US flagCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Jean-Philippe BouletIf the Congress of Cultural Freedom wanted to use American art in the propaganda war against the USSR, it faced an uphill struggle. Viewed as parochial and irrelevant, American painting appeared unwilling to take risks and remained subservient to the European tradition. The history of American art, up to World War One, and some way beyond, is readable as an ongoing, inadvertent homage to the European tradition, while trying to establish a self-identity away from its Old World inheritance. For even in its colonial era, the art of America received influences from around the world, adapting those cultural forms to their own purposes before issuing forth overseas, to reflect, not replicate, a global view. And no other art form so typifies this process of exchange than painting, where many pivotal examples of work in the nation’s early artistic history were produced, or strongly influenced by, non-Americans.     

The story of painting in pre-independence America is summed up by a single group portrait, The Bermuda Group, painted in 1729 by John Smibert. The Bermuda Group hung in Smibert’s studio as a showpiece, long after Smibert’s death. For decades, The Bermuda Group - a group of English people, painted by a Scot, in a remote island in the northern Atlantic Ocean - was the ne plus ultra of American art; with no superior work in the colony, artists had no better example from which to learn. And what they learned was nothing more than standard portraiture.

With the Declaration of Independence, America needed a mythology from which the new nation could grow. Watson and the Shark, painted in 1776 by John Singleton Copley, depicted simultaneously an actual past event, the threat of attack from an enemy, a critique of independent America’s dependency upon slavery (the painting’s setting, Havana harbor, was a major port along the slave route) and the hope of future co-operation between the different races of America. If Copley could depict a troubled present and a hoped-for future, then an PennCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domainartist like Benjamin West both sanitized and criticized America’s past. William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians (1772) also reenacts a historic event, this time the Pennsylvania land purchase of 1683. On one level the painting is a work of propaganda, with the newly-arrived colonists engaging the native Indian tribe in fair trade and commerce; the treaty is on display and a bundle of blankets is handed to the Indians. However, it is the bundle that holds the center space in the picture, for, as West believed (historians have since cast doubt on the story), the blankets were those of smallpox victims and would contaminate the natives. In depicting America’s past, West tells two stories – the truth and the myth.

West and Copley were attracted to a style representing moderation and stability, timeless truths and values, a style undergoing resurgence in the artistic world: neoclassicism, with its roots in Rome and Ancient Greece. By the 1830s however, a more confident America sought to establish its own identity and turned to the most striking distinction between the Old World and the New World – the landscape. In so doing, American produced its first recognized school of art, now known as the Hudson River School.

This was the time of Manifest Destiny, of America seeking a more prominent role, one always found just over the horizon. A painting such as The Oxbow Lake (1836) by Thomas Cole, with its passing storm and delicate, acquiescent sky, typified the Hudson River School’s interest in divine light illuminating a land awaiting habitation, the inheritance of the people from God. The movement sustained itself long enough to create its own history. In Kindred Spirits (1849) by Asher B Durand, two figures are seen in the archetypal environment of the Catskill Mountains. One figure is Thomas Cole, as if handing over the tradition of American landscape painting to his companion.

During this period, the artistic depiction of light became central to America’s self-expression, as if the School’s painters wished to hold the land up to the light of Heaven to see it in ultimate Paintbrush and palleteCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Sebastian Grünwaldclarity. The landscape differed to that of Europe, but now the intangible light became unique, and the basis of the promotion of the Luminists, by critics such as John H Baur, as an authentic American artistic movement. In 1948, art critic “Baur’s pioneering essay on ‘Luminism’” (Novak) re-discovered a body of artists including Fitz Hugh Lane and Frederick E Church. These artists, active during the mid-nineteenth century, painted landscapes with, according to art historian Barbara Novak, “a realism that goes beyond mere realism, touched, in some instances, with super-real overtones.” Novak also made a connection between the artists and the writers of that time: “In the mid-nineteenth century, the Luminist vision lent itself to works that were of a piece with the most profound philosophic and literary developments of the time. For the Luminist looked at nature, as Emerson did ‘with a supernatural eye,’ and for Thoreau, ‘as if I had touched the wires of a battery.’”

The truth is however, that for the latter part of the nineteenth century, and for much of the early half of the twentieth, American art struggled to forge a unique perspective upon the world. Successive movements, such as Barbizon and Impressionism, were influenced by the Paris school, while more specific home-grown movements, like Tonalism or the Ashcan School, were too parochial to impress a European audience. The realization hit home in 1913 with the international exhibition known as the Armory Show, held in New York. Once the scandal and sensation surrounding works such as Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (1912) by Marcel Duchamp had settled, the American art world saw not only had the Europeans mastery over the ‘tradition’, but were capable of creating a new canon to shake up the old school of painting. America’s painters would not catch up until the 1940s and the advent of Abstract Expressionism.        

During the 1940s, works recognized as national art, by the likes of Byron Browne, Carl Holty and Romare Bearden, “was associated with the provincial art and with the political and figurative art of the 1930s. That sort of art no longer corresponded to reality, much less the needs of the Cold War” (Guilbart). Despite Baur’s rediscovery of the luminists, “there was a general sense that before the Second World War the United States had played a marginal role in visual art” (Gair). This situation changed dramatically, “at mid-century – uncoincidentally, just as the US was being recognized as the dominant power of the world...with the switching of the art capital of the West from Paris to New York” (Gair).  

The artistic movement given credit for this “complete transformation” became known as WatsonCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Public DomainAbstract Expressionism, “non-figurative and politically silent” (Saunders) and would become the prime example of the CCF’s promotion – or manipulation – of the world of art to gain America’s international acceptance.  For as far as the CIA and the CCF were concerned, to paraphrase the infamous phrase of the Vietnam War, in order to save Paris, it became necessary to destroy it. But “how could art be autonomous on the one hand, and, where convenient, pressed into political service on the other?” (Saunders).

NOTE TO EDITOR: The names in brackets donate the authors of the quotations used in this article. The bibliography for the sources of these quotations is found under 'references' in Part One of this article. This format was used in Part Two without comment, and in my other multi-part articles.