she mastered her craft with the brush as opposed to Jackson’s final “drip” technique that brought him so much fame. Here’s a sample of his work
In the Jackson Pollock painting named, Autumn Rhythm
one begins to grasp the genius in the artist’s work. This was a product of his “drip period (1947-1950) that gained him such fame and popularity as an artist. Some critics say that it is easy to see (or imagine) “wildly dancing people” in this particular piece. Nevertheless, I see something much more romantic and feminine in spite of the more masculine colors that he uses.
When I was reviewing art and artists I frankly had a difficult time justifying paintings that were not clearly and definitely in control of the painter. Then I read a Jackson Pollock quote. He said, “I’m very representative some of the time, and a little all of the time. But when you’re painting out of your unconscious, figures are bound to emerge.”
This one remark gave me greater insight to the Pollock “magic” as artist and into the artist himself. Incidentally, over my years I have instructed many artists in different media that truly “great art” does not come from the artist but rather through the artist. Jackson Pollock’s later work was a demonstration of this and I had missed it for some reason while, if you will, I was looking at it straight in the face.
In this view, Pollock’s abstract, action expressionism was brilliant precisely because it wasn’t absolutely controlled, the artist worked as a medium between creator and created.
Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner (according to reports) were wonderful for each other in that they could “let off steam” often wounding each other emotionally or intellectually but always healing those wounds and moving forward…together. How much more he had to give to the world we will never know—he died drinking and driving at the age of 44.
Andrew Wyeth was both a romantic and a realist. He was born in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, in the midst of nature, on January 16th, 2009, Henry Thoreau’s 100th birthday. Andrew loved reading Thoreau and greatly admired the poetry of Robert Frost; he was, in his way, an isolationist and this is definitely reflected in nearly all of his wonderful work.
I am an avid fan of Andrew Wyeth not only as painter but as human being; He was lover of nature and freedom—not the kind of plastic freedom that is handed out by politicians but the kind that one experiences hiking about the mountains or across vast fields…perhaps the kind of freedom a bird feels when released from its cage. Just look at the free-flowing motion of these sheer curtains and the view that tempts us to go outside.
Here is one of my favorite Wyeth’s; I see in it a mystic reality that might have also belonged to Emerson, Goethe, Tolstoy or even Louis L’Amour. And of course there is Andrew Wyeth’s most known painting: Christina’s World One can feel the empathy streaming through the artist’s brush as he creates this terrible isolation that somehow makes it beautiful. But isolation runs through most of Andrew Wyeth work:
Back in the 1990s I was writing for House Calls, a monthly publication in San Diego, California and was assigned to review an artist who was painting in his garage. I went, as always, not knowing what to expect being sent out to see and review painters I’d never heard of.
The artist invited me into his apartment, we chatted and he showed me what he called his “mud paintings.” They were abstract, not very good, I thought, but I stayed as the young artist showed me one painting after another. I liked the artist personally. He was extremely enthusiastic and self-confident. Before I left he insisted that I take one of his paintings as a gift. I reluctantly accepted and drove away.
That evening I propped the painting up in my home office so I could see it from across my desk where I would write the review. I had no real feelings or judgment about his work as I truthfully thought it was mediocre at best. I decided to just write whatever came to my mind and that is what I did. What came to my mind however was a most incredible forecast. I wrote, “This painter will be world famous within five years.”
For any reviewer or critic to make such a prediction is considered “foolish” and naïve by professionals in art and in publishing. At the magazine the next morning I was asked if I was “out of my mind.” I published the article anyway and a respected newspaper, “The Reader” did a four or five full page article on both the artist and myself—making it clear that I was not a serious or even valid art critic and that the artist was simply full of hot air. And anyway, they wanted to know, how could anyone predict artistic fame for a painter within a five year period?
Well, the painter was Andy Lakey and he became internationally known within three years. Thankfully he had abandoned his “mud paintings” and had begun painting angels in a most unique style. His work was suddenly being seen in homes, in institutions not excluding the Vatican and businesses world-wide. Here’s a sampling of his work:
The truth is, I will never know either how or why I made the prediction that I did; I am still a little surprised that I would dare publish such an announcement especially knowing the great odds against even the best painter ever becoming known much less actually famous for his or her art. I should know, I have been a painter myself but to no commercial recognition or success. This is the story of countless artists—good and bad, genius and average—who simply do art for art’s sake or…because they are compelled to create.
American Gothic by Grant Wood
As I hope the reader has seen, we have some wonderful and amazing artists right here in the U.S.A. and of course we have no idea how many creative geniuses who are stacking up master paintings in their garages, sculpting beautiful pieces only to be stored in the darkness of closets or storerooms; how many brilliant dancers and choreographers are there that will never experience anything but the amateur stage or how many great actors will never be given even one professional job and how many marvelous writers who never see publication? I frankly see it as a tragic oversight that we remain a country that does not support its artists, especially after seeing the masterful and lovely paintings, dance, music and books produced during Roosevelt’s era when so many creative folks were supported by the WPA (Work Progress Administration).
Here’s a sample of pieces that probably would never have been created without the program that offered “creative opportunity.”
Art goes back all the way to prehistoric times. Indeed, to the cave paintings and before; to the statuettes of Venus all symbols of our kind’s creative minds; metaphors perhaps for our human desire to remain in the continuum of God’s works? In this view, I think the great lesson to be learned is what Andrew Wyeth taught us when he said, “…I know from my own experience that when I create with any degree of strength and beauty I have no thought of consequences. Anyone who creates for effect---to score a hit—does not know what he is missing.”
Art must necessarily unfold without a target or result in mind and the artist must be freed from the chains of commercialization and/or social expectation. The artist’s greatest tool is freedom of expression.
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